You are here
The Good, Bad And Awful Of The Olympics
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype and glitz of the Olympics from the flashy opening ceremonies to the much publicised rivalries. What is really fascinating is how the images of the Olympics have changed over time. Decades ago, when I was growing up in the US, the Olympics had an air of innocence.
It promised hard-working, amateur athletes, some of whom worked menial jobs—like stocking grocery shelves—a chance of glory, as they trained to compete on a world-wide stage. Heart defined those athletes more than muscles and the surprising success stories that emerged from the Olympic Games proved that perseverance was the most important quality anyone could possess.
We believed anyone could be a star athlete once he or she was willing to sacrifice every ounce of energy to train for the event. When I was a child, the Russians and their eastern European satellites ruled the Olympics. Their sober concentration ruled gymnastics. That is why it was shocking to see the Russian women’s gymnastic team fall apart and dissolve into tears after the floor exercises in this Olympics.
Now, the Chinese rule the medal roost. Power is shifting in the world, and the Olympics reflect that. Winning has become everything. In this global economy that defines the world today, we now have athletes representing a country they don’t really even live in. They live and study and train abroad. They head for the best training facilities in the world.
I heard one TV announcer talk about how the Chinese send many of their athletes abroad to train. They pay four times the coaches’ asking salaries just to reserve the best coaches for their athletes. Some of those sought-after coaches (at least in gymnastics) are immigrants or political exiles—however you want to look at it. It is, in many ways now, a world without borders.
Of course the fixation on winning and proving political superiority through sports has changed the image of the Olympics. For years the US held on to the notion that athletes had to be amateurs even while they complained that the Russians used professional athletes in sports for an unfair advantage. Now, we have Olympic basketball games with Kobe Bryant and Lebron James.
As the need for a great heart has diminished and the need for speed and muscle has become more demanding, the Olympics—and indeed sports in general—have become tarnished by cheating. The win-at-any-cost mentality has produced massive steroid machines, athletic monsters who have damaged themselves as well as their sports. What is really sad is how those cheating scandals have made cynics of so many people.
We have become suspicious of anyone who is too fast or too great. We want to believe in the pure power of athletes, but there are always these nagging questions about fairness. Even when questionable athletes pass drug testing, there’s a gnawing feeling that they might somehow be ahead of the system. We visualise a whole conspiracy to thrust a chosen athlete into a tainted limelight.
Still, we watch the Olympics, dreaming of someone’s well-deserved success. We cheer on the underdogs. For me, these Olympic Games will always be defined by 15-year-old Lithuanian swimmer Ruta Meilutyte who, after winning the 100-metre breaststroke, went into the record books as the first athlete to ever win a medal in swimming for her country. I will forever see the look of shock on her face when she saw her name flash across the scoreboard as the winner.
I will remember her tears of joy as she watched her family in the stands and sang her national anthem on the podium. Yes, these Olympics have reflected much of what is sad and awful in the world today. There was cheating, callous and selfish behaviour, but there were memorable moments. We can only enjoy the moment.
Clearly, we shouldn’t use nostalgia as a crutch. US track and field star Carl Lewis was right when he said we shouldn’t compare athletes in the past to athletes in the present to determine who was the greatest athlete ever. We have to let athletes live and succeed in their own time. We have to cherish the moment—once we can determine it is genuine. We have to accept that every generation has its share of heroes and villains.
We have to swallow the advice of US sprinter Michael Johnson when he says we have to trust the drug-testing system so that when something extraordinary happens, like 16-year-old Chinese swimming sensation Ye Shiwen breaking world records and swimming faster than male swimmers, we can put our doubts aside when tests come back clean. We have to believe in the system.
It’s sad that sports have risen to a level of suspicion, but then that too is a reflection of the turbulent world we live in. We’re not really sure of anyone or anything any more in this topsy-turvy world. What’s most important is that we—like great athletes—still have the ability to believe in miracles or at least great performances. Not everything in the world is bad, and we all thrive on hope.
User comments posted on this website are the sole views and opinions of the comment writer and are not representative of Guardian Media Limited or its staff. Guardian Media Limited accepts no liability and will not be held accountable for user comments.
Please help us keep out site clean from inappropriate comments by using the flag option.
Guardian Media Limited reserves the right to remove, to edit or to censor any comments. Any content which is considered unsuitable, unlawful or offensive, includes personal details, advertises or promotes products, services or websites or repeats previous comments will be removed.