Sixteen years ago, when the Olympics were beset by leadership corruption, ethical laxity and doping, my perspicacious colleague Jere Longman of the New York Times suggested the possibility of the Games’ crumbling under the weight of rotten moral underpinnings.
“Future drug and corruption scandals seem inevitable. Preparations for the 2004 Summer Games in Athens remain precarious. The Olympic Games are as decayed as a bad tooth, perhaps facing permanent extraction sometime in the future,” Longman wrote in a May 17, 2000 Times story headlined, “Lack of I.O.C. Ethics Is Business as Usual.”
The Olympics may still be standing, but the rot has gotten so much worse in the past two years that it no longer seems a stretch to envision their demise.
Such a vision may be peculiar to the United States, where the much-trumpeted notions of an Olympic movement with Olympic ideals have no traction, where the coverage of Olympic-related events (and the Olympics themselves) in major media is continually shrinking, where the presence of more than one major pro sport and of all-but-pro college sports adds competition for attention that the Olympics face nowhere else in the world.
How can one have ideals when the leaders of the International Olympic Committee, notably its president, Thomas Bach, have mastered the art of moral equivocation and of what I call Candide-ism: saying all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds?
I am moved to this doom saying by events of the last few weeks involving Olympic costs and doping, the latter now known to be so pervasive as to have invalidated dozens of results from the 2008 and 2012 Summer Games.
The IOC’s reaction to this PED crisis has been to battle the World Anti-Doping Agency for hegemony in the all-but-farcical fight against doping. Nero fiddling, while use of performance-enhancing drugs clearly has made a joke of much Olympic competition.
At the IOC’s behest, there has been widespread retesting of samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. In an eight-day period from Nov. 17 through Nov. 25 alone, the IOC announced the retesting had led to sanctions of 35 athletes for failing anti-doping tests at those Olympics.
Since April, according to numbers compiled by Bill Mallon and Hilary Evans for olympstats.com, an astonishing 99 athletes have been sanctioned for doping offenses in 104 cases from 2008 and 2012 (five were nabbed at both Summer Games.) Most (33) are from Russia, and 82.7 percent come from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union.
Fifty-two medals have been lost in the retesting. In one event, the 94-kilogram men’s weightlifting at the London Games, the top four finishers and seven of the top eight have been retroactively disqualified (but you can still watch video of the final on the Olympic Channel on YouTube.)
So this retesting by using advanced knowledge shows the IOC’s commitment to go after dopers, right?
What is really shows is how far testers remain behind doping methods, a lag that deprives clean athletes (insert Diogenes-looking for-honest-man joke) of getting recognition of their achievements when people are watching and care.
And in instances where the Olympic retests also lead to retroactive bans affecting events involving prize money (such as world championships), athletes now entitled to that money wait years to get it, until the cases are fully resolved. That can also delay Olympic medal bonuses given by National OIympic Committees.
With Part II of the McLaren Report to be released Dec. 9 - Part I outlined Russia's nefarious, state-run doping system and led WADA to ask international federations to consider banning all Russian athletes from the 2016 Summer Games - it is likely the doping quagmire to look even deeper and thicker.
And through all this, what did Thomas “Zero Tolerance” Bach do? Cave in to his buddy Vladimir Putin and allow hundreds of Russian athletes to compete in Rio.
As France's L’Equipe Magazine suggested in a blistering evaluation of Bach’s IOC presidency last month, he looks like a flunky for not only Putin but for the Middle Eastern pooh-bahs Bach cultivated while head of the anti-Israel Arab-German Chamber of Commerce. (After all, a Kuwaiti Sheikh was seen as the kingmaker in Bach’s 2013 election as IOC president.) Bach fits into an ignoble IOC tradition of kissing the butts of tyrants, both the real and petty varieties.
Who wants to keep watching or believing in Olympics when results aren’t official for nearly a decade and the leaders lack the spine to stand behind their lofty pronouncements?
And when the costs of staging the Games run wild, as has happened in 2020 host Tokyo, what democratic nation will still see any benefit in taking them on when the money involved could be used for much more important things?
Kyodo News reported that John Coates, the IOC vice-president who should have been shown the door in 1999 after admitting his involvement in vote-buying for Sydney’s successful 2000 Summer Games bid, demanded Thursday that Tokyo organizers curb their spendthrift ways (budget ballooning from original $7.7 billion to current $18 billion) lest they give the “wrong impression” of how much it costs to host the Summer Games. You mean, like the $40 billion Beijing shelled out or the $51 billion in Sochi?
Both the Summer and Winter Games have become as outsized as their steroid-using medalists. New sports are added in vain efforts to attract younger viewers. Attempts to make serious cuts in the Olympic program have always given way to the political expediency of not ticking off the two-bit potentates who head many international federations.
Three democratic countries are still bidding for 2024, although one (Hungary) has authoritarian leadership and the other two (United States and France) seem to be tilting that way. (No wonder Bach and President-elect Trump were exchanging pleasantries Wednesday.) But no matter whether Los Angeles, Paris or Budapest becomes the host, you can apparently count on 2016 competition results being revised as the 2024 Summer Games open.
Such are the abscesses threatening the long-term health of the OIympics. The Games are worth having only if their root problems of gigantism and amorality at all levels are seriously addressed.