DRINKING THE OLYMPIC KOOL-AID

It is a spectacle beyond wonder, and an all but incomprehensible effort to stage, primarily for the host city and its organizing committee.  But so, too, for the grand ayatollahs of the IOC, the bishops of their member national committees, and their deep-pocketed supporters, the sponsors.  Yet it remains the labor of the plebian athletes to be the sine qua non for the entire enterprise.  Without them, what?  And so, of the $6 billion generated by the London Games, how much will be shared with those whose exploits make the grand exposition possible?

Well, consider that a 2012 Olympic gold medal has been struck with less than 1.5% actual gold (a mere 6 grams), and you have an apt understanding of the balance of commercial power we are about to behold over the next fortnight plus three. We know who really gets the gold.

My old friend Bob Bright excoriated me recently following my previous post – BOB BRIGHT: AFTER 25 YEARS NOTHING HAS CHANGED.  Bob charged me with becoming an advocate for the athletes rather than a straight journalist.  “Folks, including you, are trying to build a sport around the wants and needs of athletes. How’s that working out? Athletes are here today and gone tomorrow.”

True enough, Bob, athletes do come and go; it is the way of all sportsmen. But take a good look at the sports which have strong athlete representation. Those are the ones that flourish.  In fact, track and field is not built around the athletes, and how that is working out is, as you say, abundantly evident.

Therefore, it isn’t the athletes’ side I am taking. Instead I’m casting a critical eye at the imbalances which continue to hold sway in this sport, and which, over time, have contributed to the withering of the sport’s status on the sporting landscape.  Make no mistake, if the situation were tilted unfavorably to the advantage of the athletes at the expense of the federations and events, and as a consequence the same sad state of the sport was in evidence that we see under the current model, you can be certain that I would write in favor of a corresponding swing in fortunes.  But until that eventuality is witnessed, I will read and write as my eye and conscious lead me.

It has never been my intention to diminish the role of any of the stakeholders of the sport, simply to acknowledge the critical role the athletes play in the proceedings, and the consequences of not elevating their station.  Thus, the issue of athlete rights remains evergreen, and with each passing month seems to be gaining increasing momentum.  Now with bright light of the Olympic flame about to be lit, the subject is rife for further enlightenment.

Just last week 400-meter star Sanya Richards-Ross joined the rising chorus of elite athletes questioning a system which places such a heavy hand on the scales of financial justice. On her Twitter account Ms. Richards-Ross tweeted: “With $6 billion exchanging hands during the Olympics why do the athletes compete for free?!? #QuestionsThatNeedAnswers #WeDemandChange.”

Add to that the heavy-handed and tone-deaf demands of official Olympic-dom – whether in their draconian sponsorship blackout rules, demands that athletes wear a certain company’s shoes on the Olympic presentation podium, or protocols which provide exclusive five-star perks to their officials – and the catalogue of excesses and imbalances has grown to Olympian heights.

Chicago filmmaker Wendy Shulik posted on Facebook yesterday:

Among many of the items in my mom’s scrapbook of her 1972 Munich Olympics experience is this 10/6/72 letter composed by Bill Bradley (1964 Olympic basketball team member and former three-term Democratic U.S. Senator from NJ) after the 1972 Munich Olympics. It states, in part, that: “Athletes should have representation on the International Olympics Committee and on national Olympics committees. One of the biggest problems with the ruling body on international competition is that it has lost touch with the times … athletes know the issues which most concern their fellow athletes.” 

Thanks, Wendy. Interesting how the issue keeps coming around every generation.  At the June Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego, I visited with 1968 and `72 Olympian and `68 1500m silver medalist Jim Ryun.  He, too, lamented the lack of athlete participation at the power end of the table.

“We’re about 30 years late,” he said, “because in my day they were arguing over who was an amateur, and how many wrist watches did you have (watches were often given as prizes). Of course those wouldn’t pay the bills, or put food on the table. So they pushed a lot of people out of the sport when in reality they should have been doing what other professional sports were doing in Sixties when track and field was one of the top four sports in the country, and top four in the world; putting money back into the growth of the sport, promoting it to the general public. Instead we got locked into this whole silliness of amateurism when there wasn’t any amateur out there. There has never been.  You had to be a professional to do what we were doing, it’s just we couldn’t make a living at it.  So I’d like to see more of an athlete orientation in there.  But we have a huge Grand Canyon to get over in terms of getting people involved in this sport again.”

In the early 1970s Ryun and a group of confederates signed on with the International Track Association tour, a professional challenge to the Olympic-based model.  The ITA started out fast, but eventually faded when athletes coming out of the 1976 Montreal Olympics realized they could still make more under-the-table under the old, shamateur system than they could in prize money with ITA.

And so the question remains standing, as long as enough top athletes get theirs under the current system, who will make a stand, and what might finally spark such an uprising?  Certainly, when an athlete with as high a profile as Sanya Richards-Ross speaks out,  it’s an indication there there is movement afoot.  But evidently the imbalance in the Athlete -> Power Structure continuum still isn’t great enough.

No, not until there is a viable alternative for the athletes to choose between will the true tipping point be found. Until then the Powers can keep holding the flame on high and exploiting the Dream for all its worth.  Seems we have all drank from the Olympic Kool-Aid cauldron for so long that our vision remains blinded by its still rapturous light.

END

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