Political rivalries, the profit drive and cheating are all too characteristic of the Olympics.
Russia, as host of the 2014 Winter Games and seeking to regain its prime place in the world, has sought to pile up the medals. That explains why South Korean Ahn Hyun-Soo easily got Russian citizenship so his gold medals could be attributed to Viktor Ahn, the same skater with a different name and nationality.
There’s little doubt that during the cold war, the relative outcomes of the United States and the Soviet Union were supposed to tell us something about their rivalry for power.
Remember the East Germans, seeking to show they were superior to West Germans, sending participants loaded with performance enhancing drugs.
The national medal count itself is misleading. For one thing, the Olympics were supposed to promote closer relationships among athletes, reducing the importance of national distinctions.
Interestingly, that has become more likely the case of annual world championships in many sports, where the national standings mean less than the individual results.
For only a few countries, Olympic participation has retained its traditional emphasis on amateur participation. But the Games themselves showcase professionals, because the stars bring in more revenues and public attention.
The medal count competition promotes cheating. In the past, figure skating competitions were tainted by judges cheating on the scores they handed out. This year, charges flew over the ice dancing results where the U.S. pair was the surprise winner.
Somewhat more subtle this year, we saw a downhill ski course designed by an Austrian, claimed by some to favor the skills of his country’s skiers, who obligingly won gold and silver medals.
But instead of reducing the chances for cheating, new “sports” – scored by judges rather than timed or measured – increasing the chance for results influenced by national prejudice or just plain faulty judgment.
The International Olympic Committee found interest in the Winter Games faded when there were fewer events, so they simply trumped some up.
For example, luge (a word unknown to my spellchecker) is a sport for only a few people and barely heard of between sessions of the Winter Olympics. Now the IOC has added team luge, a sort of relay where the baton is passed figuratively when a sledder hits a touch pad at the end of the run. Here’s sport that would not have even been possible without the computer.
Also new this year is “slopestyle” skiing. Competitors have to slide over a variety of manufactured obstacles and perform air-borne spins to get their ratings. Is old-fashioned downhill racing is so boring we need this gimmick?
That’s only one of several team events added this year to beef up the schedule. In recent years, the number of different “sports” has doubled, and the IOC is looking for more.
The people responsible for keeping Olympic ideals alive with the focus on fair competition among athletes from all countries are responsible for politicizing the Games. It starts with their choice of sports.
The IOC tries to come up with events designed to give smaller countries the chance for a medal or to prevent the larger countries from dominating the Games. The results can be absurd.
Sports, like luge and something called skeleton, involving only a few thousand people in the world are fine, the IOC says. In the Summer Games, a woman can get a gold medal for dancing with a ribbon.
But the IOC threw both baseball and softball out of the Summer Games. Though they are played by millions of people in scores of countries, the IOC saw them as too likely to yield American gold medals.
Can anything be done to return the Olympics to the kind of events pictured in the film “Chariots of Fire,” where athletes were more driven by a spirit of cooperation than cutthroat and nationalistic rivalry? Almost certainly, that’s impossible.
Television networks, athletic federations and the IOC itself are all wrapped up in going for the gold. Not medals, but the profits they gain from their heavily hyped extravaganzas.
If viewers have to put up with the Games as they are, they should at least do so with their eyes open. The Olympics are political and run to make money. They probably produce less reliable results than the national and international championships held annually but little noticed.
Fortunately, the Olympics fade quickly from memory, and they should.