Olympic Ideals in Crisis
WHEN Baron Pierre de Coubertin proposed the revival of the Olympics, he set forth some noble ideals. Indeed, the modern Olympic creed, attributed to Coubertin, states: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part . . . The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
Coubertin believed that engaging in wholesome competition could build good character, foster sound judgment, and promote upright conduct. He even spoke of a ‘religion of sport.’ The Olympics, he felt, could teach people to live in peace.
But by the time Coubertin died in 1937, any hopes in this regard had faded. The games had already been suspended once because of a world war, and tensions were building for another major conflict. Today, the Olympic ideals are in even deeper crisis. Why is this so?
The Olympics and Drugs
For decades performance-enhancing drugs have been used by athletes to gain a competitive edge, and the Olympic Games have not escaped this scourge. Indeed, now, 25 years after the introduction of supposedly rigorous drug testing, the use of banned substances among Olympic athletes continues to be a problem.
Some athletes turn to steroids to gain an advantage. Others use stimulants. Human growth hormones are popular among sprinters and other strength athletes because they help the athletes to recover from intense workouts quickly, and they promote muscle strength. Meanwhile, a genetically engineered version of erythropoietin is the drug of choice among many long-distance runners, swimmers, and cross-country skiers because it enhances their endurance by stimulating red blood cell production.
Understandably, Dr. Robert Voy, former director of drug testing for the U.S. Olympic Committee, calls the athletes “a walking laboratory.” He adds: “The Olympics have become a proving ground for scientists, chemists and unethical doctors.” What about testing? Dr. Donald Catlin, director of a drug-testing laboratory in the United States, says: “The sophisticated athlete who wants to take drugs has switched to things we can’t test for.”
Bribery and Corruption
Since only a handful of cities can afford to bid on hosting the Olympics, some of them will stop at nothing to secure the event. Almost two years ago, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) found itself mired in scandal. Allegations of bribes of up to $400,000 paid to IOC members during Salt Lake City’s successful bid for the 2002 Winter Games called into question the ethics of those involved in the selection process.
The line between hospitality and outright bribery often becomes blurred as potential host cities offer lavish gifts to those who choose the location. Up to 20 members of the IOC were implicated in the Salt Lake City scandal, and 6 of them were eventually expelled. As for the 2000 Games in Australia, all attempts to keep an aboveboard image vanished when the president of the Australian Olympic Committee admitted: “Well, we didn’t win [the bid] on the beauty of the city and the sporting facilities we had to offer on their own.”
The extravagant life-styles of some senior IOC members have further fueled skepticism. The late Swiss head of the International Rowing Federation, Tommy Keller, once said that in his view some sports officials see the Olympics as a means of “fulfilling their own personal pride.” He added that the driving force seemed to be “the pursuit of money and the satisfaction of personal ambitions.”
No one can deny that the Olympics involve big money. Traditionally, they have generated high television ratings and lucrative advertising packages, making the sponsorship of the games a tremendous marketing tool.
Consider the 1988 Olympics, for which nine multinational companies paid a total of over $100 million to the IOC for worldwide marketing rights. The 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta netted a total of $400 million for the same rights. And that does not include television rights. An American TV network paid more than $3.5 billion for the rights to broadcast the Olympic Games between 2000 and 2008, and it was reported that over a four-year period, 11 worldwide sponsors would have to pay $84 million each. Thus, some people have expressed the view that while the Olympics once stood for the ideal of human excellence, today the games are primarily a moneymaking opportunity that stands for human greed.
What Went Wrong?
Some experts say that the crisis of the Olympics can be traced to two key developments that began in the early 1980’s. The first was the decision to grant individual international sports federations the right to determine which athletes were eligible for the Olympics. Whereas the IOC had once restricted participation to amateurs, the federations then began to allow professional athletes to compete in their respective Olympic events. But professional athletes brought with them professional attitudes. Merely ‘fighting well’ does not procure endorsement dollars, and it was not long before winning became everything. Not surprisingly, that has spurred on the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The second key development came in 1983 when the IOC looked to capitalize on what its marketing expert dubbed “the most valuable unexploited symbol in the world”—the Olympic rings. This fostered the climate of unbridled commercialism that has become the trademark of the Olympics. Jason Zengerle observed: “For all of the talk about promoting peace and bringing people of the world together . . . , the Olympics are really no different from . . . any other ostentatious sporting display.” Does this mean, though, that the ideals proposed by the Olympic movement are unattainable?
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FACTS ABOUT THE OLYMPICS
→ The Olympic symbol consists of five rings, representing the continents of Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America. They are linked to symbolize the sporting friendship of all peoples.
→ The Olympic motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius—Latin for “faster, higher, braver.” The alternative translation “swifter, higher, stronger” was coined by an educator from France.
→ The Olympic flame burned at the altar of Zeus during the ancient games. Today, a torch is lit by the sun’s rays at Olympia, and it is then transported to the site of the games.
→ The Olympic tradition is millenniums old. The first recorded Olympic Games took place in 776 B.C.E., but many say that the origin of the games goes back to at least five centuries before that.
AP Photo/Eric Draper
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SYDNEY’S OLYMPIC SITE
Since September 1993, when Sydney won the bid for the 2000 Olympic Games, the city has been frantically getting ready to receive visitors numbering into the tens of thousands. Much work has been done to clean up the site, build world-class venues, and transform old garbage dumps into a series of wetlands, parks, and estuaries, which cover 1,900 acres [760 ha].
The Sydney Olympic Village, built to house all the athletes and officials, is the largest solar-powered village in the world. The SuperDome—the largest indoor sports and entertainment center in the Southern Hemisphere—has the largest private solar-power grid in Australia, and it runs on energy that produces almost no greenhouse gas emissions.
Dominating the skyline behind the SuperDome are the sweeping curves and interlaced beams of the Olympic Stadium. It cost $435,000,000 to build and is the biggest Olympic stadium in the world, seating 110,000. Four Boeing 747 airliners could park side by side under the main arch of the stadium! Overhead, translucent ceiling tiles shield spectators from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. “For a couple of months in 2000,” said Alan Patching, chief executive of the stadium, “this place will be the heart of Australia.” Then he ventured a prediction: “It will become iconic after that, like the Opera House.”
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Baron Pierre de Coubertin
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AP Photo/ACOG, HO