SPORTING: Olympic Games

The Olympic Games of Greco-Roman tradition were revived more than 100 years ago on the mission of a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Courbitin, who forsaw international athletic competition as a stimulant for world peace and free trade between nations. In 1896, the Games were resumed in Athens, Greece.The ensuing century has yielded more war death and broad-scale international treachery than any other. So much for the Olympic dream.As another century ends, the Olympic movement has suffered a major credibility hit with revelations that agents for the Internatonal Olympic Committee (IOC) took bribes to grease their decisions on which cities would be awarded the games. But the revelatons brought hardly a yawn, for it has long been widely suspected that IOC members were as corrupt as the high-minded premises on which the movement has prospered.Those who are disillusioned over the this latest assault on the ideal of Olympic purity might take comfort on understanding that such ideals have never been nearly realized. Despite its history of compelling performances, the modern Olympics has demonstrated nothing if not the zeal of political gamesmanship and ideology.The entire notion that athletic spectacle could inspire nations to put aside their political designs in deference to the wonder of human physical achievement has repeatedly been exposed as a fraud.Indeed, American sprinter Jesse Owens' four gold medals at the 1936 summer games in Berlin stands as the greatest moment in modern Olympic history precisely due to political overtones. Adolf Hitler prepared the world stage as a theatre of Aryan superiority. Owens, an African-American, put the lie to Hitler in no time.Three decades later, at the 1968 games in Mexico City, United States runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute from the medal stand, refusing to look at the American flag during their nation's anthem. At the 1972 games in Munich, Palestinian guerillas attacked the Israeli team in the Olympic village, killing 11 of the athletes.In 1980, President Jimmy Carter withheld the United States team from the Moscow Olympics, citing the Soviet Union's invasion on Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviets reciprocated, refusing to send their team to the Los Angeles Olympics.The most powerful athletic nations of the last 40 years could not allow sport to operate apart from ideology, for such separation would have worked to the detriment of both. Until the 1980s, Olympic athletes in the United States trained and raised funds entirely on their own, a back-handed gesture to laissez-faire values. The Soviet Union would not permit sport that wasn't edifying to the collective. Their delegations were well-trained and effective. East German rationalization of the body toward peak athletic performance reached very dangerous proportions.Like no other athletic enterprise, the Olympics cash in on armies of unpaid athletes and volunteers, all under cloak of high ideals. Until 1992, the Olympics traded on a misperception of amateur purity and wouldn't allow professionals in the games. Of course, amateurism has always been a sham, simultaneously minimizing costs to promotors and protecting the privileged from competition.In addition, the whole notion of amateurism made little sense in the Olympics during the Cold War. The athletes for communist nations were, in essense, professionals, as athletic performance was their work for the state. With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the Olympics finally let in professionals, but without paying them for their services.So, where is all the money going? Worldwide television revenues for all the Olympic games through 2008 will easily exceed $5.5 billion, with many rights still to be negotiated. NBC is paying $3.6 billion just for television rights in the United States.That's how badly television wants a piece of the Olympics. Cities are no different. But they aren't supposed to pay the IOC for the opportunity. So, aspiring cities wine and dine IOC members, put them up in plush hotels, cater to their every need.It's human nature, unfortunately, that people who are treated so well begin to sense entitlement. And they begin to ask for more. Salt Lake City, which will have the 2002 winter games, came through with college scholarships and surgeries for relatives of committee members.Other cities have refused. But they never blow the whistle, because, as Swiss IOC member Marc Hodler said, they always want another chance. They want the prestige and the economic benefit of the Olympics. It hasn't a lot to do with sports. It never has.


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