Column: The Evolution of The Olympic GamesJuly 28, 2016
Start with greed, political corruption, financial excess, doping and environmental disaster, to name a few of the ills that beset the Olympic Movement. Then add disease and security. Brazil may not be where the Zika virus originated, but according to the World Health Organization it’s one of 23 countries where the disease, which is linked to birth defects in babies, is present and spreading. As a result, a number of athletes have chosen not to participate in this year’s Games and a number of fans are staying home. And no one knows if security at the Games will be sufficient, even after the government recently gave Rio an additional $844 million for security costs.
There’s little doubt that the Rio organizers are incompetent. They over promised, over spent and under delivered, except when it came to lining the pockets of the rich and influential. But that isn’t a phenomenon unique to the Rio Games. We could be talking about Sochi, London, China…you name it. Regardless of location, since the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles it seems all the Games look alike, blending into a morass of debt, debauchery and cheating.
Some things – such as the infrastructure left vacant after the 16-day spectacle ends, the debt that will burden the country’s economy for generations, the unfulfilled promises to better Brazil’s less fortunate, many of whom live within a stone’s throw of the site of the Games - are within the host country’s control. And yet every recent Olympics host has fallen victim to the temptation to outdo its immediate predecessor, leading to the same disastrous result. The financial, moral and emotional cost wouldn’t justify the goal of transforming the host city even if it proved successful.
Fortunately for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), a majority of the world is ignoring most of the issues in Brazil, choosing instead to focus on the massive state sponsored doping program in Russia. The country’s track and field athletes have been banned from the Rio Games and the IOC considered an unprecedented ban of all Russian athletes. But even if the entire Russian delegation had been banned from Rio, not all the athletes will be clean. Unfortunately, anytime competition, glory and money collide, you’ll find cheating. The only questions will be which athletes in what sports from how many countries will be chemically fueled. Some will be caught as a result of testing during competition, others not until later when the testing science catches up to the doping science.
To illustrate the latter point, the IOC announced last week that a total of 45 athletes from the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Games combined - 30 in four sports from eight participating countries in 2008 and 15 in two sports from nine different countries in 2012 – failed retesting for banned substances. That brings the total number of positive tests to 98 as a result of re-examining samples from the last two Summer Games. The IOC has promised a third and fourth wave of retesting, which will undoubtedly add to the total number of positive tests.
Despite the benefits to those who are least deserving, i.e., the IOC and the politicians, along with the human cost of staging the Olympics, the show should go on. Although hundreds of participants in Rio will be chemically enhanced, thousands more will be drug free. Most have trained and sacrificed a lifetime for the glory of self, team and country. They deserve the opportunity to demonstrate their talents and accomplishments.
Sponsors and the media also benefit from the Games and as long as they’re willing to fork over billions of dollars – much of which unfortunately supports the bloated budgets and corruption - the Olympics are hardly in danger of becoming extinct.
While it’s easy to focus on what’s gone wrong in Rio, perhaps the Olympics have merely “evolved,” from the original goal of providing a forum for pure athletic participation to a reflection of modern society, warts and all. Or maybe the Olympics were never what we perceived them to be.