The Barcelona Olympics—What Price Glory?
By Awake! correspondent from Spain
ON JULY 25, 1992, a lone archer, framed by the glare of a spotlight, drew his bow. His fire-tipped arrow soared straight and true into the night sky. As it began its descent, the arrow skimmed over a giant torch perched above the vast stadium. The Olympic flame ignited. The Barcelona Olympics had begun.
Eleven thousand athletes from 172 countries had come to compete for 1,691 Olympic medals. In keeping with the Olympic motto, the participants strove to be “faster, higher, stronger,” than ever before—and some succeeded. An estimated 3,500,000,000 television viewers shared the triumphs and disappointments.
Although the athletes’ hour in the limelight is short-lived, an Olympic triumph holds promise of glory and riches. The Barcelona Olympics were no exception. Some famous competitors were already earning millions of dollars by endorsing sportswear, running shoes, sunglasses, and even electronic equipment.
Dedication —The Key to Olympic Glory
Although many athletes—especially gymnasts and divers—perform their feats with apparent ease, years of arduous training lie behind such finesse. Some have been in training since they were five years old. And sports must take absolute precedence if an athlete would savor success.
Spanish swimmer Martín López Zubero, who won the 200-meter backstroke, said—with perhaps a little exaggeration: “I have spent a third of my existence in the water.” His training schedule begins at five o’clock in the morning, and he estimates that he has swum 5,000 miles [8,000 km] in just over a year.
Training means suffering, not just denial. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, heptathlon gold medalist in Seoul and Barcelona, explains: “Competition is glamorous. Training is not. . . . Ask any athlete: we all hurt at all times. I’m asking my body to go through seven different tasks. To ask it not to ache would be too much.” Gymnasts especially have to be masters of endurance. They must keep up their twice-daily training schedule regardless of the pain of sprained wrists or ankles, pulled muscles and ligaments, and even stress fractures. But in the final analysis, that sort of dedication produces the winners and the spectacle.
Olympic Glitter and Gold
No doubt about it, the Olympic spectacle can be impressive. It provides thrilling moments for the crowd and is a showplace for remarkable athletic achievements. Barcelona was no exception.
Belarus gymnast Vitali Scherbo won a record-breaking six gold medals out of a possible eight in the men’s gymnastics. Chinese gymnast Xiaosahuang Li performed an incredible triple somersault in the floor exercise. Carl Lewis made Olympic history by winning the long jump for the third consecutive time. On the other hand, the Japanese silver medalist in the women’s marathon, Yuko Arimori, drew an ovation for her courtesy. Despite her exhaustion, she circled the stadium bowing in Japanese style to the crowd and then to the winner.
The commercial possibilities of the Olympics have not been lost on multinational companies. They pay enormous sums to bask in Olympic glory by sponsoring the games themselves or national Olympic teams.
The Pharmaceutical Road to Glory
Relentless training and natural ability—important as they are—are not the only keys to Olympic success. Not a few athletes depend on drugs to give them a competitive edge. The drugs may be anabolic steroids or human growth hormones to build muscles (especially popular for weight lifting and field events); beta blockers to slow the heartbeat (to improve results in archery and shooting); or erythropoietin to stimulate red blood cell production (useful for cycling and long-distance running).
Although athletes are aware of the risks, the pressure to use prohibited drugs is enormous. German athlete Gaby Bussmann, a teammate of Birgit Dressel, who died in 1987 as a result of consuming 20 different drugs, explains: “There are some disciplines where it is difficult to qualify for the Olympics without drugs.”
The athletes’ coaches are usually party to the doping; they may even be the ones who recommend it. Former East German coach Winfried Heinicke admits: “I told them if you want to go to the Olympics, you’ll have to do this [take drugs].” Evidently, a considerable number of competitors value victory more than honesty—even more than their health. A recent survey of top athletes revealed that 52 percent would use a hypothetical wonder drug guaranteed to convert them into winners even if it killed them after five glorious years at the top.
British sprinter Jason Livingston was sent home from Barcelona in disgrace after he tested positive for an anabolic steroid. Harry Reynolds of the United States, world-record holder in the 400 meters, never ran in the games. A flunked antidoping test in 1990 led to a two-year suspension, which cost him not only a possible Olympic medal but also a million dollars in lost sponsorship opportunities.
Most drug users, however, are not caught. Despite nearly 2,000 antidoping tests during the Barcelona games, dishonest athletes could still avoid detection by switching to drugs that do not show up in urine tests. “Greed for victory and money has revealed a murky world where it becomes difficult to distinguish ethics from dishonesty,” commented the Spanish newspaper El País.
Of course, many medal winners succeeded, not because of drugs, but simply because of years of self-sacrifice. Are the sacrifices worthwhile?
A Lasting Glory
Gail Devers, surprise winner in the women’s 100-meter dash, was exultant after her victory. “If anybody believes that dreams come true, it’s me,” she said. Less than two years before, she could hardly walk, and there was talk of amputating both feet because of complications in her treatment for Graves’ disease. Pablo Morales, who came out of swimming retirement only a year earlier to win a gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly, concurred. “It was my time at last, a dream come true,” he said.
Inevitably, most athletes will never become champions. True, some feel that “the important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part.” But other athletes, who counted on being champions, returned home with their dreams in tatters. Weight-lifter Ibragim Samadov had set his heart on a gold medal—but he was only third in his event. “With a gold medal, I could have given direction to my life, studied for a career, helped my family. Now I don’t know what to do,” he sighed. And even winners face a traumatic time when their performance begins to decline.
Former Soviet tennis player Anna Dmitrieva said: “The [Soviet] sports establishment didn’t care about people. They just thought: ‘You go away and we’ll find 10 more like you.’” Likewise, Henry Carr, double gold medalist in Tokyo in 1964, admitted: “Even when one becomes the best, it’s a deception. Why? Because it’s not lasting, nor really satisfying. Stars are soon replaced and generally forgotten.”
Fleeting Olympic glory cannot compare with the reward of life everlasting, which God promises to those who serve him. This reward demands spiritual rather than athletic training. Thus, Paul wrote to Timothy: “Bodily training [literally, “training as gymnast”] is beneficial for a little; but godly devotion is beneficial for all things, as it holds promise of the life now and that which is to come.”—1 Timothy 4:8.
The Olympic Games champion the benefits of bodily training—which are temporary at best. They show the world what athletes can do through dedication and self-denial. These qualities are also needed to win the Christian race. This race, unlike any Olympic event, will bring lasting benefits to all who complete the course. Christians, therefore, do well in imitating, not the athletes, but Jesus Christ, by ‘finishing their training’ and ‘running their race with endurance.’—1 Peter 5:10; Hebrews 12:1.
[Pictures on page 23]
Divers competing in the Olympics. Barcelona in the background
Photos: Sipa Sport
[Picture on page 24]
Competing on the parallel bars
Photo: Sipa Sport
[Picture on page 25]
In the 100-meter final, the runner on the extreme right won the gold
Photo: Sipa Sport