Saturday, 20 August 2016

Olympic Ideals

I should say at the outset of this post that I really enjoy the Olympics.  The tension of the contest, the sense of history being made and celebrated, the personalities large and small.  I enjoy the grace and technical skill of the gymnasts, the sheer power of the throwers, the speed and endurance of the runners and swimmers, the idea that these young people have focused single-mindedly on becoming the best they can at some arcane discipline.

I enjoy the wins, of course, but what I enjoy most are those occasional moments of sporting ethics and friendship between athletes.  Like the Swiss pole vaulter helping the young Kiwi bronze medallist to clean up her face for the hundreds of photos that were about to be taken of her.


Or the two women, previously strangers, who fell in their 5,000m heat and then coaxed each other through the rest of the race to finish together.  Or the tradition among decathletes of sharing the victory lap with the whole field.  These are the moments that give me hope, where people reach out across languages, nations and cultures and express their common humanity.

High Ideals
The Olympic Charter contains some really lovely ideals.  For instance, the first two Fundamental Principles of Olympism are as follows.

Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

A little further on, the Mission of the International Olympic Committee includes, among other things, the following lofty goals.

to encourage and support the promotion of ethics and good governance in sport as well as education of youth through sport and to dedicate its efforts to ensuring that, in sport, the spirit of fair play prevails and violence is banned;

to cooperate with the competent public or private organisations and authorities in the endeavour to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace;

to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women;

to protect clean athletes and the integrity of sport, by leading the fight against doping, and by taking action against all forms of manipulation of competitions and related corruption;

to oppose any political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes;

to promote a positive legacy from the Olympic Games to the host cities and host countries;

We all know that reality rarely matches our high ideals, and that there is not as much peace, love and fair play in the Olympics as we (or, if we take their official word for it, the IOC) would like.  Yet we want to believe that they are trying, that the ideals are still there alongside the failings.

So every four years we willingly suspend our disbelief and enter into the enjoyment of this world of peace, camaraderie and fair play.  We admire the athletes who win, those who do their best and those who play fair and form lifelong friendships.  Then after two weeks it's all over and we go back to our everyday joys and sorrows.

Sadly, this year it's been harder than usual to buy into the illusion.

Clean Athletes, Dirty Countries
For a start, the "protection of clean athletes" seems to have largely gone by the wayside, so much so that said (presumably) clean athletes have started taking the law into their own hands by calling out and shunning athletes who have previously been suspended for doping.  The IOC dithered right up until the eve of the event over what to do about Russia after the World Anti-Doping Authority exposed rampant corruption in the country's testing regime.  

Finally they flicked the matter to individual sports federations, with the result than outside of the track and field competition Russians have largely been allowed to compete.  They have duly won a swag of medals and been booed wherever they go, as have other convicted dopers like US sprinter Justin Gatlin and Chinese swimmer Sun Yang.  

The issue kind of takes the shine off those moments we all love.  Usain Bolt has confirmed his status as the greatest sprinter ever, but what if it all turns out to be a drug-assisted sham?  He assures us it isn't and we so want to believe him, but we've been let down before - Ben Jonson, Marion Jones, Gatlin, not to mention Lance Armstrong.  The state of doping control is so dubious that anything is possible.

Whatever happened to the "spirit of fair play", the "educational value of a good example", the "respect for universal fundamental ethical principles"?  Well, they fell at the hurdle of another broken ideal, to "oppose the political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes".  

Not so many years ago, the Olympics was restricted to amateur athletes.  The restriction was removed, not so much because of a principled decision, but because it became impossible to enforce.  In an age of mass media, athletes being paid to compete was the least of the IOC's worries.  Successful athletes could now be paid to promote anything from sportswear to fast food, and if these promotional duties left them with the time to train and compete full time, so much the better. The trouble is, such riches are only available to the winners.  There is a huge financial incentive to cheat.

More inexplicable, in a sense, is the propaganda value of Olympic success.  It doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but governments of all flavours somehow seem to buy the notion that having winning athletes shows that you are a great country.  Hence they pour millions of dollars into coaching, training facilities, financial support of athletes and innovations in sports science.  Increasingly these dollars are linked to "outcomes" or "results" like winning a certain number of medals.  No-one wants to be the athlete who "lets their country down" so publicly after all the millions that have been spent on them, and no sporting official wants to be the subject of an intrusive review into why they failed to achieve their targets.

Of course "doping" and "performance enhancing drugs" are relative terms.  What else are elite athletes and their coaches and sports scientists paid to do, if not enhance performance?  "Doping" simply means using a substance that is on WADA's list of banned substances.  A substance that enhances performance but is not on the list is fine.  The list changes all the time.  Last year Meldonium was not on it, and lots of athletes used it.  This year it has been added and a number of people have been suspended for continuing to use it for a bit too long.

Of course all athletes use performance enhancing substances - energy drinks, protein supplements, stimulants, special diets designed for their particular training needs and so forth.  As the recent controversies in Aussie Rules and Rugby League show, athletes think nothing of taking a course of injections to improve their performance, and nor does WADA unless the injections contain something on their list.

All this performance enhancement is expensive.  It is no accident that the top of the medal tally is a list of the world's economic heavyweights - the USA, Great Britain, China, Germany, Russia, Japan.  The biggest performance enhancing substance is not a steroid or a stimulant, it is money.

In what way, you have to ask, is this fair competition?  What is its contribution to a "peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity"?  This seems to be just the opposite, a kind of bloodless proxy war between superpowers.  No wonder some (or all) of them cheat.  There is no such thing as cheating in war.  As nationalism hardens and fascist parties gain ground all around the world, it is hard to see this changing any time soon.

The Olympic Legacy
There have been two very bizarre police incidents in these Olympics.  In one, a group of US swimmers claimed to have been robbed at gunpoint at a petrol station.  Everyone believed them - after all, Rio has a huge crime problem.  Everyone but the police, who are habitually suspicious and investigate stuff before reaching conclusions.  Turns out the swimmers were lying.  They had actually trashed the service station toilet and then been asked to pay for the damage by armed security guards.  So, not so much victims of the notorious crime rate as contributors to it.

However, the gold medal for bizarre goes to the arrest of an elderly Irish official, dragged out of his hotel room by police and charged with selling Olympic tickets on the black market.  What's bizarre about this story is not the arrest, but the crime itself.  To whom was he selling these tickets?  Who would buy on the black market when you can simply turn up at the venue and pay at the gate?


Most of the events at these games have taken place in half-empty stadia.  Foreign tourists were frightened off by Zika virus and the crime rate.  Locals seem to have more pressing concerns, like what to eat and where to live, especially those displaced to make way for these under-used facilities.  Brazil's government is in crisis and a substantial part of the population believes there were better ways to spend $8b in a country where millions of people are homeless and hungry.  Perhaps when the Olympics are over they will be able to sleep in the empty stadia.  After all, very few of the sports these facilities are designed for are of much interest to Brazilians.  Like Athens before it, the Olympic precinct is set to become a hugely expensive white elephant.  Indeed, in a sense it already is.

People Like Us
We like to think that in Australia we are more enlightened than this.  However, one of my great frustrations about the Olympics is the ease with which this festival of internationalism can be portrayed as being all about us.  Sure, we watch the big names and big events (Usain Bolt) but the nightly news, the daily round-ups, the news stories are all about how the Aussies did.  An Australian taking part in a race-off for ninth place will take precedence over a German throwing for gold.  How many of China's 26 gold medals featured on our TV screens?  We interrupt something else to cross to the javelin and see the Australian thrower try to better her sixth place, then after she has thrown we cross back.  We announce the decathlon result by informing our viewers that the Australian came 14th to the American champion, but neglect to mention who placed 2-13.

Of course the Seven Network, like their commercial rivals before them, tell us that this is what their viewers want to see.  Maybe they are right, but why is this the case, and does it matter?  After all, it's only sport.

I would suggest that it's the case because Australians are progressively becoming more and more insular, more and more self-focused, and this matters a great deal.  Our right wing parties (and I include the Liberals here) have become successful by demonising the "other" - Aboriginal people, Muslims, asylum seekers, poor people - and proposing more and more draconian methods to "control" these "problems".

The issue is like the face of Janus, or Poor Edward with a devil twin on the back of his head.  Its kind, friendly face is these smiling or tearful, almost exclusively Anglo athletes in green and gold doing their stuff on the world stage.  Its ugly face is the asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru, the remote Aboriginal communities where life expectancy is twenty years shorter than mainstream Australia, the detention centres where young people are abused and their abusers protected, the bombs falling on civilians in Iraq and Syria.  All of these things are supported and enabled by our ability to look away, to focus only on people like ourselves.

This makes the Olympics a huge wasted opportunity.  There are 207 countries competing.  The athletes come in all genders, all sizes, all skin colours, a veritable Babel of languages, a wide variety of faiths and beliefs.  They come from poor families and rich, from villages and farms and big cities, from the tropics and the snow.  Each has their story to tell.  The Olympics could make such a contribution to global understanding, to the "service of humanity and the promotion of peace".


Yet we, and those who feed us information, choose to tune out of all that, to see it as simply a colourful backdrop before which people like us perform.  If only we could use it as an opportunity to learn that in reality they are all people like us.  Then the Olympic charter would start to mean something again.

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