COVER STORY: The Olympics return to Athens ...
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, August 28, 2004
Four years after Sydney hosted the most successful Olympic Games in recent history, the international sporting spectacular returned to Athens, the home of the modern Olympic Games in 1896.
The occasion provides an opportunity to discuss what has happened to the ideals of goodwill between nations, sporting excellence and good sportsmanship which the Olympic Games are supposed to represent.
It is probably naïve to believe that any such event could ever fully embody these virtues. But it will certainly provide a spectacular series of sporting events which will be enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people throughout the world, through the medium of television.
Money and drugs
There is a nagging feeling that the ideals have been overtaken by two of modern society's greatest evils: worship of money and drugs.
The Olympic Games have become big business. It has been estimated that the cost to Greece of hosting the 2004 Olympic Games will be $US12 billion, nearly $A20 billion. In four years' time, China is expected to spend almost twice as much.
Every country hosting the Games commits itself to meeting the cost through increased tourism, ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and sale of TV rights which, for Athens, will undoubtedly be the largest source of income. The American NBC network is paying about $US800 million for broadcast rights to the Olympics in the US alone. NBC, in turn, expects to secure $US1 billion in advertising sales for its Olympic coverage, which is showing 75 hours of Olympic coverage a day over seven stations, from August 13-29.
Income from tourism and seat sales in Athens is still below budget. Two weeks before the Games began, organisers admitted that about 2.2 million of 5.3 million tickets have been sold, although most of the balance are expected to be sold before the Games begin..
However, with TV rights sold years ago, it may be that spectators are less important than TV cameras - at least this time.
Far more worrying, sport is now big business, and the biggest measure of success is Olympic gold. For athletes, a gold medal is now a passport to riches, both in prize money and advertising endorsements.
Almost every prominent athlete now has personal sponsorships, and additionally, national teams have their own sponsorship arrangements, and on top of that, Athens has its own sponsors. The results are sometimes hilarious. Because Coca-Cola and McDonalds are official sponsors, spectators entering Olympic venues will be unable to carry any food or drink (including water). One British athlete in the marathon is sponsored by Nike, but if she wins, will have to swap her running shoes for Adidas footwear, as Adidas sponsors the British team.
Many athletes, perhaps inevitably, are consumed by the idea of winning at all costs, leading to the continuing drug scandals, which simply will not go away. These first came to public attention in the 1980s, when athletes from several Communist countries, particularly East Germany and China, were obviously using steroids. Who can forget the photos of female Chinese swimmers, with the upper bodies of weight-lifters?
While Australians are embarrassed by the unsavoury spectacle of world record cyclists embroiled in allegedly taking performance-enhancing drugs, many other countries face the same problem.
In recent days, athletes from the United States, Ireland, Greece, Switzerland, Spain and Britain have all been ruled out, due to drug-taking.
One of those excluded, Irish distance-runner Cathal Lombard, said that doping had reached "epidemic proportions" in professional sport.
"I realise now that most of the people I'm speaking about on the professional scene are operating on a very sophisticated basis, with proper medical back-up and advice on how not to get caught," he said. "In comparison I was merely dabbling and made no attempt to cover it up. I acted independently." (The Scotsman, August 10)
The US Anti-Doping Agency has added weight to his claims, saying it believed that competitors at the Olympics will be using designer drugs as yet unknown to testers.
It is also well known that injections of red blood cells, which carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles, thereby enhancing performance in endurance sports, is undetectable (if illegal).
There is an increasing tendency, in some parts of the media, to justify the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The free-market Economist magazine recently argued that there is no difference between drug-taking to enhance performance, and high-altitude training, or other training methods.
If drug-use were legalised, it would destroy the Olympic Games forever, and send an appalling message to all that illicit drug use is acceptable, not only in sport. We might as well forget about national teams at the Olympic Games, and instead have athletes sponsored by pharmaceutical companies.
Is that really the sort of world we want to live in?
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council.