The Fall of Olympia

I doubt it’s escaped your notice, but the Olympic Games have just concluded in typically sun-kissed Rio de Janeiro. Depending on your perspective or predisposition, the Games were either a marvellous success or a shameful manifestation of the worst excesses of modern sport. Take your pick. I must concede I’ve rather fallen out of love with the Olympics. Like most of us, I grew up with the Games as a constant backdrop to seemingly endless childhood summers. Rose-tinted recollections of Carl Lewis, Linford Christie, and Wayne McCullough are permanently etched in my mind’s eye. The Olympics, with its fabled champions of a bygone era, were superb-or at least they seemed to be. Elite sport combined with mesmerising, hypnotic spectacle. It was one hell of a combination, transfixing sports fans once every four years. Even the poor relation (the infinitely less prestigious Winter Olympics) was worth a butcher’s. Bob sleighing, ice-hockey, and Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards. Ah, the memories!

I didn’t see much of it this time. At least, nothing of any note. I might have grabbed a few of rounds of boxing featuring two blokes I hadn’t heard of (the lack of headgear still looks weird to me). But that’s about it. There wasn’t anything else. Nada. Granted, the time difference didn’t help, but I’m not sure it would have mattered if the Olympics was happening across the street. It doesn’t interest me. Like Wimbledon or Formula 1, The Olympics now fall into the category of irrelevance for me. Yes all are massive events, but I no longer see any appeal or value in them. What’s the point in watching sport if the action leaves you apathetic at best, bored senseless at worst?

“But you used to like the Olympics”, I hear you yell. What happened? Well, in my view, cheating and the chronic misuse of performance-enhancing drugs have ruined the Olympics. They’ve destroyed the credibility and reputation of the Games. Of course, there’s nothing new here. Cheating in sport has been around since time immemorial and the abuse of drugs has long been a feature of elite competition. But why believe in an event when you know there are probably scores of competitors cheating? It happens at every Games. Detection and sanction may be deferred (if the wily cheats get caught at all), but we all know it’s going on. History confirms as much. The trouble is: cheating destroys the illusion. Much like when a magician reveals his methodology, their aura disappears. There isn’t the same interest when you know how the trick is done.

I’m revealing my age again, but I’m old enough to remember Ben Johnson. For those of a modern vintage, Johnson was the golden boy of the 100 metres; the king of track-and-field athletics. In Seoul ’88, Johnson was the poster boy, the Usain Bolt of his generation, the biggest name in sprinting. A real superstar. True to form, Johnson romped home in the 100m final, leaving a trail of competitors in his wake, Lewis and Christie included. A new world record was clocked by the superstar, a breathtaking 9.79 seconds. The trouble was, Johnson was cheating. Three days after the final, he was disqualified after irregularities were found in blood and urine samples. The Canadian sprinter was subsequently stripped of his gold medal, with Lewis promoted to champion in his stead. A remarkable turn of events that lifted the lid on the use of anabolic steroids in sport. A line in the sand? Surely, such a high-profile case inspired change and eradicated the cheats? Alas not. Cheating has continued and the Games regularly tarnished.

That’s not to say that the IOC hasn’t attempted to come to grips with the problem. The establishment of WADA in 1999 created a coherent mechanism for stamping out doping in sport. And the anti-doping body has achieved a measure of success. However, cheats are still regularly unmasked and athletes are failing tests. The heartfelt denials are meaningless. Lance Armstrong was the undisputed superstar of cycling until he finally came clean, so to speak. Cheating blights the Olympics, casting an ugly stain on the Games. The unmasking often happens years after the conclusion of competitive action, but that fact shouldn’t dim our indignation. Consider this. The Telegraph reported recently that in excess of 60 competitors from London 2012 might have been doping. The allegations stem  from retesting of athletes’ samples; with 23 competitors affected by the results- 39 athletes having already had results annulled from the London games. And London was supposed to be the most successful Olympics of all-time?

I have no hard evidence to support my assertion, but I believe the vast majority of athletes are clean. However, the reputation of the Olympics will suffer until the doping issue is systematically and permanently addressed. Of course cheating isn’t the only issue to afflict the Olympics. Ticket pricing in Rio seems to have gone awry-the sight of empty venues didn’t help the spectacle. Many also felt the judging of the boxing competition at times left a lot to be desired.  Such allegations hardly bolster public confidence. Assessing boxing matches is undoubtedly a highly subjective business. That said, it’s unfortunate so many observers were dissatisfied with boxing results. Outside the competitive arena, the public arrest of 71-year old Irish official Pat Hickey in a bathrobe was as unedifying as it was shocking.  So what of the future? No doubt the Olympic Games will continue, but it’s getting harder to argue the case for sustainability. The fact is the Games are typically loss making enterprises for the host nations, and the only tangible Olympic legacy  is often debt. It can even be argued that it’s unethical for troubled economies to spend hundreds of millions on a glorified circus. The modern Games are something of an anachronism and debate rages regarding how they will evolve. My view? While giddy observers are revelling in talk of medal tables and closing ceremonies, I’m just glad it’s over. Now the circus has left town, real sport can resume.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

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