Human Endeavour

The International Olympic Committee issued a statement this week declaring the armbands and stickers that some athletes were wearing to commemorate dead relatives or colleagues inappropriate for the games, saying “the competitions themselves, which are a place of celebration, are probably not the right place to really do that”. Both the Norwegian female cross-country team as well as the Canadian female freestyle skiers were warned against displaying such tributes on their person while competing, banning their tributes to a fallen family member of one Norwegian competitor and Sarah Burke, who died while training in Utah two years ago.

On the surface, I can understand why the IOC would take such a step; if you allow tributes such as these, you are also opening the door to shows of political or religious expression that would completely change the face, and spirit, of the games. The fact that such a thought would even be the natural extension of a respectful show of solemn remembrance for the passing of another human being is vulgar, and, unfortunately, pretty realistic. But, if you look a little closer, the real undercurrent in the Olympics can be seen through this superficially considerate act of neutrality, and that undercurrent is even more vulgar.

Confession time: I am not a big fan of the Olympics. Whether it’s the summer Olympics or the Winter games, I pretty much don’t care. It’s not that I don’t enjoy sports, as I’m a huge fan of hockey and have enjoyed watching football, soccer, rugby and various track and field sports. I’ll admit that I don’t pay regular attention to any of those but hockey, but that’s not to say that I am disinterested in athletic competition. I just have a preference.

No, I’m simply not a fan of the Olympics because I find that a lot of the sports are questionably competitive for a great number of reasons. To begin with, any judged sport is susceptible to corruption, and half the time you are left wondering whether the dude/dudette you just watched perform was given a low/high score because they were that technically good, or because the judges are being pressured/paid behind the scenes. There’s already been some controversy of that kind in the 2014 Winter Games, as a rumour has been circulated that the Russians and Americans are conspiring to keep Olympic gold from the Canadian figure skaters through judging collusion. Corruption in figure skating judging has been uncovered in the past, so whether the current rumour is ever proven true is mostly irrelevant; the possibility not only exists, but is entirely plausible.

I also question how competitive the games truly are when there are a handfull of nations that truly have the resources to become competitive, when the vast field behind them realistically can’t. You see this very easily in hockey, men’s or women’s, where the usual suspects regularly outperform their competition by such a wide margin as to be almost embarassing. Canada, the US, Russia, to name three, are countries that regularly blow out the competition, and are also three of the nations that can put the most resources behind training and equipping their athletes. But, it isn’t just hockey. I can’t remember whether it was the US or Canada, but there was a speed skater with a uniform built by Lockheed-Martin, for crying out loud. I suspect that the Slovakian competitors aren’t being garbed by aerospace titans.

When you’re watching these athletes compete, check out the equipment and clothing they are using, and you’ll probably see who is sponsoring the leading nations. Some of the competitors are walking billboards advertising companies like Burton, Oakley, Uvex and others. When I watch the hockey players take to the ice, I’ll be seeing Reebok, Nike and others as well. In fact, corporate sponsorship is a huge part of the equation for these athletes, who don’t actually make any money for being athletes at all (with the exception of the men’s hockey players, but more on that in a moment.) A lot of these athletes need to hold down jobs to be able to keep a roof over their heads, so corporate sponsorship can make or break their Olympic dreams. It’s expensive to train, and to have access to the kind of facilities and coaching that it takes to be a credible Olympic competitor. As the commercials attest, some of our Canadian athletes give thanks to Petro-Canada for sponsoring the Canadian Olympic team, because it gave them the resources they needed to be able to train harder and more regularly than they ever were before.

Money. Money makes the rings go round.

And, that’s why I don’t really like the Olympics very much.

Olympic venues are a costly display of opulence that, ultimately, goes to waste. Have you seen the pictures of past Olympic venues, places that cost untold billions of dollars to build? Let me help you out a little:

This is the bobsled run from the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games. Nice graffiti.
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This one is from the 2004 Athens Summer Games. Not bad, considering Greece is the birthplace of the Olympics, don’t you think?
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Again, Sarajevo 1984. This is, or was, the Olympic podium. Most recently, those standing on the podium were there for the unfortunate purpose of being shot to death in executions.
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A ridiculous amount of currency is spent to build the competition facilities, the Olympic village, and all of the tourist amenities that constitute an Olympic competition. Sure, a lot of money is generated by the games as well through tourism, advertising and merchandising. I have no doubt that host countries take that into account when they chellenge one another for the right to host the next games.

I just wonder if spending billions of dollars on a spectacle of this sort, to let it all go to waste in the end, makes any sense when you’ve got widespread global poverty and homelessness. I have a tough time seeing the humanity in this “celebration,” when all of the money spent on it seems to benefit those worst off in humanity the least.

Which is why I find the IOC’s statement about the armbands and stickers to be disgusting and vulgar. They want to keep the purity of this celebration unmarred by human remembrance of others who have passed on, but have no trouble putting a sponsor’s bright label in front of every camera. They don’t want the Canadian’s wearing a sticker on their helmets in memory of Sarah Burke, the woman who is the reason freestyle skiing is even in the Olympics to begin with, but they don’t have any problem with the Russian government slaughtering stray dogs or bulldozing homes to make way for their shoddy facilities and lodging. $51 billion dollars. That’s what it costs to build a hotel with bathroom doors that don’t open.

Keep the politics out of it. I have no problem with that part of the IOC message. But, while we’re at it, can’t we find a way to keep a little more of the commerce out of it as well? Maybe make this less about celebrating the wealth of nations, and more about celebrating human accomplishment? I think that would go a long way further towards being a “celebration” worthy of pride, and those stickers and armbands are a closer representation of it than any of the rest of this sponsorship garbage.

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