The Rio Games mark the end of the twelfth decade of the modern Olympics, an impressive track record, yet far outstripped by the tenure of the original Games, which started in 776 B.C. and lasted nearly twelve centuries. Given the most recent news that the IOC considered banning an entire country from participation for cheating, I’m not optimistic they will survive to the end of this century.
The heart of the Games lies with the athletes. I’d bet the initial impetus inspiring today’s hopefuls to dedicate themselves to their chosen sport remains remarkably similar to that of most past Olympians, modern and original, including my own. In 1976, I was a budding athlete. I didn’t know the future, but as I watched two of my college teammates from the Yale Women’s Crew prepare for Montreal’s Olympic Games, I had already started dreaming the dream of athletic greatness and plotting my path to the peak of rowing’s competitive pyramid.
I ended up a two-time summer Olympian, whose life changed as a result of my foray into sports and the decade I dedicated to becoming a world-class athlete. No surprise that I am a fervent champion of the Games’ importance to the world. The Olympics offer a rare opportunity for people and nations to witness and cheer a spectacle that showcases humanity at its athletic best.
As big a proponent as I am of the Olympic movement, I harbor doubts about its future in a world increasingly preoccupied with power and prestige. An intense focus on results now dwarfs the Olympics’ founding dream of bringing global citizens together in a shared experience that promotes understanding, harmony, and peace. It seems as though the Olympic motto has changed, from the pursuit of Citius – Altius – Fortius (faster, higher, stronger) to a slavish dedication to Citissimum – Altissimum – Fortissimum (fastest, highest, strongest). If these forces continue to dominate the Olympics, I fear the Games will not last into the next century.
Several nations have come to view the two-week celebration of athletic might as a mechanism to express their disapproval of world events. The first Olympic boycott in 1956, triggered by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary, and the most damaging, in 1980, led by the U.S. to protest the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan offer two salient examples. In addition, to many, the venue offers an opportunity to demonstrate their superiority in the world order. Finally, the culture of celebrity and the abandonment of the Games’ ethos as a celebration of amateurism have helped refocus the competition more squarely on results, threatening the essential balance between victory and participation, the pure spirit of the Games.
The Olympics have traditionally championed, as said by Pierre de Coubertin, considered the Father of the modern Olympics, “not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.” Winning comes with an expensive, rarely acknowledged price: someone loses. The experience of losing tends to separate and pit us against each other. Bringing the world together with the sole focus on winning is a set up for failure.
The Olympics are nothing if not a global exhibition of humanity’s increasing fascination with winning and the influence of our tragic flaws over our rational selves. One need only to consider the escalating use of performance enhancing substances to see how completely both nations and athletes have forsaken the purity of the pursuit of excellence for both its own sake and the honor of representing their country.
The first PEDs of the modern Olympics included strychnine, cocaine, heroin, wine, and caffeine. In 1928 the International Federation for Athletics, the IAAF, introduced the first anti-doping rule. Matters progressed from there: the first Olympic death attributed to PED use came in 1960; in 1967 the IOC established the anti-doping Medical Commission; 1968 brought the first drug test and the first athlete disqualification (a Swede for too much alcohol, two beers, to calm his nerves); 1972 saw the first full-scale athlete testing for narcotics and stimulants, with the first test for anabolic steroids four years later.
The growing sophistication of illegal PED users and parallel march to increased testing has sped up to the point that the IOC has confiscated over 50 medals from summer Olympics competitors over the last dozen Olympiads. In addition, the body has summarily and prophylactically disqualified an entire country’s team (Russia) from competing at all in a particular sport (athletics, aka track and field), and stood at the brink of banning its entire athlete delegation. Clearly, the increased emphasis on medals, from image-conscious nations to potential corporate sponsors of athletes, to the media — social and traditional — seeking the next celebrity, has raised the stakes far above well-prepared and avid participation to win-at-all-costs, only-gold-matters success.
The death of the amateur athlete has also contributed to the increased focus on results at the Olympics. Back in 1976, amateurism still determined Olympic eligibility. That meant, quite simply, that any athlete who earned money as a function of his/her athleticism was prohibited from competing at the Olympics. Without going into the complexity of the why’s and the how’s this changed, let’s just say that the combination of the IOC’s interest in monetizing the Games, and the then-Eastern Bloc countries’ state funding of their athletes helped shift the conversation. In paying their athletes to train and win, the Iron Curtain countries saw the Olympics as a way to prove the superiority of their communist political system, and their athletes saw medals as a way to escape pulverizing poverty.
By the 1980s amateurism was under siege. I won a bronze medal in the women’s single event at the 1983 World Championships, losing only to the East German and Soviet scullers, both of whom were fully subsidized by their governments to train and compete while I worked full time, in addition to training. I could see how deeply flawed the system of amateurism was, although I remained loyal to the American way, a minority view. By the late 1980s, amateurism as a precondition for participation in the Olympics was dying. Today there’s no upside in maintaining amateur status and it’s a meaningless distinction. In fact, not earning money from competition is viewed as a detriment, as a paucity of funds will limit access to top training tools.
If countries cannot renounce the podium as an expression of their superiority and the rest of us can’t rein in our over-glorification of athletes and recast success to jive with the Games’ original creed, I doubt the Olympic movement will survive as a paragon of athletic excellence, anticipated and glorified around the globe. Athletes need a return to the joy of participation, of course caring about winning and going for the gold, but without a monomaniacal focus that promotes their playing fast and loose with the concept of fair play and convinces them to mythologize medals and awards at the expense of their personal integrity and the possibly outdated, old-fashioned internal experience of doing their best despite the outcome.
Winning at all costs, when all is said and done, is a loser’s game. Ask the Eastern Bloc athletes who took PEDs, often without their knowledge, if their medals have tarnished in the face of their subsequent fertility problems and health challenges; or Marion Jones, Lance Armstrong, Ben Johnson if PEDs improved their life experience, their sense of connection to their families, friends, and fans. Their illegal and unethical approach to competition impoverished the fan experience, exposed supporters as suckers, shifted them into cynics, who now naturally resist the idea that athletes can be clean and inspiring.
30 years ago, I won my silver at the Los Angeles Games. It’s stuffed in a plastic bag in my office drawer, its faded ribbon safety-pinned to the medal, an emblem of past success. I carry so much more with me every day: all the lessons about dreaming big and persisting through crushing loss, belief in myself no matter what the odds, and the importance of doing what I love regardless of the payoff.
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