Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Citius, altius, brutus

It's an even-numbered year, so we must have an Olympics on our hands. The quadrennial orgy of sun, fun, and infrastructure spending that is the Summer Games is taking place in Rio de Janeiro and blessedly drawing some attention away from the ongoing conflagration that is the United States election cycle.

The Olympics were designed to celebrate excellence in athletics -- hence the motto "citius, altius, fortius", or "faster, higher, stronger". While the best and brightest eventually get their due when they reach the business end of their events, for me that's only part of the allure. I also enjoy hearing the stories of people such as Siri Budcharern Arun, a 14-year-old swimmer from Laos.
Laos has one Olympic-sized swimming pool, but it is rarely used and too far from the capital for the athletes to reach regularly.
Instead, Siri Arun trains five times a week in the public, city-centre pool, without any lanes reserved for professional swimmers and sometimes under the monsoon deluges that hammer Laos.
While she tries to hone her rhythm and technique, kids clown around and launch themselves off diving boards nearby.
So far she has got her personal best down to 33.71 seconds, a good 10 seconds shy of the world record and a time that is unlikely to see her progress beyond the early heats.
But she keeps coming back, hoping to give herself the best possible chance in Rio.
In addition to athletes who qualify based on their performances, Olympic organizers also provide competing nations a small number of wild-card entries to make sure all 204 member nations have representatives at the Games. This Olympics also features the first team comprised of refugees fleeing conflict in their home countries. This isn't merely an exercise in handing out participation ribbons; it's about spreading the message of the Olympic movement and providing further inspiration for athletes from developing nations. Without this kind of outreach, the Olympics would quickly resemble cricket or European soccer, a closed shop accessible only by those with the best resources.

In proper doses, inspiration and patriotism can do great things. It is all too easy to overdose on them, though, and the Olympics is no exception.

Stories about the dark side of the Olympics are rarely far away when the subject of the Games arises, and more often than not those stories revolve around money. The Olympics are no stranger to controversy, whether it is in the arena of competition or having to do with the International Olympic Committee, which is neck-and-neck with FIFA in the race to be the world's most corrupt and disliked sporting organization.

Host nations come in for special scrutiny when they win their bid to host the Games, not least because of all the concessions and perks they must provide Olympic officials. Take this sampling of demands from a 7,000-page IOC document detailing what Norway would have had to had they won the right to host the 2022 Winter Games (spoiler alert: they dropped out of the race after more than half the population told the IOC to pound sand):
  • They demand to meet the king prior to the opening ceremony. Afterwards, there shall be a cocktail reception.
  • Drinks shall be paid for by the Royal Palace or the local organizing committee.
  • Separate lanes should be created on all roads where IOC members will travel, which are not to be used by regular people or public transportation.
  • A welcome greeting from the local Olympic boss and the hotel manager should be presented in IOC members’ rooms, along with fruit and cakes of the season.
  • The hotel bar at their hotel should extend its hours “extra late” and the minibars must stock Coke products.
  • The IOC president shall be welcomed ceremoniously on the runway when he arrives.
  • The IOC members should have separate entrances and exits to and from the airport.
  • During the opening and closing ceremonies a fully stocked bar shall be available. During competition days, wine and beer will do at the stadium lounge.
  • IOC members shall be greeted with a smile when arriving at their hotel.
  • Meeting rooms shall be kept at exactly 20 degrees Celsius at all times.
  • The hot food offered in the lounges at venues should be replaced at regular intervals, as IOC members might “risk” having to eat several meals at the same lounge during the Olympics.
  • All furniture should be OL-shaped and have Olympic Appearance."
Oh, and then there's the not-insignificant cost of actually hosting the event, a cost that more often than not falls on the taxpayers. Brazil is spending billions of dollars to host this year's Games -- $4.6 billion on the low end, upwards of $12 billion on the high side. That $4.6 billion estimate is just for sporting facilities, and as the people of Quebec can attest, white elephants have a way of haunting host cities long past their time in the spotlight.

It's not just taxpayers who get it in the neck, though. Even the athletes often come out on the short end of the Olympic experience. For every Usain Bolt or Nadia Comaneci, there are scores of athletes who only make a pittance -- if anything -- during their athletic career. Will Hobson of the Washington Post has an excellent long read on how little of the funding generated by the Olympic money machine actually trickles down to the people spectators show up to watch.
When hundreds of millions of people gather around televisions Friday to watch the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, they will be taking part in the economic engine that powers the Olympic Movement. Broadcast and sponsorship deals for the Summer and Winter Games deliver billions to the IOC and its affiliates every year.
But by the time that flood of cash flows through the Movement and reaches the athletes, barely a trickle remains, often a few thousand dollars at most. For members of Team USA — many of whom live meagerly off the largesse of friends and family, charity, and public assistance — the biggest tangible reward they’ll receive for making it to Rio will be two suitcases full of free Nike and Ralph Lauren clothing they are required to wear at all team events.
In the words of its charter, the Olympic Movement is devoted “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society.” To an increasingly vocal and active group of current and former Olympic athletes in the United States, however, the Movement is a vast, global bureaucracy that treats athletes like replaceable cogs, restricting their income without fear of reprisal from a workforce unable, or unwilling, to unionize.
Of course, having ticked the "good" and "bad" boxes, the "ugly" is sure to follow. For the latest example of sporting patriotism run amok, look no further than China's reaction to an Australian swimmer telling the truth.

The Middle Kingdom has its collective knickers in a twist after Australia's Mack Horton called Chinese star swimmer Sun Yang a "drug cheat" before and after the 400-meter freestyle final, which Horton won. Yang was suspended for three months in 2014 after testing positive for a banned substance. Yang said the substance, trimetazidine, was prescribed for heart palpitations and that he did not know it was banned -- none of which changes the fact he took a banned substance. If you believe the Chinese contingent, though, Yang is the real victim here.
Chinese state news agency Xinhua quoted swim team manager Xu Qi as saying: “We have been noticing what has been said in the past two days by Horton, who launched a malicious personal attack [on Chinese swimmers].
“We think his inappropriate words greatly hurt the feelings between Chinese and Australian swimmers. It is proof of a lack of good manners and upbringing. We strongly demand an apology from this swimmer.”
Make sure to fill in the "this will harm relations" square on your Chinese international affairs bingo card.

For true, frothing patriotism, though, the Global Times sets the standard. For those not familiar, the Global Times is to Chinese media what the New York Post is to United States media -- a high-strung, belligerent outlet that loves to take pot shots at perceived enemies from under the aegis of a more powerful entity (News Corp. for the Post, the Chinese Communist Party for the Times). So when the Horton story came down, the Global Times reacted with all the tact and maturity of Chinese media's answer to Scrappy Doo:
An op-ed in China’s Global Times tabloid, which is closely linked with the Communist Party, said: “We think Australia should feel embarrassed with Horton's remarks.  … We don't know if it is Horton who is silly or it's the Australian media that is evil, or perhaps Australia just has a different moral standard. The message sent is abnormal and aberrant.”
“It's not a big deal to us. In many serious essays written by Westerners, Australia is mentioned as a country at the fringes of civilization,” the op-ed continued. “In some cases, they refer to the country's early history as Britain's offshore prison. This suggests that no one should be surprised at uncivilized acts emanating from the country.”
You can just hear Pierre de Coubertin beaming with pride, can't you?

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