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Olympics: Game Over

Posted by Keen Observer on August 15, 2009

I had the idea when starting this blog that I might spend a lot of time commenting on the stupidity inherent in modern politics, largely in the US and Canada.  I’ve since realised that there are far too many people out there doing largely the same thing.  And they probably do it better than I can, since I don’t really have the time to devote to it to do it properly.  And from what I see, it takes a lot of time to do it right.  With a fairly new job and other concerns to occupy my time, it just wouldn’t be right to do the job half-assed.

That said, there are many other subjects that could draw my attention, and I might still now and again make a political statement.  It’s been a long time since I wrote a post, because I’ve been busy, and other sites have been making my points at least as well as I could.  But this news item, courtesy of my default Firefox RSS News bookmarks two days ago, just made me sit up and go, “Wha?”  (Just in case it’s not obvious, the supposed need to add professional golfers to the rolls of Olympic athletes is what pushed me over the edge.)

Two things became instantly clear to me:

  1. The modern Olympics movement has outlived itself.
  2. Jacques Rogge must go, followed shortly thereafter by the rest of the IOC.  Possibly thereafter by the various international sport-regulatory bodies.

The original modern Olympics, as visualised by Coubertin, were to be a showcase and supporting mechanism for amateur, youth, sport.  And it mostly was.  I would say, though, that the last pure Olympics were in 1976, although even by then things were slipping.  Through a slow erosion subsequent to those Games (Winter and Summer), the movement and the Games have deteriorated into greed, corporatism, stupidity, and irrelevance.  I would blame this largely on two people, supported by a wide cast of characters:  Juan Antonio Samaranch and Jacques Rogge.

The slow death of the Games (and by extension, the movement) began with allowing professional athletes to compete for amateur awards.  It was accelerated by sponsorships and broadcasting-rights competitions.  In all of these the spirit of cooperative competition inherent to the Olympic movement of Coubertin vanished in a cloud of money.  It has changed the movement to such a point that the word “amateur” doesn’t even appear in the current Olympic Charter, and the charter itself states that there are no age restrictions for competition, beyond those imposed by the international sporting federations.  Most of the charter seems to be about rights and ownership, rather than promoting and supporting young athletes.  It has become a corporate, self-serving sinecure, aided and abetted by governments the world over.  Recent bribery scandals only enhance this perception, and certain judging scandals didn’t help either.

I grew up thinking the Olympics were a magical thing.  Olympic athletes were to be honoured and imitated.  I’m just old enough to remember Nadia Comaneci obliterating her competition.  I’m definitely old enough to remember the boycotting trend that started in 1980, and I remember being disgusted then that it had come to that.  I wasn’t quite old enough to understand the geo-political environment behind that, but that year didn’t feel quite the same without the Olympics.  Hearing the reports of the Games but knowing Canada’s athletes weren’t there to compete somehow cheapened the experience.  I remember feeling deeply offended that the US-led boycott had opened the field for the Eastern Bloc countries to run amok on the medal counts.  Surrendering the field like that left me feeling stung and betrayed.  The feeling was oddly reversed, as the Soviets returned the favour four years later.  How could Canada trumpet its successes (highest medal count ever), when it was competing against a crippled field?  Older as I was at the time, it still made no sense.  The one good thing for me about those 1984 Games was that the opening ceremonies introduced me to George & Ira Gershwin.  Rhapsody in Blue is an amazing piece of music, and being played by all those pianos in synch was impressive to watch.  That, Beijing, is how you impress people…not with CG and lip-synching trickery.  (Beijing could take a lesson from Barcelona, also:  I have yet to see something top that arrow lighting the main Olympic flame.)

I think what kept me from turning against the Olympics this completely before now was probably some residual after-effects from the’84 Games in Los Angeles, at least in part.  I spent a long, hot summer as a young teenager watching most of those games, and it was very interesting to me then.  What really affected me–other than the pianos–was the conclusion to the women’s marathon.  Gabriela Andersen-Schiess (sorry…this was the best video of it I could find) became for me the embodiment of Olympic competitive spirit, despite not being by any stretch a youth.  I was deeply moved watching her hobble around the track for her final lap, almost totally seized up, looking crippled but determined to finish her race.  She knew the race was over–ultimately, she would place 37th(!) out of 44 finishers–but she would not let her Olympic experience end with a DQ by accepting medical help.  It still moves me today (surprised myself, I did) thinking of it, and it sure moved the X thousand spectators in the Rose Bowl watching her that day who stayed on their feet applauding more than for the American Benoit.  That was Olympic spirit, and it’s really hard to find anywhere else any more.

Two more recent incidents come to mind, and that’s about it:  in 2006 in Turin when a Norwegian skiing coach Bjørnar Håkensmoen handed Canadian Sara Renner a new ski pole after hers was broken by a competitor, so she could finish her cross-country ski race, an act which may have cost Norway a medal; the 1992 Barcelona Games saw Canadian rower Silken Laumann, a favourite for gold, injured severely two months or so before the Games, and rather than pull out of the Games, she underwent intensive repair and rehabilitation efforts and participated in the Games on schedule, winning a bronze medal.  I remember the Laumann story fairly well, as I was in a car accident about that time, so the events are sort of linked in my mind.  At any rate I’ve always seen Laumann’s efforts as another example of the competitive spirit engendered by the Olympics, a gold-medal performance despite receiving “only” the bronze, and the selfless behaviour of the Norwegian coach as a hallmark of the sportsmanship the Games are supposed to espouse.

I don’t really see examples of this with any sort of regularity any more.  Doping scandals abound; there are pushes for more sports that shouldn’t be included, and worthy ones are removed or ignored.  It’s a numbers game, and the IOC rules by fiat and caprice, answerable to none.  National Olympic committees and organising committees aren’t much better.  Just Google “VANOC news” to see where some britches are just too darn small for some people.

The simplest and correct solution to this morass of crap would be to shit-can the Games for at least a generation…maybe more.  By then maybe another Coubertin would raise again the torch of the true Olympic spirt.  I doubt that it would happen, as there’s too much money and phony “prestige” at stake.  But I henceforth boycott the Olympics.  I refuse to be drawn into the hype; I refuse to give my hard-earned money to support them in any way, shape, or form; I refuse to watch them.  I will mentally cheer on the athletes who work hard to get there (not the pros), and I’ll probably be happy when Canada wins medals, but that’s where my future support ends.  Inviting more pro athletes to participate was the last straw.  Since total cancellation is unlikely, I will maintain this position until something like what follows happens.

I’ll be honest, in that I don’t really have much of a problem with the age thing in the Games.  I do think, though, that the competitive age limit should be set at either 30 or 35 at the top end and 15 at the low end.  I’d honestly like to see the lower end raised a bit, simply because of the bodily damage that can be done to adolescents training to compete at that elite a level.  I don’t know where a fair boundary would be, though.  There could be a Senior Games, I suppose, for the older competitors, but I have a feeling that wouldn’t work out too well.

Doping is  a contentious issue, to say the least.  There needs to be some sanity dropped into this discourse.  One suggestion, following a fairly lame “Saturday Night Live” sketch some decades back, would be to have a Steroids Games, where doping restrictions are lifted.  As my Classics prof once told me, the original Olympic athletes would’ve been all over performance-enhancing drugs.  For them, it wasn’t about sportsmanship, but about winning and glory (and oiled, naked bodies prancing about and rubbing against each other).  I say that if such a thing were allowed, these kind of “cheaters” would stop sullying the “good” name of the Olympics, and honest competitors could face off against each other.  But for this, there is a lot of stupidity in the WADA protocols.  Pot is not performance enhancing, I would think; more performance-reducing.  It slows you down (from what I understand).  Cold and allergy medications are not performance enhancing.  For me, even the non-drowsy ones can make me logy all day and reduce my cognitive and physical abilities.  And why should athletes have to suffer through a cold for fear of testing positive?  And the surprise doping tests are a joke.  They seem to test people who have no record or history of doping or suspicion of doping, it seems.  Is this to prove the system works?  Puts me in mind of gun-registration stupidity.  And showing up at 3am is just rude and moronic, and then saying they failed the test b/c they didn’t have to pee just then is far more than one step beyond.  In any segment of the population other than elite athletes, this type of action likely would be challenged in courts of law.  There’s one quick way to solve doping at the Olympics, though:  ban the country.  If one competitor tests positive during the games, the whole country gets punted and forfeits all medals won.  You want to see countries self-police?  That’ll do it.  If the countries won’t, the athletes themselves will.  No one can afford to ignore the problem, then, to say, “This doesn’t affect me.”  But there has to be latitude for documented colds/medicines etc.  Focus on the hard-core shit, not the stuff that might help an athlete.

It’s a truism that technology improves.  As technology improves, the lives and skills of people tend to improve also.  But as we have seen with the speed swimsuit issue, “technological doping” continues to be a focus of research and development money for elite athlete equipment providers (and nations).  FINA has finally decided to ban these suits, but not immediately, which would’ve been the right, logical thing to do.  Instead, they’re waiting a year or so.  If they wanted to send the right message, not only would they have banned them immediately, they would’ve invalidated any records set by swimmers wearing them.  The only equipment that should be allowed in any sport’s competitions are that which are necessary to either play the sport or to protect the participants.  A downhill skier needs to wear full-length clothing; a swimmer does not.  And all competitors in a sport should be equipped approximately equally.  Not too egalitarian otherwise, which means it should be the minimum equipment necessary.  In swimming, that means Speedo-sized trunks for men, and one-pieces for women (only because bikinis would result in wardrobe malfunctions and give an advantage to the smaller-chested among the competitors).  Then you have a contest between swimmers, not swimsuits.  There are other issues for equipment, but this one is the most visible just now.

Elimination of judged sports would go a long way to re-establishing credibility of the Games also.  Judging introduced a human element that can be influenced by outside sources.   Cases in point would be figure-skating judges and boxing judges (I’m looking at you, Seoul).  I tend to lean toward sports of this nature being removed from Olympic competition entirely (like figure skating and gymnastics, especially rhythmic gymnastics), since there’s so much room for error and controversy.  For things like boxing or other combat sports, judging would have to be limited to rule infractions (illegal hits, for example); the fights themselves should go until one fighter wins either by knock-out or best-of-X falls.  Wrestling would still have to be by pin.  And in situations like what arose in Seoul in 1988 at the boxing venue, well, that would have to result in the home team being disqualified (or pulled out willingly) to reward such egregiously-bad behaviour.  But it boils down to:  you remove judging, you remove controversy.  It can’t help but improve the Games, especially when the competitors know they only have to defeat their opponents.

Broadcasting rights.  There’s another contentions issue, along with corporate sponsorships.  If it weren’t an apparent huge kick-back operation, I’d be less troubled by it.  Amateur sport always needs funding.  What goes on with the Olympics is naught but crass commercialism.  Host broadcasters are one thing, as foreign broadcasters need to piggyback into existing infrastructure.  But that sort of thing is getting out of hand, and the IOC is encouraging it to fill their coffers.  If it’s about egalitarianism for sport and athletes, open up the broadcast rights and let whoever wants to pay a modest licensing fee.  Sponsorships are a different animal, but with the same coloration.  It shouldn’t be a bidding war; that’s stupid.  Why shouldn’t both Coke and Pepsi (to use an example) be able to sponsor the Games?  Why is Visa the only “official” card of the Games?  What happens if Mastercard is a sponsor of an athlete, and the sponsorship agreement requires their symbol to be present on the athlete during competition?  Does the IOC wish to put the athlete in breach of contract?  Stupidity, stupidity, and more stupidity.

Finally (finally), no professionals.  Period.  All that allowing professionals to compete has done is increase already-inflated wanker egos and the costs associated with the Games, whoever puts them on.  I suppose there might’ve been some increased visibility for the Games, but in this day and age, that isn’t necessary.  Once they were established, it never really was.  But the quicker we get high-paid egotists out of the Olympics (and stop inviting more in), the better the Games themselves will be.  As a side benefit, the commercialism of them will probably also diminish significantly.

What’s a professional, you ask?  A professional is an athlete whose primary source of income or means of support comes from their sporting activities.  This may include the so-called “shamateur” types, as may have been typical of the old Soviet Union.  The list below is probably not exhaustive, but you should get the idea:

  • NHL players, or comparative leagues elsewhere
  • major-junior hockey leagues
  • PGA golfers or their equivalents
  • NBA players or their equivalents
  • Premier League footballers, or their equivalents, including the next two steps down from there (FA?)
  • WTA/ATP tennis players
  • Rugby union professionals
  • MLB or AAA ball players (or equivalents…maybe also one further step below)
  • professional boxers/other fighters
  • I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch

Now the distinction:  I’m not talking about banning young people that need financial support to be able to train properly.  Obviously, their incomes are not coming from their activities.  It’s hard to earn a good living as a pole vaulter, last I checked.  There isn’t a professional pole-vaulters’ league.  Pierre Lueders isn’t raking in the dough pushing and steering a bobsleigh down the track.  Just so we’re clear.  Endorsements are fine, as long as the sporting associations return to that whole “in trust” thing that figure skaters used to be limited to to be considered amateurs.

And that’s the long of it.  And it annoys me that both Samaranch and Rogge have done nothing to stop the downward spiral of the Games, presiding over them as they crater into the ground.  In fact they seem to be cheering on the destruction, oblivious as they race to irrelevancy and open their wallets to corporate largesse.  I just can’t handle it any more.

And that’s why I call bullshit on this one.

And I still say Dick Pound sounds like a p0rn name.

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