The Olympics—Where Are They Headed?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Canada
THE next Olympic Games are scheduled to be held in Moscow in the summer of 1980. However, in a different sense, many people wonder where the Games are headed. People are asking whether this sports event can survive in its present form.
Why is this so? For a number of reasons. One has to do with the increased scope of the Games. Over the years many new events have been added. More countries and athletes than ever before are involved. Because of this, more and more facilities are required for holding all the events and accommodating the thousands of participants, reporters and spectators. It is becoming impractical for any but the wealthier nations to hold the Games in their present form.
Another reason has to do with politics. The differences that countries have with one another are reflected in the Olympic Games. When antagonisms are deep enough, some nations even boycott the event.
The animosities caused by extreme nationalism are ever present. Each country tries to win as many medals as possible, at almost any cost to the athlete. Various countries have huge sports programs beginning in childhood, designed to produce ‘super’ athletes primarily for gaining national prestige. Some rivalries take on an almost warlike nature, especially among a number of Communist and Western nations.
Then there are the personal rivalries. Athletes are under intense personal and national pressure to win, and often feel deep antagonism toward other athletes. Some cheat or use drugs to get an advantage.
All these problems, and others, surfaced at the last Games held here in Montreal, Canada, in the summer of 1976. Thus, what is hailed as an event to promote international understanding and goodwill often turns out differently.
History of the Games
It is of interest to review briefly the history of the Olympics to see how they developed to their present form. What eventually happened to the ancient Games may find a parallel in the modern event.
The first recorded Olympic Games were held in the year 776 B.C.E. on the plains of Olympia in western Greece. That was about the same time that the ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah began to prophesy to the nation of Judah. But while Isaiah talked about the living God, the ancient Greeks dedicated their Olympics to the false god Zeus. Since the games honored Zeus, there were sacrifices to him and other mythical gods. There was also the worship of the Olympic Fire.
At that time the Games consisted of just a single event, a footrace. Because there were many contestants from the various city-states of Greece, the runners ran in different “heats,” or races. The winners of those heats then competed against one another. The first man to cross the line in the final race was proclaimed the winner. This method is still used today.
About 708 B.C.E. the Games introduced other contests, such as jumping, throwing and wrestling. Later, boxing and chariot races were added. One of the most highly esteemed new contests was the pentathlon, wherein each entrant competed in five different events: running, jumping, wrestling, and discus and javelin throwing. A changed form of the pentathlon is still held in the modern Olympics—ten events for men and five for women.
The winners in ancient times were presented with a wreath of wild olive leaves and received great acclaim. Criers announced their names throughout the land. Statues were dedicated to them, and poets wrote poems about them.
All competitors in the ancient Games were required to take an oath declaring that they had spent at least ten months in preparation. They also swore to adhere to the rules and not to resort to any unfair practices.
As time passed, athletes from other countries entered the contests. Gradually, though, the original purpose of glorifying the individual gave way to the glorifying of one’s nation. Selfishness and brutality also became more evident. By 394 C.E. the Games had become so corrupt that they were abolished by Emperor Theodosius, head of the Eastern Roman Empire.
After fifteen centuries, in 1896, they were revived. In that year Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France helped to organize the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. Eight nations took part. (The Winter Olympics were not started until 1924.) Since the modern revival, the Games have been held every four years, except during World War I and World War II.
The Dream and the Reality
De Coubertin’s dream was for an international sports festival that would break down barriers of class, race and religion. It would hopefully have a peace-keeping potential, leading to the building of understanding and harmony between nations. Certainly such motives were noble.
But so were the motives behind the original Olympic Games in ancient Greece. In time, however, those ancient Games developed a huge gap between motive and reality. Scholars point out that the contenders in various events back then came to be known more for their brutality than for their elegance and sportsmanship. This was especially the case in boxing, wrestling and the free-for-all contest known as the pancratium, where boxing and wrestling were combined.
In modern times the noble motives have also, to a large degree, given way to harsh realities. How so?
The 1976 Games in Montreal began under a cloud. The largest number of countries ever refused to participate on political grounds.
The opening ceremonies were boycotted by twenty African nations. They demanded that New Zealand be excluded from the Olympics because its rugby team had previously made a tour of South Africa. Since South Africa has a policy of separating the races, the African countries objected to New Zealand’s having such sports relations with South Africa. So the Africans walked out, and were joined by supporters such as Guyana and Iraq.
Eventually, a total of thirty countries dropped out. That was a quarter of the 119 countries that had been expected to take part. More than 600 athletes were called back home by their governments without participating.
Among those that were not permitted to participate in the games was Taiwan, for it had insisted on participating under the name “Republic of China.” But Canada maintained that it recognized the mainland regime as the legitimate government of that country.
At the height of the Taiwan controversy, Lord Killanin, president of the International Olympic Committee, said: “I think the world is fed up with politicians interfering in sports.” As a result, some suggested doing away with national anthems for winners, as well as all flags, except the Olympic banner.
However, realists also made their point. They asked how many countries would, without national identity, without national fanfare, provide the essential financial and moral support? And the participants themselves often prefer to compete under a national emblem for patriotic reasons, as well as others, such as gaining fame and perhaps fortune in their home countries.
Politics was evident in another way. It could be seen in the vast security precautions taken. Armed guards patrolled Olympic sites. Helicopters soared overhead. More than 16,000 soldiers stood by. Why such elaborate security measures? They were prepared for any outbreak of terrorism. Vivid in memory was what happened four years earlier at the Munich Olympics. There, in a night of horror, political terrorists murdered Israeli athletes.
Enormous sums of money were required for all the nations to finance their athletes. But Montreal, especially, had a giant financial headache after it awoke from the Games.
The Canadians had hoped that the event would be “self-financing.” But the actual cost rose to about 1.5 billion dollars. That was more than it cost to build the St. Lawrence Seaway two decades ago! The total deficit, after subtracting income, was about one billion dollars.
The many sports complexes, new housing areas and other facilities were very costly. And the impressive array of advanced technology used was also an additional cost factor. For instance, no longer was the javelin or discus throw measured by a simple tape measure. Instead, the millimeters were split by instruments that projected an infrared beam, giving instant readings. For track events a digital clock and computerized cameras split seconds into fractions of one hundred. Also, the starting blocks from which the runners push off were electronically controlled so no runner could start early.
At the Olympic pool each swimmer made contact with an electronic touch pad at the end of a race, immediately stopping the clock for that lane. The difference between a first-place gold medal and a second-place silver one may be just a few one-hundredths of a second, not much more than the difference between having long fingernails or short ones.
At the conclusion of an event, 38,000 light bulbs instantaneously flashed the results, along with the athlete’s picture and standing, on two giant screens, each four stories high. Also, more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of videotape and about 225 miles (360 kilometers) of film represented the most ambitious and the most technically advanced recording of the Games to date—as well as the most costly. And ninety-two color-television cameras sent programs around the world by satellite.
Winners and Losers
Scores of world and Olympic records were broken. But the losers generally agreed that Baron de Coubertin was wrong when he said: “Winning medals wasn’t the point of the Olympics. It’s the participating that counts.” Today’s athletes feel that winning is all that counts. Many showed it by their approach to the Games.
One performer, related Psychology Today, “sits alone, head down, eyes closed, building aggression and a feeling of hatred for the next opponent.” Others took anabolic steroids (synthetic hormones) to develop muscles. A few resorted to blood ‘doping’ to increase blood oxygen, extracting their own blood and then transfusing it back into their bodies shortly before they competed. A number resorted to various drugs for stamina. The collapse of one athlete was directly attributed to a drug that he had taken.
A fencer was caught cheating. Fencing is scored electronically, every hit on an opponent’s chest shield automatically registering on a scoreboard. But this fencer had an electronic device in the handle of his weapon, so that every time he pressed a button it registered a hit. But he became too flagrant, scoring a hit when he was not close. His weapon was inspected, the device discovered, and he was thrown out of the Games in disgrace.
The reality of what it now takes to win in the Olympics was noted by one coach who said: “A country has to hire professionals if it wants to win in amateur sports.”
Because of so many growing problems, many observers acknowledged that the future of the Games is in doubt. A Montreal newspaper spoke of “an air of disenchantment and disillusionment” with the event. It noted “the erosion of principles” and a “deterioration of spirit.”
Prince Philip of England said: “I think that once people feel it’s important to the nation that they should have a lot of medals or whatever it is, I think I’d rather shelve the competitions they are pointless.” He termed “deplorable” reports that one government would hold an inquiry because its athletes did not win enough medals.
A disappointed Canadian boxer said: “I wouldn’t compete in the Olympics again for a million dollars. It’s not worth the sacrifices because there is just too much politics. These big countries play games at the athlete’s expense.”
Among the questions asked by those who looked back on the Games were these: “How many more principles can be compromised? How much more flagrant cheating, doping, political squabbling can the Games endure? How much more money must be spent? How much must the event be ‘hyped’ by commercialism to keep it floating on an unrealistic cloud?”
In effect, the questions revolve around this point: Are the Games as they were played here in Montreal dead? The answer will come in Moscow in 1980, if not before.