The 2010 Winter Olympics are now underway in Vancouver.
My early – pre-torch run – impression was that the Canadians were pretty blase about the whole thing. But that seemed to change as the Olympic flame wended its way across Canada. There were certainly enthusiastic crowds that turned out to watch the torch as it was carried through the various locales.
Personally, I am not a fan of the Olympics. I think that somewhere they lost their way, although the winter games possibly less so than the more prestigious summer games.
I am not sure just when the Olympics ‘jumped the shark’ for me personally, but it may have been in 1988 when Ben Johnson fell of his pedestal – or podium – as the case may be.
I was on a sheep hunt in B.C.’s Spence’s Bridge area at the time and was sitting in a local pub watching the race on TV. It was an exhilarating moment which was brought to earth a couple days later when the drug scandal broke.
We had known for years that there was a win at any cost mentality at the Olympics, seeing female East German swimmers with shoulders you could set a table on, and Russian female athletes on one hand who looked as though part of their daily regimen was a morning shave, to lithe little gymnasts who never seemed to grow up. All of which pretty much turned out to be true.
But that was the doing of those nasty Eastern bloc socialists and somehow ‘our’ athletes were the true amateurs, and at one point that may have been a bit closer to the truth.
But the Olympics became corrupted when governments began to use them to showcase their country and more importantly their political agendas. It may have always been thus, but in modern times the 1936 Olympics in Germany stands out.
Hitler used the games to try and sell his theories of white supremacy, only allowing members of the Aryan race to compete for the country. But his boast of Aryan supremacy was famously brought down by the 4 gold medals won by the great U.S. athlete, Jesse Owens.
It turns out that the 1936 Olympics was simply the harbinger of things to come, with government beginning to demand and expect medal winning capabilities from the athletes they sent to the games and the use of Olympic boycotts to make political statements.
The Olympic Council of Ireland boycotted the 1936 Berlin Games, because the IOC insisted its team be restricted to the Irish Free State rather than represent the entire island of Ireland. There were two boycotts of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics: Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland refused to attend because of the repression of the Hungarian uprising by the Soviet Union; Cambodia, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon boycotted the Games because of the Suez Crisis. In 1972 and 1976 a large number of African countries threatened the IOC with a boycott to force them to ban South Africa and Rhodesia, because of their segregationist regimes. New Zealand was also one of the African boycott targets, because its national rugby union team had toured apartheid-ruled South Africa. The IOC conceded in the first two cases, but refused to ban New Zealand on the grounds that rugby was not an Olympic sport. Fulfilling their threat, twenty African countries were joined by Guyana and Iraq in a Tanzania-led withdrawal from the Montreal Games, after a few of their athletes had already competed. Taiwan also decided to boycott these Games because the People’s Republic of China (PRC) exerted pressure on the Montreal organizing committee to keep the delegation from the Republic of China (ROC) from competing under that name. The ROC refused a proposed compromise that would have still allowed them to use the ROC flag and anthem as long as the name was changed. Taiwan did not participate again until 1984, when it returned under the name of Chinese Taipei and with a special flag and anthem.
In 1980 and 1984, the Cold War opponents boycotted each other’s Games. Sixty-five nations refused to compete at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This boycott reduced the number of nations participating to 81, the lowest number since 1956. The Soviet Union and 14 of its Eastern Bloc partners (except Romania) countered by boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984, contending that they could not guarantee the safety of their athletes. Soviet officials defended their decision to withdraw from the Games by saying that “chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria are being whipped up in the United States”. The boycotting nations of the Eastern Bloc staged their own alternate event, the Friendship Games, in July and August.
There had been growing calls for boycotts of Chinese goods and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing in protest of China’s human rights record, and in response to the disturbances in Tibet and ongoing conflict in Darfur. Ultimately, no nation supported a boycott. In August 2008, the government of Georgia called for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics, set to be held in Sochi, Russia, in response to Russia’s participation in the 2008 South Ossetia war. The International Olympic Committee responded to concerns about the status of the 2014 games by stating that it is “premature to make judgments about how events happening today might sit with an event taking place six years from now”
Which is quite a history of governments playing their owns games on the backs of their athletes.
Then there is the case of the vanishing amateur. For years various countries got around the rules against professional athletes in the Olympics by various means, but when it became increasingly apparent that many athletes were amateurs in name only the barriers against professional athletes came crashing down. Professional hockey players are now key to winning Olympic teams and the U.S. basketball dream team at the 1992 games in Barcelona featured players such as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley. With the addition of golf to the Summer Olympics we can expect to see full rosters of PGA professionals on many country’s teams.
All of which leaves the Olympic Games as a rather tarnished spectacle in my eyes. Certainly there are magnificent moments brought on by the skill and focus of superior athletes. That is the case with any high level sporting event. But to spout on about the purity of the games and their noble aspect is an insult to one’s intelligence.
Scandal broke on 10 December 1998, when Swiss IOC member Marc Hodler, head of the coordination committee overseeing the organization of the 2002 games, announced that several members of the IOC had taken bribes. Soon four independent investigations were underway: by the IOC, the USOC, the SLOC, and the United States Department of Justice.
Before any of the investigations could even get under way both Welch and Johnson resigned their posts as the head of the SLOC. Many others soon followed. The Department of Justice filed charges against the two: fifteen charges of bribery and fraud. Johnson and Welch were eventually acquitted of all criminal charges in December 2003.
As a result of the investigation ten members of the IOC were expelled and another ten were sanctioned. This was the first expulsion or sanction for corruption in the more than a century the IOC had existed. Although nothing strictly illegal had been done, it was felt that the acceptance of the gifts was morally dubious. Stricter rules were adopted for future bids and ceilings were put into place as to how much IOC members could accept from bid cities.
Speaking for the first time since the controversy blew up, Welch openly admitted giving IOC members whatever they wanted in order to buy their support – arranging everything from plastic surgery for a member’s wife to cash payments into bank accounts and scholarships for relatives.
The Olympic movement was rocked when the scandal came to light three years ago and six members were expelled after an investigation by the committee’s headquarters in Lausanne.
But Welch claims this was a face-saving exercise. ‘It was all for show,’ he told OSM . ‘If what those expelled members did was wrong and everyone else on the IOC was to be judged by the same standards, then probably 80 per cent should have been kicked out.’
Those were the people, he said, who were ‘imposing themselves on you, asking for things and pushing for lavish hospitality’. He said they expected to be treated ‘like lords’ and other cities wishing to host the Olympics had played along too. ‘We bust our butts off to be the greatest hosts,’ he said.
The IOC considered their investigation of allegations against its members to have been thorough and found no evidence of wrongdoing by other members.
Welch, who is now aged 55 and lives in California, revealed that one IOC member was known as a ‘human vacuum cleaner’ because he sucked up a quarter of a million dollars worth of gifts, hospitality and cash.
Another IOC member tricked Welch into paying cash into a London bank account for a daughter who, it was later discovered, did not exist. In both cases the IOC members were expelled.
There is nothing pure and clean and wonderful about the Olympics. That may have been the case at one time in our innocent past, but not for a long time now.
Most of the athletes – at least the top ranked ones in many countries – do very well financially and more power to them. If governments are going to bask in their glory then they should be able to make their hard work and dedication pay off. They are the ones that bring the viewers to the TV sets and to the actual events.
But don’t feed me any of the crap about patriotism and noble ideals. The Olympics is a sports spectacle that is used by politicians, at best to showcase their country or their region, and at the worst to improve on their personal images and drive political agendas.