If anyone reading this column still believes in the “Olympic ideal,” please give me a call: I’ve got a stadium in Rio de Janeiro I’d like to sell you.
Discredited long ago by the very corruption and nationalism they were originally meant to transcend, the Olympic Games are embroiled in a wave of scandal that’s embarrassing even by the sorry standards of this hypocritical “movement.”
It’s hard to say what’s more outrageous: credible new allegations of a clandestine state-sponsored doping scheme carried out by the 2014 Winter Olympics’ host nation, Russia — or the fact that the International Olympic Committee entrusted the event to a despotic regime run by a glory-hungry former KGB agent in the first place.
Meanwhile, the integrity of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing — another dictatorship’s showcase — has been retrospectively undercut by the discovery of previously undetected doping by a reported 31 athletes from 12 countries; similar findings may be about to taint the 2012 London Games.
French prosecutors are investigating allegations that the IOC’s decision to award Tokyo the 2020 Summer Games was greased by payoffs, as many previous games have been.
In Brazil, where the 2016 Summer Olympics are supposed to begin Aug. 5, police and prosecutors have found evidence that Olympics-related infrastructure development became a font of payoffs and kickbacks. Potentially involved are some of the politicians implicated in the wider corruption scandal that has destabilized the Brazilian government, at precisely the moment it should have been devoting full attention to the security and efficiency of the Games.
In response, IOC officials spout indignant rhetoric and issue earnest threats against wrongdoers, just as they have on what seem like a million previous occasions.
These promised reforms are no more likely to succeed than those of the past. The truth is that incentives influence behavior. And participants in the Olympics, at all levels, face overwhelming incentives, financial and political, to cheat — or to try to cheat — whether by using performance-enhancing drugs, rigging the venue selection or raking off government funds, which host nations borrow and spend like water in pursuit of ephemeral economic stimulus. And don’t get me started on the judges and referees.
It’s all become a grandiose mockery of the fine sentiment declared by the Games’ modern founder, Pierre de Coubertin of France: “The important thing at the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part; for the essential thing in life is not to conquer but to struggle well.”
Equally hollow, in view of the historical record — which includes the hideous 1936 Berlin Olympics hosted by Adolf Hitler — are the words of the Olympic Charter: “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
In fact, the Olympics have repeatedly provided a flashpoint for international rivalry, as in the alternating boycotts carried out by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and for terrorist attacks, such as the ones that marred the 1972 and 1996 Summer Games. The threat of another such incident casts a necessary but unseemly security pall over the contemporary Games, as each host nation mobilizes its police and armed forces to patrol the celebration of international peace and harmony.
Some host governments have used Olympic preparations as an excuse to rid themselves of inconvenient domestic elements, whether it was Mexico massacring student protesters to prevent unrest from spoiling the 1968 Summer Games in that country, or South Korea rounding up and interning thousands of homeless people in Seoul, lest they damage the country’s image during the 1988 Summer Games.
If the Olympics have not, and cannot, achieve their lofty aims, then exactly what special purpose does this quadrennial exercise in corporate and governmental gigantism serve — other than to enrich well-connected businesses and aggrandize states?
None that I can think of. High-level athletic competition, in the form of international championship events for every sport under the sun, already exists.
If you love the drama of sports, as so many of us do, you can get your fill as a spectator of those contests. They’re commercialized and scandal-prone, too; but at least there’s no pretense of “promoting a peaceful society” or “preserving human dignity.”
A world without the Olympic Games might be a little less exciting every two years — and considerably more honest all the time.
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