Friday, July 20, 2012

What would Baron de Coubertin think?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 18.)
It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that the 2012 Olympic Games start next week in London.
There was a time when this would have excited me. After all, the Olympics are supposed to be the ultimate sporting spectacle.

During the Games of the 1970s and 80s I would spend every non-working hour in front of the TV set. Even the Winter Games could be riveting: who can forget Eddie the Eagle, the hapless British ski-jumper who finished last at Calgary in 1988 and came to symbolise heroic failure?
But the older I get, the harder it becomes to whip up any enthusiasm for the Games. This could be attributed to the onset of terminal cantankerousness, but there’s more to it than that.

The Games used to be a celebration of all that was supposed to be ennobling about sport. For one thing, the International Olympic Committee was paranoid about professionalism intruding on what was supposed to be a strictly amateur domain.
Avery Brundage, the American who presided over the IOC from the 1952 to 1972, was an idealist who saw the amateur athlete as embodying all the finest virtues of sport. For much of his IOC career he was preoccupied with protecting the Olympic movement’s purity.

His commitment to amateurism wasn’t inherited, however, by Spain’s Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Olympic supremo from 1980 till 2001. Samaranch wanted a financially sound Games, and if that meant giving way to professionalism – well, so be it.
Call me a woolly sentimentalist, but I think the Games lost something when the amateur ethos was abandoned. There was a certain romance in the Games back in the days when athletes could reach the pinnacle of their chosen sports without the benefit of corporate sponsorship or government-funded sports institutes. The latter were the speciality of the Soviet bloc and were generally regarded as incompatible with Olympic ideals.

The Ethiopian Abebe Bikila won the first of his two Olympic gold medals in the marathon running barefoot, but a barefoot runner at the London Games is about as likely as New Zealand winning gold in the Greco-Roman wrestling or Eddie the Eagle making a triumphant comeback. Adidas, as one of the all-powerful sponsors, would make sure it wasn’t allowed.
Peter Snell, arguably New Zealand’s greatest Olympic athlete, trained while studying for a qualification as a quantity surveyor. If he were competing today, his every waking moment would be planned for him by a handler at the grandiosely named High Performance Sport New Zealand – the very type of institute we took such a dim view of when the Soviet bloc used them to turn out assembly lines of champion gymnasts, shot-putters and weightlifters.

Between them, business and government have irrevocably changed the nature of elite sport. The glory of competing has been largely subordinated by commercial and political agendas.
Corporate sponsorship has become obnoxiously intrusive: a columnist in the English magazine The Spectator recently lamented that when he took his children to see the Olympic torch relay pass through a nearby town, they had to wait for an endless procession of sponsors’ buses to pass before they finally saw what they had come for.

So much rides on the Games, politically and commercially, that it has become wide open to corruption. Ten members of the IOC were expelled for accepting extravagant “gifts” – you and I would have called them bribes – from the backers of Salt Lake City’s bid for the 2002 Winter Games. The 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, were similarly tarnished. I doubt that this is what Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Games, had in mind.
For business, sport is an opportunity to sell more goods. Sport needs lots of money and business can provide it, but the price for its support is that sport must accede to sponsors’ demands. If a company is going to stump up millions to have its name attached to an event such as the Olympics, it wants guarantees that no competitor will queer its pitch – hence the paranoiac insistence on “clean” stadiums and advertising-free zones surrounding them.

We saw this played out to ludicrous extremes in the Rugby World Cup and the same is happening in London. Such is the commercial value of an event like the Games that enforcers crack down ruthlessly on anyone misappropriating the Games symbol, as 81-year-old Englishwoman Joy Tomkins found out when she was ordered not to sell a doll’s outfit she had knitted for a church fundraising sale because it was embroidered with a tiny “GB2012” logo and Games symbol.
Anyone who dares to misuse the word “Olympic” in Britain during the next few weeks will risk arrest. Ordinary people are repelled by this fascist-style heavy-handedness.

For governments, sport is not about profits but national branding, patriotic pride and the feel-good factor, which politicians hope will translate into votes. What the Soviet bloc states were condemned for doing in the 1960s and 70s, every country now does – or at least those that can afford it.
But government funding distorts sport and tilts the playing field in favour of rich countries. Affluent governments pour funding into sport, allocating it largely on the basis of medal prospects. Sports with the best medal chances get the money, which explains why so much funding goes into non-mainstream sports: international competition in those sports is weaker, and the chance of a medal therefore higher.

As a strategy for lifting a country’s medal tally, it’s hard to fault; but it’s hardly in keeping with the noble tradition of the Olympics, where medals are supposed to be won by ability, determination and hard work, not by the amount of government money invested in the competitor. It also means poorer countries are at a disadvantage against those that can afford intense training programmes and financial support for “elite” athletes. In fact the very term “elite sport” is telling, since elites by their nature tend to be disconnected from ordinary people.
Add to all these factors the paranoia over security (I’m sure Baron de Coubertin never imagined rocket launchers on the roofs of apartment blocks) and you have to ask whether it’s all worth it.

But having said that, I know I’ll have a lump in my throat along with everyone else when the first New Zealander ascends the winner’s podium and God Defend New Zealand is played.

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