By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
August 5, 2016
What are we to make of the Olympics? Do they represent humanity at its finest? Worst? Or both?
The modern Olympics were established in 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin to bring the world’s nations together in the “spirit of unity, peace, communication and cooperation.” In the more than one hundred years since, the Olympics have often fallen short of that admirable standard.
Today, the word “Olympics” is as likely to trigger thoughts of cheating scandals, nationalism, violence and over-commercialization as it is memories of amazing athletic performances, inspirational displays of courage and outstanding acts of sportsmanship.
A quick glimpse at Olympic history reveals plenty of ugliness:
In 1936, Adolph Hitler set up the Berlin Olympics as a stage to showcase the virtues of Nazism and white supremacy to the world. Fortunately, Jesse Owens had other plans.
The Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union turned athletes into “soldiers in sweatsuits” as politicians, the media and common citizens in both countries turned athletic competition into a battle of political ideologies.
Political boycotts have been with us since the 1956 Games and have tainted the Olympic spirit. The most famous examples are the U.S. boycott of the1980 Moscow Olympics and the Soviets returning the favor four years later in Los Angeles.
Terrorism and violence have also stained the Olympics, the most noteworthy instance being the Munich Games in 1972, when the pro-Palestinian Black September group killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team.
Performance-enhancing drugs at the Olympics have given us a long list of lowlights, including 1904, when the marathon winner ingested a dose of strychnine and brandy during the race in the belief it would boost his performance. In 1960, a Danish cyclist died during a race after illegally taking amphetamines. And Ben Johnson shamed Canada in 1988 when he was forced to return his gold medal in the 100 meters after failing a post-race drug test.
Since 1984, commercialization has run amok. That’s when Peter Uebberoth “sold the soul” of the Los Angeles Olympics by putting a sponsorship price tag on anything Olympics-related. Today, corporate logos appear on everything from arena walls to sprinters’ ankles.
We also have an inglorious history of cheating scandals dousing the Olympic flame. At the 1988 Seoul Games, South Korean officials were widely believed to have paid off boxing judges to ensure that their countrymen would be standing on the medal stand. The scam cost American Roy Jones a gold medal.
In 1994, the memorable Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding disgrace tainted the Games.
Another figure skating scandal, this one in 2002, involving Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier and Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, provided yet another example of the Olympics falling well short of its ideal.
So, what are we left with?
Undoubtedly, the Olympics have fallen far short of de Coubertin’s vision in 1896. They’ve been the vehicle for as much political posturing, cheating, violence and unabashed greed as they have for unity, communication, friendship and fair play.
Nevertheless, the Olympics are filled with drama and never seem to fail to inspire the human spirit in each of us. Despite the gunk that infiltrates the modern Olympic Games – and there is plenty of gunk, literally and figuratively, surrounding these current Games in Rio — every couple years they still show us what human beings are capable of.
Consider American snowboarder Chris Klug who won a bronze model in 2002 after undergoing a liver transplant.
“The bottom line is, 18 months ago he was lying on a hospital bed, filleted open, jaundiced and circling the drain. Today, he’s on the podium,” said Carlon Colker, Klug’s personal physician at the time.
Every Olympics is filled with similarly inspiring stories, many involving athletes that never reach the medals stand or receive any media exposure. For them, it’s about personal triumph, not global triumph.
Yes, the negatives associated with the Olympics certainly need to be addressed but sometimes it’s best to douse the cynicism for a while, sit back, and relish the spirit of elite athletic competition.
Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans.
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