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

McIlroy Doesn’t need to Justify himself

He’s tough. That’s what I like about Rory McIlroy. And I’m not just talking about the mental fortitude and resilience required to compete on the international stage. The County Down man is brave enough to speak his mind in a world increasingly characterised by vacuous and meaningless soundbites. It takes a lot of courage to speak out, to reveal your inner thoughts to the world, regardless of the potential consequences. It’s a tough enough thing for any of us to do. Think how challenging it must be to speak honestly when you’ve a raft of sponsors, fans, and business partners to please or placate. This is the brutal world Ireland’s most famous sportsman has to navigate. To say it’s rather tricky is to utter the greatest understatement of all time. And yet McIlroy consistently manages it. Honesty truly is a priceless commodity in this superficial world.

For someone so young, the 27-year old golfer’s career has been notable for regular moments of mild controversy and unwarranted intrusion. Although McIlroy is a consummate media performer who’s unquestionably a credit to his country, there remains that welcome tendency to speak his mind. Here is someone refreshingly unafraid to tell it like it is. We may not always like what McIlroy says, but there’s no doubt his opinions are borne of sincerity, that he speaks from the heart. Take the latest episode. As most of you will know, the Holywood golfer has withdrawn from the forthcoming Rio Olympics due to concerns over the Zika virus. Sadly, but wholly predictably, McIlroy’s decision has prompted a tidal wave of ire and indignation from a host of individuals, many of whom don’t know the first thing about golf or its priorities. Poor Rory has been accused of everything, from letting his country down to abandoning the responsibility to promote and develop the sport that’s made him a global superstar. I’m not a massive golf fan, but from the outside much of the reaction seems unjust and unreasonable, often bordering on the hysterical. Typical of the man, McIlroy hasn’t shied away, although his comments last week about the perceived importance of Olympic golf has perhaps added fuel to the fire.

My own reaction to McIlroy’s decision has changed since the initial announcement was made. When I first heard it, I must admit I was a little incredulous at McIlroy’s rationale. While I respected his entitlement to decide which competitions he participates in, I was a little sceptical about the reasons. The Zika virus? Surely the risks are minuscule and pale in comparison with the prestige of representing your country at an Olympic Games. Millions of young athletes dream of going to the Olympics. It’s an honour and a deep privilege to be afforded the opportunity. And yet here was someone turning that down. What was McIlroy thinking? However, the more I thought about it, the more I understood where Rory was coming from.

The health risks posed by the Zika virus are real, and have been well documented recently. McIlroy has made no secret of his desire to start a family with fiancee Erica Stoll. Regardless of the untested severity of the risks, why should he jeopardise or compromise any of that? That’s all very well I hear his critics yell, while alleging that the withdrawal has nothing to do with health, but everything to do with the lack of prestige offered by the Olympic golf competition. McIlroy has taken  a lot from his sport, so the argument goes, there therefore must be a duty, an obligation to give back? This misses the point, though. McIlroy has made his feelings about Olympic golf abundantly clear. Although stressing that it was an honour to be selected, the Irish number one has repeatedly affirmed that Olympic golf is not at the top of his priorities.

When explaining his decision recently, McIlroy recounted a conversation he had with Irish Olympian, Sonia O’Sullivan. Here the golfer explained that while O’Sullivan had an Olympics once every four years, he has an Olympics four times each year. His allusion to the importance of the Majors hardly needs explained. The point made is intrinsic to this discussion, though. In an individual sport like track-and-field athletics, the Olympic Games are the absolute pinnacle, the very summit of aspiration and achievement. That’s just not the case in golf. The Majors are every golfer’s essential priority and always will be.

To risk your health or that of your family’s-no matter how slim the worries-for a competition that isn’t fundamental to you doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Clearly many of McIlroy’s fellow golfers feel the same way. McIlroy’s rival Jordan Speith and compatriots Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell (to name but a few), are the latest to make similar calculations to Ireland’s poster boy. Moreover, while we have to take their explanations at face value, the reasons for the Olympic exodus are actually quite irrelevant. It’s a moot point. The reality is, no elite sportsman needs to justify their participation or otherwise at any event. These guys play to win trophies. That’s their only priority and focus. Amateurs play for enjoyment, professionals play to win. They don’t have to explain themselves to anyone. And it’s naive in the extreme to think otherwise.

For any individual, health is a non-negotiable priority. It’s a perverse world where that needs to be explained. Those shouting loudest on this issue need to ask the following question: would they risk exposure to Zika unnecessarily? Rory McIlroy doesn’t owe anything. Not to golf. Not to Ireland. Not to the Olympics. Despite that, no-one has done more for Irish golf and modern Irish sport than the pride of Holywood. Anyone who watched the recent Irish Open will know that. McIlroy is as generous as he is talented, and has earned the right to decide where he performs and why. Anyone considering doing anything other than cheering golf’s brightest star at Royal Troon this afternoon is advised to keep that in mind.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey