The Olympics’ lesser gods

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The Sum­mer Olympic Games in Rio are over. Ev­ery time the world’s top ath­letes gather for the Games, peo­ple ev­ery­where have the op­por­tu­nity not just to root for their coun­tries, but also to be­come en­grossed by sto­ries of sac­ri­fice and suc­cess, of bro­ken bones and bro­ken records. Be­yond the in­cred­i­ble feats of ath­leti­cism are pow­er­ful tri­umphs of the spirit, like that of the Syr­ian refugee swim­mer Yusra Mar­dini, who less than a year ago jumped into the Mediter­ranean to help push her bro­ken-down dinghy, con­tain­ing 19 other refugees, to safety in Greece.

In this sense, the Olympic Games are as much about in­spi­ra­tion as they are about com­pe­ti­tion. But, thanks to the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee, the Games are also about some­thing much darker. In fact, the IOC – to­gether with its na­tional branches, as well as the as­so­ci­a­tions rep­re­sent­ing par­tic­u­lar sports – em­bod­ies some of the most prom­i­nent prob­lems the world is fac­ing to­day, from in­equal­ity to ex­ploita­tion to sheer hypocrisy among our lead­ers.

Over the years, the IOC and its na­tional branch or­gan­i­sa­tions have been ac­cused of ev­ery­thing from poor gov­er­nance to cor­rup­tion. Most re­cently, a Wash­ing­ton Post anal­y­sis damn­ingly de­picted the chasm be­tween the earn­ings of the ex­ec­u­tives who run the show and the ath­letes who make it.

Many, if not most, ath­letes per­form for lit­tle or no money. Sponsorships can pro­vide funds, but they also in­clude re­stric­tive rules that limit ath­letes’ abil­ity to raise more money for their train­ing. As the Olympic sailor Ben Barger noted, the money that the “Olympic Move­ment” pro­duces “goes to ex­ec­u­tives first, then ad­min­is­tra­tors, then coaches, and then ath­letes.”

So, for ex­am­ple, while IOC Pres­i­dent Thomas Bach lux­u­ri­ates rent-free in a lav­ish ho­tel suite in Switzer­land, US Olympic medal­ist rower Me­gan Kal­moe lives close to the poverty line. Such ex­tremes cast a pall of ex­ploita­tion over the whole af­fair.

And the ex­ploita­tion is not only fi­nan­cial. The IOC and its part­ners have a his­tory of ig­nor­ing the per­ils that arise from the re­la­tion­ship be­tween coaches and the young ath­letes they train – a re­la­tion­ship that has pro­vided fer­tile ground for ma­nip­u­la­tion and abuse. Coaches can use their po­si­tion of au­thor­ity to lead young ath­letes to start dop­ing or to take ad­van­tage of them sex­u­ally. As a re­cent In­di­anapo­lis Star re­port on US women’s gymnastics has re­vealed, such con­duct is ram­pant, and the na­tional fed­er­a­tion over­see­ing the sport – an Olympic or­gan­i­sa­tion – has con­sis­tently failed to ad­dress it.

But the ath­letes are not the only ones the IOC dis­re­gards; the Com­mit­tee is also ap­par­ently in­dif­fer­ent to how host ci­ties and coun­tries comes to be host ci­ties and coun­tries. What ex­actly it takes to win an Olympic bid is fuzzy, though gifts, jun­kets, and win­ing and din­ing clearly fac­tor into it. Whether Tokyo’s win­ning bid for the 2020 Olympics was aided by pay­ments to a com­pany linked to the son of the dis­graced for­mer world ath­let­ics chief Lamine Di­ack is cur­rently un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The process may be murky, but the re­sults are clear. In Rio, tens of thou­sands of Brazil­ians were dis­placed to make room for Olympic in­fra­struc­ture, some of which has been crit­i­cised for pos­ing safety haz­ards. There is some­thing deeply jar­ring about the glit­ter­ing new projects that sit cheek by jowl with the poverty of the fave­las and the jux­ta­po­si­tion of ex­trav­a­gant cer­e­mony and the depth of the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic crises fac­ing Brazil. The party goes on, while its host edges toward the abyss.

Clearly, the IOC’s pri­or­i­ties are badly skewed. Can the Olympic Move­ment be re­deemed?

To an­swer that ques­tion, it is worth con­sid­er­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of FIFA, an­other non-profit sports or­gan­i­sa­tion be­set by cor­rup­tion. In the two years since the truth about FIFA came to light, the rum­blings of change can be heard, as what seemed to be an im­pen­e­tra­ble sys­tem be­gins to crum­ble un­der the pres­sure of ac­tivists, spon­sors, and soccer as­so­ci­a­tions. This sug­gests that change is pos­si­ble.

The first step is ex­po­sure. The good news is that, nowa­days, it is harder than ever to keep such large-scale wrong­do­ing un­der wraps, not least be­cause of the ef­forts of com­mit­ted jour­nal­ists and brave whistle­blow­ers. The tes­ti­mony of the run­ner Yuliya Stepanova was the key to ex­pos­ing Rus­sia’s state-run dop­ing pro­gramme. The bad news is that the IOC sim­ply ig­nored the World Anti-Dop­ing Agency’s re­port on Rus­sia’s of­fi­cial scheme and stopped well short of ban­ning its na­tional team.

As FIFA’s ex­pe­ri­ence showed, once spon­sors be­come con­cerned about their rep­u­ta­tions, their in­ter­ests shift. Now that they have been re­vealed, the en­rich­ment schemes – which ben­e­fit, above all, the spon­sors, ex­ec­u­tives, and a cou­ple of su­per­star Olympians – are hurt­ing prof­its. So, too, will con­tin­u­ing to turn a blind eye to pow­er­ful coun­tries’ ef­forts to cheat. Spon­sors must show them­selves to be re­spon­sive and re­spon­si­ble, sav­ing face by re­call­ing the Olympic spirit. The rule of law and ethics, built into the fabric of cor­po­rate gov­er­nance, must now take cen­tre stage.

The Olympic Games re­flect not just who we are, but also who we hope to be. The sys­tem that un­der­pins them has widened the gap be­tween the two. The IOC has be­come a mon­u­ment to some of hu­man­ity’s worst ten­den­cies – the greed, hypocrisy, and ex­ploita­tion that have led so many to dis­trust in­sti­tu­tions. One hopes that the ex­am­ple of FIFA will help to mark a path to redemp­tion for the IOC, and that the Olympic Move­ment’s govern­ing body em­barks upon it be­fore the flame of what is wor­thy and in­spir­ing about the Games is snuffed out.

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