Monday, August 16, 2004

Ode to The Olympics

"I loathe the modern Olympics for the phony one-worldism, the stinking corruption, and the maintenance of the fraud that these athletes are 'amateurs'". - Mark Steyn in Olympic Memories

I don't find occasion to disagree with my fellow Canuck very often, but he is way off the mark here. I'm citing him simply as the most visible (at least to readers here) example of some pretty rampant cynicism about the Olympics. It frustrates and saddens me; my reaction to all of it is, "Where is this really coming from?" The answer seems to be, well, not from the athletes or the competition.

The phony one-worldism objection is way misdirected. Yes, Kofi Annan's ad is blatantly stupid and exactly backwards. (When the athletes are in the starting blocks, they are all from one nation? Is there a single human who actually holds this opinion?). It is certainly reason to hold the UN and the IOC in lower esteem (if that's possible), but not the Olympics per se. And in fact, it is nice that young people from all over the world can get together, and appreciate that, as individuals and citizens of the world, they have a lot in common. Your average Canadian guy who qualifies for the Olympics will make a few friends from countries he knew nothing about, learn a few new things, and shag a nice Czech or Danish girl if he's lucky. What on earth is the downside of this?

Next, the Olympics no longer maintains the "amateur" fraud. Each sport's federation determines eligibility, but to my knowledge, it is now only figure skating where "professionals" are prohibited from competing. The only vestige of the old amateurs-only policy is that Olympic winners are not paid prize money by the IOC. If athletes are willing to compete for less tangible rewards, I don't see why any of us have much to complain about.

Finally, the "stinking corruption" is undeniable, but mainly exists outside the fields of play, in the host bidding process, etc. I don't see why, when I was watching the Salt Lake City Olympics, I should have cared how much Utah tax money was wasted, or which African leader's kid got their college tuition paid.

With few (but unfortunately notable) exceptions, Olympic athletes compete out of personal desire and national pride (in that order). When I am watching swimming, for example, Steyn's objections are the furthest thing from my mind. These are athletes who love to train and compete; the greatest hope for most of them is that they will be able to do so without holding a second job.

I want to close this by relating what is probably my favourite Olympic moment. Many of you have heard of Beckie Scott. She won a bronze medal in cross-country skiing for Canada in Salt Lake, then eventually got upgraded to gold as the two faster finishers were disqualified for blood doping.

A couple of days before her big race, the CBC did their obligatory short bio-documentary on Beckie. She talked about how disappointed she was after the 1998 Nagano games, and that she had a "fish-or-cut-bait" moment. 41st place was not acceptable - it was time to retire or get serious. She decided that she would entirely rededicate herself to maximizing her performance.

She moved to Oregon to train. She planned a strict training regimen, then followed it exactly. Furthermore, she said that every decision she made was in accordance with the answer to her internal question, "Will this make me a better skier?"

Beckie, you want some cake for dessert? "No thanks."
Beckie, we're going out for some drinks at 9, you wanna come? "If we can go at 7, I'll come out for a while and drink club soda."
Beckie, the movie's only half over, where are you going? "I'm training in the morning, don't want to be tired."

She did this for 3 straight years. In her Olympic race, she was neck-and-neck for 3rd place sprinting towards the finish line. She dug down as far as she could, and hit the finish line ahead of 4th place finisher by the length of her boot.

Four years of self-denial, pain, homesickness, and self-doubt - she fought through it all, and her reward was that she won a medal in a 7.5km race by less than a foot. It was absolutely one of the most uplifiting and inspiring things I have ever witnessed. If you can just shrug a story like this off, or think it is somehow marred by IOC politics, then you must have a heart of stone.

If you don't like the IOC, write a letter, preferably after August 29. But until then, have a seat on the couch and appreciate the Olympic competition and athletes for what they are - earnest, and well-insulated from all the other bullshit.


At 2:47 p.m., Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Well said. In this case, our cynicism only deprives us of the pleasure of seeing these incredible athletes compete.

At 9:06 p.m., Blogger Shannon said...

Yeah, whatever, guys. I find I can enjoy watching the athletes compete while simultaneously being cynical about the other crap. (It's called multitasking.)

At 7:02 a.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic Ode J.A.

At the other end of the "Ecstasty of Victory and Agony of Defeat" scale. Did you see Morgan Knabbe's interview after his loss in the 200-breaststroke.

After similarly rededicating himself, and working harder than he ever has, he didn't get the results.

"Maybe I should just go to McDonald's and stay up late, because I've swum faster in worse shape."




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