Are the Olympic Games still relevant?

This is a guest column; ‘Mihael Willman’ is the pseudonym for a concerned Canadian – JG.

by Mihael Willman

The modern Olympic games were inaugurated by Baron Pierre de Coubertin as a means by which the best amateur athletes from around the world could compete against each other, in the spirit of friendship and peace. And at the very beginning, this was probably the case.

It wasn’t long before politics and strident nationalism overtook most aspects of the events, particularly after World War II. During the cold war era, the Olympics were used by the Communist bloc countries as a vehicle to boast about the political superiority of their respective countries. To show just how superior they were to the “decadent” West, they employed any number of tactics.

While amateur hockey players constituted the non-Soviet bloc teams, those playing for the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact countries were professionals in every sense but name. As soldiers in their respective armies, their only duty was to play hockey year round, giving them an enormous advantage over Western teams, whose players had only weeks to train together before competing in the Olympics. Though the Soviet hockey players were “technically” not professionals, in the sense that they were not members of the National Hockey League (NHL) or other league, their primary occupation was playing hockey.

While the results couldn’t be manipulated in hockey games, the process on the road to the Olympics was. This wasn’t the case when it came to figure skating. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, all Soviet-bloc nations had to ensure that the gold, and often silver, went to the Soviet Union’s skaters. While many of these Soviet skaters were very good, they were assured victory even if they made mistakes or fell, against the occasional non-Soviet bloc competitors with a perfect program. One way or another, they always managed to score higher, as the Warsaw Pact judges manipulated the numbers to obtain the desired results. And this subjective scoring continued even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite a supposed reform of the way skaters are scored, accusations of manipulation by skating judges continues to this day.

In disciplines where time determined the winner, fairness was more or less assured. But results were manipulated in other ways, with the most blatant method used by the East German Olympic committee. For years East German female competitors were given male hormones, as well as other drugs, to give them a physical advantage over their non-bloc opponents. Most of this drugging was done without the knowledge of either the respective athletes or their parents, usually under the guise of vitamin supplements. And today, many of those girls are paying the price for their country’s quest for Olympic gold, with health problems resulting from the various drugs used. I wonder how many of these competitors would gladly give up their gold and silver medals in exchange for a life free of the health complications they face today? Clearly their country’s quest for Olympic glory didn’t benefit them in the long run, though they did enjoy many benefits during their years of training and competition not enjoyed by their less athletic compatriots.

If anyone believes that the search for Olympic glory as a way to affirm a country’s superiority ended with the fall of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw bloc, they can clearly think again. They have a new successor in the form of the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC), which has used questionable methods in its recent quest for Olympic glory. One of the most blatant is the almost torture-like gymnastics training program, which treats very young children with what one can only call “cruel and unusual punishment” as its method of training.

And China’s questionable practises don’t stop there. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics there were several instances of clearly under-age Chinese gymnasts, competing against the rules of the games. By simply changing the ages of their female gymnasts on their passports, to make them the required age, China’s athletes were suddenly eligible for Olympic competition. And despite all the evidence of age manipulation, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) simply turned a blind eye. Under no circumstances would it tolerate any accusations against the host country – China, refusing to investigate the charges.

In the same way the IOC ignored its own condition, when awarding the games to Beijing, that China improve its position regarding human rights and allow athletes to speak out during the games. As China cracked down on Tibet’s Buddhist monks and jailed its own dissidents, in the months before the official opening of the games, IOC President Jacques Rogge did little more than shrug off concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. While Rogge was convinced that human rights would improve, very little was done between 2001 and 2008 to ensure such an outcome. Rogge merely countered criticism on the state of human rights by saying that, though China had made a moral commitment to improve human rights, there was no signed contractual agreement to that effect. So, in other words, there was nothing to ensure that the promise would be kept.

Clearly the IOC, which demands that athletes, coaches and judges all adhere to their pledges to uphold the principles of the Olympic Charter, doesn’t believe the same applies to itself or host countries like the PRC.

In the early years of the modern Olympics, athletes competed in the Olympic games, then returned home to their regular jobs. They had achieved their dreams of representing their countries and, if fortune shone on them, achieved their dream of an Olympic medal. Some might go on to train others in their respective sports, but the majority simply went back to their regular lives.

Today, in many of the larger countries, training for the Olympics has become a career in its own right. As countries seek to increase their medal count, money is provided to athletes to enable them to train almost full-time. And if they succeed in capturing a gold medal, then million dollar contracts promoting all kinds of “must-have” products, usually await the victors.

Whether at the IOC and the respective national committee level, or to a lesser extent at the athletes’ level, making money, rather than upholding lofty principles, has become the primary goal of this glorified athletic spectacle.

Here is the crux of the matter. While most athletes strive to compete in the Olympics for the prestige and glory that an Olympic medal and participation in the games brings them and their countries (not counting those who view the process as a way to hopefully make a lot of money), the IOC itself is only interested in the money. It may mouth all kinds of phrases and platitudes about striving “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity,” by providing a forum for peaceful competition between athletes of all nations, etc. The reality, however, is that for the members of the exclusive club called the IOC, their primary competition is for the money.

Sponsorship fees, broadcast rights fees, all go to the IOC, which supposedly uses some of the money to help stage the games and promote sports worldwide, among other activities. But, as a non-profit, non-governmental organisation, and a private entity, there is no way to know just how and where the money is really spent. Meanwhile, host cities and countries often end up paying off their Olympic-sized debt for years to come, hoping that the attention the games gave them will translate into future benefits, such as increased tourism.

The brief glory of hosting the world is soon replaced by the realities of the financial burdens that are left behind.

I, for one, find the Olympics not worth the enormous costs. Two weeks of glory, followed by decades of financial debt hangover, are becoming a burden few countries can continue to afford. Those pushing for the games to be awarded their respective cities or countries, either have a vested financial interest in the games, or are blinded by the sports extravaganza to the growing costs.

The scandals and greed of the IOC members over the years and the medal results of the last few decades, more often achieved by foul rather than fair means, far outweighs the commitment and efforts of the athletes, in my opinion. While I may have a passing interest in the final results, I no longer have a desire to sit and watch the events. Quite honestly, I have far better things I can do with my time.