Friday, August 26, 2016

Here's to the Olympics, Warts and All

The Rio Olympics are over and everyone, it seems, is doing a postmortem. Some extol. Some complain. A few even make useful suggestions.

As an old Olympic observer and sometime attendee (the operable word is old), I draw on my shaky credentials and offer the following thoughts.

First off, the Rio Olympics were a smashing success for the United States. We led in total medals -- 121, the most ever -- as well as in golds, silvers and bronzes. The games showcased our swimming supremacy, our international power in basketball (we invented the game, after all) and, despite the Jamaicans, our continuing dominance in track & field (more on that later).

Our women athletes were marvelous. From shooting and cycling to gymnastics and boxing, the U.S. ladies were the belles of the ball. And for the UConn fans among us, there was nothing better than seeing Taurasi and Moore and Bird and Charles -- some of the greatest ever to play the game -- on the court at the same time. Basketball will never look better.

There were two real surprises. Unhappily, the U.S. women's soccer team, defending Olympic and World Cup champions, didn't look champion-like at all and got knocked out early. The sad truth is they are not very good, at least not any more. A happy surprise was the U.S. track performance in the middle and long distances -- an area of perennial weakness. Matt Centrowicz won the 1,500 meters (the first U.S. gold in the metric mile since 1908!), Galen Rupp was third in the marathon and Paul Chelimo took a silver in the 5,000 meters. But here's the real shocker: In the steeplechase, where we usually finish behind two dozen Africans, both a man, Evan Jager, and a women, Emma Coburn, won medals for the U.S.

There were also downsides. The big one, doping, is like the uninvited uncle who won't go away. Most  Russian athletes were banned from Rio because of widespread doping, and all of the Jamaican sprinters, many of them medalists, are suspect. Jamaica has no independent random testing, and this tiny island country unaccountably turns out sprint champions in production-line fashion. If that sounds implausible, it's because it is. So don't celebrate Usain Bolt just yet -- not until drug tests catch up with steroid and growth hormone innovations. Urine samples from Rio will be saved and  subjected to increasingly sensitive testing over the next four years, and the cheaters will be stripped of medals.

It's noteworthy that random retesting of samples from the 2012 London Olympics turned up 45 times more positives in 2016 than were originally found! The cheaters will eventually be caught. Consider the medals on loan until then.

But even that's not enough. We will never have clean competition until unannounced sampling by independent officials is allowed in all countries anytime during the year. Most doping is done during training to boost endurance and speed recovery from injury. Cheating athletes rely on drugs clearing their systems before the actual competition when everyone is tested.

What about countries that refuse year-around random testing (there will be others besides Russia and Jamaica that claim their national sovereignty is being violated)? Simple. Ban them from the Olympics.

Of course, that won't happen. It won't happen because the Olympics depend on money from major countries like Russia. It won't happen because the politically correct want all countries to compete -- a kumbaya gathering. It won't happen because NBC and its major sponsors want to pump sunshine and sell products. It won't happen because the anti-U.S. crowd, including most of the media, would rather savage Ryan Lochte than talk about the real issues of doping, poverty, pollution and crime.

And that leads to the second downside -- rotating the games among cities that have no business hosting them in the first place. Why in the world did the International Olympic Committee insist on luring nearly bankrupt Athens and impoverished Rio de Janeiro into bidding for the games? Montreal took a huge hit in 1976. Costs are already spiraling out of sight in Toyko for 2020. The quaint notion that hosting the Olympics boosts national pride and pumps tourism has long been discredited. Facilities built are never fully utilized after the games. The Olympic Stadium in Athens sits unused among weeds. In Atlanta, the 1996 stadium, first converted for use by the Braves, is now being demolished.

A better plan -- really a no-brainer -- is to have permanent facilities for both the summer and winter games. Think about it. Beautiful state-of-the-art tracks, pools, ranges, courts for the summer games -- paid for and maintained by participating countries, all of whom would save a bundle by not hosting the games themselves. And for the winter Olympics, first-rate ski jumps, skating tracks and downhill and cross-country skiing venues. Three-star accommodations for athletes, media and the public. Good restaurants. Dedicated security.

Where would the permanent site be? My vote would be Switzerland, a clean, prosperous, neutral country that could accommodate the summer games in the flats and the winter games in the mountains. And Switzerland is a great place to visit, picturesque and safe, with excellent transportation.

Those who want variety, who want to sample different cultures, try different cuisines would be free to do so, unfettered by the crowds, turmoil and staggering cost of the Olympics. (My wife and I returned to Barcelona in 2014, a relaxing visit compared to the frantic Olympics there in 1992.)

It's logical and makes financial sense. Moreover, a permanent site would do away with the bribes and kickbacks seemingly required to land the games. But it would also gut the IOC and weaken federations for the individual sports. It would endanger bureaucracies and threaten jobs. A change of this magnitude would require vision and real leadership, and it almost certainly won't happen.

So where does that leave us? We're left with pervasive doping and PR-driven ballyhoo -- scandals and hokum that will venture from city to city every four years.

And we're left with the greatest sports entertainment on earth. Warts and all, there's nothing like the Olympic Games. On TV or in person, wherever they're held, I wouldn't miss them for anything!

No comments:

Post a Comment