<<< back to article list

The Olympics

Blog by | October 19th, 2007

The Olympics' long, sordid history

The Marion Jones scandal is only one of many dating as far back as 1912.
October 14, 2007

Marion Jones, the U.S. Olympic track champion who last week was stripped of her medals after confessing to steroid use during the 2000 Olympiad, has cast a pall over her sport, disappointed a generation of children, let down her country and besmirched Olympic traditions of good sportsmanship and fair play that have endured since . . . well . . . er, since April, when six Austrian skiers received lifetime Olympic bans for their roles in a blood-doping scandal at the 2006 Turin Games.

OK, but aside from that isolated episode, the good name of the Olympics has been hallowed as far back as the 2004 Athens Games, which were, um, plagued by a series of officiating scandals and banned-substance busts involving sprinters, cyclists, weightlifters and even a horse.

Maybe that leaves us with the 2002 Games, where -- zut alors! -- a false call by pairs figure-skating judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne produced an ethical quagmire and the anti-Solomonic decision to award two sets of gold medals. That competition, you'll remember, had already been dishonored by the gargantuan bribes that host Salt Lake City paid to the International Olympic Committee during bidding.

But if we skip back past the 2000 Sydney Games -- which were soiled not only by Jones but by Romanian gymnast and pseudoephedrine fan Andreea Madalina Raducan -- we find a prelapsarian period of honest competition and global goodwill studded with names such as Manfred Ewald (the mastermind of the forced-doping regime that allowed East Germany to cop 384 medals between 1972 and 1988), Ross Rebagliati (Canadian gold-medal snowboarder and self-described breather of secondhand marijuana smoke), Ben Johnson (chemically enhanced Canadian sprinter), Tonya Harding (accessory after the fact in the knee-capping of rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan) and His Excellency Marquis Juan Antonio Samaranch (former fascist and Franco-era apparatchik turned high-living IOC president).

Even if we go back to, say, 1912, we find an Olympiad wherein no less a figure than Jim Thorpe lost his medals after the piddling revelation that he'd once been paid $25 a week to play bush-league baseball.

It seems trite to point out that the Olympics never had a period of innocence, but there's a catch: The pursuit of the Games' lofty ideals is not the antidote to the corruption; it's the chief cause of the corruption. Longtime IOC President Avery Brundage's commitment to amateur, apolitical excellence resulted in, among other things, the decision to remove Jewish track competitors from the 1936 Berlin Games, a relentless campaign against restoring Thorpe's medals (they were awarded posthumously in 1982) and a patrician disdain for American athletes that led Times columnist Jim Murray to call him "Avery Umbrage." The fiscally savvy Samaranch filled the air with talk of the "ideas of brotherhood, friendship, peace and universal understanding" while presiding over the Salt Lake City bribery scandal.

To be fair, the Olympics have taken steps toward reality since the days when Brundage reacted to the Palestine Liberation Organization's massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Games by declaring simply: "The Games must go on." The amateurs-only rule, for one, is almost entirely gone. But the charade that the Games are categorically different from the World Cup or the British Open still leads to such lamentable results as national medal counting, country horse-trading of the type seen in the Le Gougne affair and Jones' heartfelt but overblown declaration, "I have let my country down."

Keep this in mind while listening to arguments over the highly unlikely prospect of a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Games. The smart move isn't to shun what will undoubtedly be a nationalistic showcase for China but to remove the foundation for the showcase. A more modest, openly professional Olympics, organized as a league, staged without national fanfare and viewed as just another athletic competition (and preferably meeting on an annual basis, without the competitive pressure among cities looking to bankrupt themselves in the name of Olympian prestige), might seem less lofty. But it would be a lot healthier and more fun for the athletes and the fans.