Don’t let your kids grow up to be Olympians

Don’t let your kids grow up to be Olympians

If you’re like me, you’ve caught olympic fever. Or more likely you catch it every two years but forget how much you like it in between. If you’re like me and have kids, you might start planning which sport your child will participate in every five minutes as you switch between events. I’ve decided the lads will be runners, hockey players, soccer players, rowers, and rapid canoers. They can do anything except diving because there is no way I can sit through hours of those meets. No offense intended. However, as I learn more about the awful machine of the Olympics, and especially the IOC, I really don’t want them to participate now. Olympic athletes are the lowest parts of the Olympic totem pole and treated as such. Above them are countless bureaucracies, committees, governing bodies, staff, and directors who control and profit from the games. The athletes really see very little if anything of it. So maybe the boys are better off being athletes, but having a backup plan.

I love watching the olympics. It perfectly mixes introductions to sports you’d never otherwise watch and the familiarity of those you do. Similarly, there are just as many great story lines of unknown athletes as the big names. Amateur athletes have a level playing ground with professional athletes. Or do they? How much of this narrative is carefully crafted by the IOC?

Amateur athletes actually do not have anywhere near a level playing ground with professionals, especially in terms of pay. There are plenty of famous examples. Ronda Rousey who has since gone on to make a living from UFA, was an unknown in the 2008 games where she won a bronze medal in judo. Two years later she was living out of her car. Emily Scott, a speedskater, lived off of food stamps during the 2014 games. Most athletes live below the poverty line and get by because of the help of family or friends. Average salaries even for gold medalists can be $10–40k annually. Even the bonuses awarded for medalling are fairly piddling, $10,000 for bronze, $15,000 for silver, and $25,000 for gold, and these haven’t changed since 2002. Unless you are Michael Phelps, it is nearly impossible to make a living as an Olympian.

The big sponsors make it even harder. Things seem somewhat better in the track and field world where good runners can at least have equipment and live — though not extremely comfortably — through sponsorships. Nike’s exclusive rights to the trials and Olympics themselves though are an effective monopoly. Even if an athlete only survives because of the sponsorship they have with Brooks or Saucony, they cannot display any of these brands during the trials or Olympics. What sponsor is going to want to take that chance? Worse is that sponsors can’t even promote or congratulate their athletes during the month before the games. Oiselle, an up and coming women’s fitness brand from Seattle sponsored 800m trial winner Kate Grace. After the trials, the USOC — US Olympic Committee — served Oiselle with a charge requiring them to remove pictures and a congratulations to Kate on making the Olympic team because it violated trademark guidelines. The legal validity of this hasn’t been challenged yet as athletes are afraid to speak out. Is it likely for Oiselle to spend critical funds on future potential olympians? I doubt it.

Now you may also wonder why Puerto Rico gets to compete in the Olympics as a country. Or why an American born and raised athlete who has never been outside the country can compete for another nation. Both of these actually have more to do with doping than you may think. In all cases, it’s essentially because the IOC has no rules and tends to rule in whatever manner is most advantageous to it. Puerto Rico has been a US territory since 1892. It’s citizens are US citizens. However, the IOC decided to admit Puerto Rico as a country in the Olympics since 1948. The IOC has also used this power to make statements such as the admission of Rhodesia in 1965, 15 years before it became Zimbabwe, and Palestine in 1993.

The IOC defines no rules on the selection criteria for olympians for a country either. Thus athletes never need to have been to the country they are even representing. Citizenship is a requirement, but many countries stretch their definitions to include olympians who may have a chance of increasing their visibility in the games. Alexi Pappas, an Oregon born and raised track star is competing in Rio under the Greek flag. The last member of her family to have been a Greek citizen is her grandmother. However she applied for Greek citizenship which was granted and now she will compete for them. At least she has visited the country and even trained there, picking up some Greek along the way. The IOC wants as many of these stories and as many athletes involved as possible, so they encourage these.

Sarah Attar, a Saudi-American marathoner is competing for Saudi Arabia. This story is a great one for the world though as she was not only the first female runner for Saudi Arabia in 2012 and the first return athlete in Rio. She’s been an excellent advocate for the sport and for women in Saudi Arabia, sponsoring programs for young women. They even painted a mural for her when she visited Riyadh.

Just like ruling on nationhood and citizenship, the IOC prefers to not take a hard stance on the little bitty issue of doping, probably the largest reputational damaging event in the history of athletics. Before Rio, a massive state-sponsored program by Russia was discovered. This went deep. The Olympic bodies were involved, athletes were involved, and even the anti-doping agencies helped by providing information on testing processes and procedures. No sport was safe. Unless you consider the IOC which refused to rule on the team’s inclusion in the games. Instead, they sat on the decision until a week before the games, and then passed the decision to each sport’s governing body. In nearly every case, this was far too late to make a decision. The only sport that had ruled in advance and thus kept the decision to block the Russian team was track and field.

This is how we have stories like Lilly King trash talking and then beating Yulia Efimova in the 100m breaststroke. Efimova had been banned for drugs not once, but twice. And yet the IOC allowed her to compete. The swimming committee allowed her to compete. To be fair, Americans have exploited these lax rules as well. Runner Justin Gatlin was banned twice and is competing in Rio as well. The IOC wants this tension and these story lines to drum up attention. The purity of the sport is not a priority to them. The spectacle is.

Yulia Stepanova, an 800m runner and her husband blew open the doping scandal to German TV. Stepanova herself was banned for doping but served a two year ban and was since cleared for competition. However, she will not be participating in Rio because the IOC decided a blanket ban was more appropriate. So while they decided to leave the decision up to other bodies, effectively allowing many athletes like Efimova to compete, they will not allow Stepanova, the whistleblower who uncovered the whole program. If that doesn’t show their true colors, nothing will.

Russian track and field athletes may have been banned, but other countries with known sponsored programs will still compete. A doping scandal was uncovered 10 years ago in Spain and has not been effectively shut down. Athletes known to have been associated with it continue to compete. The state even decided to destroy the blood that was confiscated in the police investigation, possibly to cover up how widespread it was. Kenyan athletes and coaches have been caught in doping scandals and even attempting to bribe judges and authorities. None are banned. In fact, the IOC doesn’t actually set rules or regulations on doping, and leaves it up to individual countries to set their own regulations. Like that makes sense. That’s like asking criminals to report themselves. No wait, it’s not like that, it literally is that.

In light of these scandals and issues, I wouldn’t be surprised if the IOC went through a period of increased scrutiny and investigations, just like FIFA. Just like FIFA, I wouldn’t be surprised if these ultimately had no effect and essentially replace one set of corrupt actors with another. As long as people focus on the spectacle and the stories of the olympics rather than the sport, nothing will change. Do we even care? Many have asked why not just allow all doping and see who is the best then. The best response I’ve heard to that is that sport is at its root competition under self imposed constraints. If we remove these constraints, sport is meaningless. We might as well cross breed runners with cheetahs — yes this has also been suggested. I personally enjoy the Olympics to see athletes at the pinnacle of human athleticism and endurance. Thinking that if I worked super hard, perhaps I could be there as well is a powerful motivation in watching.

So maybe the glitz and glamor of the Olympics is all patina and no substance. Maybe the boys will be better off as student athletes; healthy and athletic, but with careers to fall back to. I hope more countries and athletes are banned for activities that should be banned. I can’t say I want the boys to grow up to be Olympians now. I hope the IOC’s policies and bloated bureaucracy are destroyed and replaced with legitimate love of sports. But since this isn’t likely, I’ll probably continue to watch. Especially beach volleyball.

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