Sunday, August 7, 2016

Underwhelmed by the Olympic Games? So am I

(First published in The Dominion Post, August 5.)

The Olympic Games haven’t even started and I’m over them already.

It wasn’t always like this. Historically, the Games have been the ultimate sporting contest, commanding rapt worldwide interest.

I’m no sports fanatic, but even for me there was a frisson of anticipation as the Games approached and a feeling of being caught up in the contagious general excitement once they began.

Everybody watched and everybody talked about it. It was the subject of water-cooler conversation before we’d heard of water coolers.

Heck, I even recall getting excited over the Fosbury Flop – the revolutionary new high-jump technique that won the American Dick Fosbury a gold medal at Mexico in 1968.

But I sense that the public no longer feel quite the same spirit of ownership and involvement. You could say the Games have been stolen from us.

There are multiple reasons for this. Drugs, for starters.

In the past, the pre-Olympics media buzz was typically about who was going to win what. But for weeks now, Games reportage has been focused on allegations of large-scale, state-backed doping by Russia. 

Drugs are nothing new in sport. In the 1960s and 70s, people would look askance at suspiciously masculine-looking female athletes from the Soviet Union and East Germany and wonder how many male hormones they had ingested.

It was even suggested that the unbeatable Soviet shot-putter and discus thrower Tamara Press was a hermaphrodite. She and her equally suspect sister Irina retired before gender verification became mandatory.

There are echoes of the Cold War in the allegations now being levelled at Russia. But drug use isn’t confined to Russian athletes; it's rampant in international sport.

New Zealanders aren’t above dabbling in drugs either. Discus thrower Robin Tait and weightlifter Graham May both admitted using steroids.

What makes it even more problematical these days is that laboratories keep coming up with ever more sophisticated performance-enhancing drugs and seem able to keep one step ahead of detection techniques.

So every time someone wins gold, there’ll be that nagging suspicion: was it pure strength, skill and determination that did it, or was there a Swiss lab technician in a white coat lurking somewhere in the background?

Then there’s the influence of corporate and state sponsorship, which tilts the field in favour of professional competitors with wealthy backers.

The days when raw, naturally talented amateur athletes like Peter Snell and Murray Halberg prepared for the Olympics by pounding roads in the Waitakere Range at weekends under the critical gaze of Arthur Lydiard (who owned a small shoe factory and earned money on the side as a milkman) are long gone.

If Snell were running now, he’d be supported by a retinue of professional trainers, motivators and even PR minders.

Sport is inextricably linked with national prestige, so governments have got in on the act – something once confined to the Soviet bloc. A recent study found that every Olympic medal won by an Australian cost the Aussie taxpayer more than $9 million.

That surely places competitors from impoverished Third World states at an enormous disadvantage against those from countries that can afford to fund institutes of high-performance sport. That’s a double blow to the old Olympic ideals of amateurism and a level playing field.

So much for the competitors, then. But what about the slackers at home who want to watch the Games on television?

Sorry, but unless they pay a Sky TV subscription, they’ll have to make do with edited highlights packages on Sky-owned Prime. Sky enforces its exclusive rights ferociously, as its ugly dispute with Fairfax Media and NZME showed.

Some countries – Australia, for example – have legislation requiring that major sport events be televised free. But not us.

What this means is that the sense of community involvement that came from the entire nation watching – a living room of 4.7 million people – is now the stuff of nostalgia.

I could go on. I could talk about how corruption has contaminated sport (witness the FIFA scandals), how corporate sponsors now call the shots, how the Games are a prime target for terrorists (although that's not entirely new - remember Munich?), and how professionalism has spawned a new breed of overpaid, pampered and often dysfunctional sports celebrities.

I could point out that the Games have imposed a massive financial burden on an economically struggling nation. It's no surprise that Brazilians, according to reports this week, are underwhelmed by the event. They have more pressing issues on their minds, like surviving.

The common denominator linking so many of the factors tarnishing the image of sport is, of course, the baneful influence of money. Not even the Olympics, which once rejoiced in the spirit of amateurism, are free of its grip.

Capitalism is a wonderful thing, but there are some things that the vulgar money men should never have been allowed to get their hooks into. Sport is one.

1 comment:

John said...

I think the main reason why we are less excited about the Olympic Games these days is because, whether or not we are Sky subscribers, we have a much greater choice of TV channels to watch. Time was when you simply couldn't avoid the Games if you watched TV.

And there are many other entertainment attractions these days - particularly the cornucopia of diversions offered by mobile phones and tablets and the Web generally.

You also rightly point out that today it's pretty hard to follow the Games today unless you have a Sky subscription.