January 22

Commentary: Modern Olympics have deteriorated into a corrupt quadrennial exercise

The ideal of promoting international peace and understanding hasn’t panned out in practice.

By Charles Lane

WASHINGTON — The 2014 Olympic Winter Games haven’t started, but they’ve already produced their first scandal.

about the author

Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.

The host country’s president, Vladimir Putin, runs a notoriously despotic regime whose victims include not only independent journalists and political opponents but also gay men and lesbians, who have recently been targeted by a law prohibiting “propaganda of nontraditional sexual practices” among minors.

Russia’s patently oppressive statute presents no problem for gay visitors to the games, Putin observed last Friday. “One can feel calm and at ease,” he said. “Just leave kids alone, please.” Human rights activists justifiably howled at the insult.

Of course, the Putin regime is not the first host dictatorship to taint the Olympics; previous examples include Nazi Germany in 1936, the Soviet Union in 1980 and the People’s Republic of China in 2008.

I have just one question: How many more such embarrassments must we endure before ending this corrupt quadrennial exercise?

The modern Olympics were founded by a French aristocrat, Pierre de Coubertin, who believed in promoting international peace and understanding by reviving the ancient Greek custom of periodic truces for athletic competition.

Whatever might be said for that idea in theory, it hasn’t panned out in practice. The ostensibly apolitical games have been marred by several boycotts – of Montreal in 1976 (by African nations protesting apartheid), of Moscow in 1980 (by the United States and other Western countries protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) and of Los Angeles in 1984 (by communist countries retaliating for 1980).

The games also have created a target for extremists, from the Palestinian terrorists who killed 11 Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972 to ultra-rightist Eric Rudolph, who placed a deadly bomb at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. Consequently, these celebrations of international conviviality proceed under heavy military guard.

Rather than curbing nationalism, the Olympics have arguably exacerbated it. The pursuit of gold-medal glory has led various countries to bribe judges or countenance rampant doping by athletes – and, in the case of the former East Germany, to subject many athletes to systematic steroid injections without their knowledge.

“The important thing at the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part; for the essential thing in life is not to conquer but to struggle well,” Coubertin said. Today’s games make a mockery of that fine sentiment. Millions in prizes or endorsements await those who make it to the medal stand; the pursuit of cash has driven athletes to enhance their performance with ever-more sophisticated drugs.

According to a superb ESPN documentary about the men’s 100-meter dash at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, six of the eight finalists were eventually implicated in drug use – including Canadian Ben Johnson, who was initially declared the winner but was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for steroids.

But it’s hard to fault athletes for being greedy when members of the International Olympic Committee have lost their jobs for allegedly accepting bribes or favors, such as for helping Salt Lake City win its bid to host the 2002 Winter Games.

The whole event long ago became a corporate spectacle that has more to do with selling TV ads than promoting international friendship.

Yet for all the private profit-making associated with the Olympics, the games’ positive economic impact on host nations is pretty ephemeral.

It famously took the city of Montreal 30 years to pay off the cost of the giant stadium built for the 1976 Summer Games. One of the many reasons Greece is in such economic misery is that it ran up about $9 billion in public debt for the 2004 Summer Games, whose total cost – $11 billion – was the highest of any games in history up to that point.

I admit, the Olympics have provided some wonderful drama over the years, from the U.S. hockey team’s defeat of the favored Soviets in 1980 to 15-year-old Katie Ledecky’s swimming triumph in 2012. Even in politics, the games have sometimes created a forum for important causes that might otherwise have failed to reach a global audience: Consider the silent protest of black U.S. track and field athletes at the Mexico City Summer Games in 1968.

And I like sports as much as the next guy – though not necessarily every event with which the Olympics pads out its TV schedule, such as short-track speed skating and BMX cycling.

But any benefits have to be weighed against the Olympics’ costs, which are political, financial, moral and – for athletes ravaged by steroid abuse – human.

Supporters speak of the Olympics as a “movement,” as if the games were some sort of insurgent force for good, not the leviathan they are. What we really need is a movement to get rid of them.

— The Washington Post News Service with Bloomberg News

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