Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Olympic Shine... or Shame?

I might have been an Olympian. No - really. Back in 1980 (I know – that was 3o years ago!) I was on the Canadian National Field Hockey Squad. I was one of 20 “carded” women field hockey players in Canada - essentially we were on Federal Government Scholarships so that we could devote time to training. Most of us were in university and the financial support meant that we could train instead of working. And if Canada hadn’t boycotted the Olympics that year – well, I might have been one of the 16 chosen to represent our country at the Olympics. And, just for the record, the Canadian Women’s field hockey team did qualify for the Olympics in 1980. But, fact is, that was the year Moscow hosted the Olympics and the cold war was still “on” and we boycotted. I had mixed feelings then and still do. To be perfectly honest, I most likely wouldn’t have been one of the 16, but at least I would have been in the running. So I don’t really exaggerate when I say that I might have been an Olympian.

So, that being said, I watch the Olympics – both winter and summer - with a bit of nostalgia and when the Canadian National Anthem is played, I feel more than a little pride and usually a tear or two. It’s a noble thing to represent one’s country. At least it can be. But I also confess that I have mixed feelings about the Olympics these days. It’s not just that we’ve totally crossed the line that used to keep professional athletes out of the Olympics so that Olympic athletes were really amateurs, unspoiled by huge salaries and endorsements. It’s not just that technology and performance enhancing drugs have made the competitions all about shaving fractions of seconds off of personal best efforts – to an almost ridiculous degree. No – I suppose those things are predictable and pretty much inevitable and for those who have committed their lives to their Olympic endeavours, they make sense (I guess).

My unease has more to do with the fact that there is no such thing as a “level playing field”. Countries invest in their athletes. And for host countries - that's another level of spending altogether as they put millions of dollars on facilities and infrastructure and other expenses associated with staging the games. In fact, the Vancouver Sun reports that the 2010 Olympics actually cost in excess of 6 BILLION dollars (see http://www.vancouversun.com/Sports/Olympics+bill+tops+billion/1207886/story.html). We justify the dollars spent as an “investment”. If all goes well, the argument goes, the investment will pay off – in medals, in money spent by those visiting the event, in good will, in positive press, in National pride, in a boost in economic activity in the host city... It's a marketing bonanza.

The fact is, though, the Olympic Games are really an indulgence for the rich. Rich athletes, rich countries, rich corporations, rich fans. Money flows. People are giddy with the spending rush.

Sure – the Opening Ceremonies celebrate and showcase the participation of athletes and artists from all kinds of countries – rich and poor, north and south, developed and developing, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. And for a moment we can believe that every athlete has a chance to compete and win. And sure enough, there are always amazing athletes who defy all rational expectations and rise above poverty or personal tragedy or injury or illness – and make it to the podium as shining examples of the indomitable human spirit. We celebrate with them and cry tears of joy and pride in solidarity with their effort. But who are we kidding? For every rags to riches story – every success against all odds profile – there are hundreds of thousands, likely millions of aspiring Olympians who don’t make it to the games, let alone to the podium.

And the collateral damage of the event may be more or less invisible to the naive and uninitiated, but it’s very real. While the spotlight is on the athletes and the podium, who’s thinking about the prostitutes, the homeless, the broken-hearted, the hopeless? And, with progress on the Millennium Development Goals lagging behind targets in many countries, is it really ok to spend billions of dollars to bring elite athletes together to push themselves to the very limits of human performance in an effort to “own the podium”? Surely our celebrations are dampened by the fact that the playing field is far from level and the Olympics actually perpetuate and celebrate inequalities.

Maybe you’re thinking that even Jesus said that the poor would always be with us. As I’ve likely said before, I’m an idealist – but even I don’t think that we’re going to eradicate poverty. But we can do a lot better than we’re doing and until we really put our hearts into it, somehow the excesses of the Olympics take a lot of the shine off the medals – at least from where I sit.

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