Olympic Ideals in Danger
ONE of the rules of the Olympic Games is that only amateur athletes are allowed to compete. Until recently, any athlete who had gained financial benefit in excess of $50 (U.S.) from his or her athletic prowess was disqualified.
If that rule were applied to present-day athletes, the Games would have to be canceled! That outdated definition of an amateur is a hangover from the days when athletics were the pastime of the independent rich.
One recent report quotes Winter Olympics gold-medal winner Phil Mahre as saying that amateurism “just doesn’t exist at the top levels of sport.” As many athletes argue, who today can spend most of his time trying to achieve Olympic standards without some kind of financial support? Thus payments are made to “amateur” athletes through labyrinthine channels that avoid the supposed stigma of professionalism.
Sportsmanship or Nationalism?
Another Olympic ideal is that sportsmanship should prevail over nationalism. The Games are supposed to represent individuals competing against one another, not nations. Thus the Olympic Committee does not post any nation “league.” However, the press and television soon make up for that deficiency by publishing their own medals league by nations. As a result, the Games have become politicized. The press has turned them into a competition between the so-called capitalist and communist nations. Former Olympic athlete Harold Connolly said that for some the Games have become an “ideological battleground of sport.”
Writer James Michener, in his book Sports in America, speaks of “attempts throughout the United States to forge an alliance between sports and nationalism. Our political leaders have been goading sports into performing three improper functions . . . 1) Sports are being asked to serve as propaganda in support of specific political parties. 2) They are being used to buttress military goals. 3) They are being grossly misused to create a fuzzy, shallow patriotism.” He commented, “I am beginning to feel most uneasy when I watch sports being asked to serve as handmaiden to politics, militarism and flamboyant patriotism.”
Has Michener noticed this same tendency in the Olympics? “In the 1936 Olympics, Adolf Hitler became the first to exploit sports as an arm of nationalism,” he writes. He also quotes other examples from the 1968 and 1972 Games, adding, “Sober critics began to warn that if this unbridled nationalism were to continue, the Olympics would have to be halted.”
Are nationalism and patriotism in the Olympics just something played up by the media? Or are the participants actually caught up in it? The recent Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, perhaps illustrate the point. The American ice skaters Charles (Peter) and Maureen (Kitty) Carruthers (brother and sister) won the silver medal. How did they react? The New York Times reported: “When the American flag went up,” said Peter, “it was a moment I will never forget.” “I just saw the flag go up,” said Kitty, “and it looked so good.”
When Scott Hamilton of the United States won a gold medal at the Sarajevo Winter Olympics, he “followed his performance by taking an American flag from a front-row spectator and waving it as he skated an extra victory lap around the rink.” (The New York Times, February 17, 1984) Yes, both athletes and spectators often turn the Olympics into a display of nationalism, with flags as the predominant symbol.
But as sports writer George Vecsey put it: “Originally, the Olympics were supposed to be free of nationalism, were supposed to be a chance for individuals to test their skills against the best athletes in the world.” All of that has changed. “The extra hook in the Olympic Games is nationalism,” he added.
Of course, not all athletes are affected by extreme patriotism. Phil Mahre, the U.S. slalom gold-medal winner, is reported as saying that he did not ski for his family or his country, “but for myself.” He added, “I was never in the sport to win one thing. I was here to compete. I was here to perform to my abilities. I was in the sport because I loved it.”
However, the pressure to win at any price has now mounted to such a degree that another insidious influence has worked its way into the Olympics—drugs!
Olympic Glory Through Drugs?
The win-at-all-costs criterion has now brought the blight of drugs into the Olympics. For a long time it has been known that athletes in many sports use drugs such as muscle-building anabolic steroids, testosterone and other substances to enhance their ability. However, the scandal that really took the lid off the subject took place in August 1983, at the Pan American Games, when 13 athletes from the United States voluntarily withdrew from the competition. What triggered their dropping out? The sudden disqualification of 11 other athletes because of the use of banned drugs. The New York Times correspondent described these disqualifications as “the most sweeping of their kind in international sports history.”
The following day the U.S. Olympic Committee, responsible for American athletes who would participate in the 1984 Olympic Games, ordered that random tests be made on athletes who qualified to represent the United States. Any found to have used banned drugs would be excluded from the Los Angeles Olympics.
As a result of the spread of drugs in sports, an Olympic drug-testing center, costing $1,500,000 (U.S.), has been constructed on the University of California, Los Angeles, campus. Tests are performed to try to ensure that no Olympic athlete has the artificial advantage of any banned drug.
Olympics—“Greatest Social Force in the World”?
In 1964 Avery Brundage, then president of the International Olympic Committee, stated: “The Olympic Movement today is perhaps the greatest social force in the world.” That was a disputable opinion then, and still is. As veteran sports journalist Leonard Koppett expressed it in his book Sports Illusion, Sports Reality: “Sports reflect social conditions; they don’t cause them. . . . What’s more, sports have the form they have because they were shaped by the society in which they developed. . . . Whenever society changes, sports change . . . sports don’t initiate change.”
Like everything else in our modern world, the Olympic Games are subject to the pressures of 20th-century developments—whether it be in the field of big business, competition, violence or the use of drugs. As a result, many people associated with sports are asking disturbing questions about the future of the Olympic movement. Can Coubertin’s original Olympic ideals be sustained? Can the Olympics really remain amateur in the true sense of the word? Will the pressure of big business on so many athletes put an end to the “shamateur” era? Can the rising tide of politics and nationalism be kept at bay? Will fair play and sportsmanship be undermined by the win-at-all-costs philosophy? Will the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius (Swifter, Higher, Stronger) be achieved by sheer strength and ability—or by drugs? The next few years should provide some answers.
For Christians there are also other questions: Is religious sentiment involved in the Olympics? Could there be a clash with Christian principles? How should Christians view participation in sports? Should sports be the principal interest of one’s life? We invite you to follow the discussion in the final article of this series.
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“All That Glitters Is Not Gold”
“Olympic athletes may strive for years to win the coveted prizes, but the value of the gold, silver and bronze medals that finally hang around their necks is more symbolic than real,” stated The New York Times of February 17, 1984. Contrary to popular belief, the gold medal is not solid gold. That fact was discovered rather ruefully by Charlie Jewtraw, the very first gold-medal winner of the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, in 1924. He is the lone survivor of the Chamonix gold medalists and recently stated: “It really bothered me when I found out about the medal not being solid gold. It wasn’t the value. It was the principle of the thing that got me.”
The “gold” medals awarded at the Winter Olympics this year in Sarajevo were actually 4.3 ounces of silver covered by 0.21 ounce of pure gold. Market value? About $120 (U.S.) each. In pure gold the medal would have been worth more than ten times as much.
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Will Olympic ideals lose out to big business, drugs, nationalism and violence?