Sat, 16 Sep 2000

Ever forward

Organizers of the world's grandest sporting event, the Olympic Games, which opened in Sydney on Friday, seem to have their hands full looking after a host of things that have nothing to do with sports.

Police have already warned would-be protesters that they will not tolerate the kind of violent actions that activists displayed during the international economic forum in Melbourne earlier in the week.

International Olympic Committee officials are on their toes trying to ferret out participating athletes who use illegal drugs to elevate their sporting performance, and transportation officials worry that snags in their particular area of responsibility will produce a fiasco similar to the one that bugged the Summer Games in Atlanta, USA, in 1984.

Indeed, the International Olympic Committee itself has a few problems of its own to worry about since it was rocked by a major scandal at the end of 1998, forcing 10 of its members to quit after accepting presents from Salt Lake City officials bidding to host the 2002 Winter Olympics. The case is still being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department, with hundreds of boxes of documents reportedly still waiting to be released to the public.

Publishing survey findings on worldwide corruption on Wednesday, Transparency International chairman Peter Eigen remarked that "on the eve of the Olympic Games, it is worth recalling the fact that some of the leaders of the bribe-scarred IOC are still running the show".

All this only goes to show how far the Olympic movement has changed since the day the modern Olympics was launched in Athens in 1896 at the initiative of Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The motive was to promote world peace and friendship through the encouragement of amateur sports. Little wonder the popular saying at that time -- and attributed to Baron de Coubertin -- was that the important thing is not to win, but to take part. No doubt, a similar spirit of true, clean sportsmanship infused the International Olympic Committee when it was born two years earlier.

How far the Olympic movement has changed in those 104 years will become clear if we just look at a few figures. In those first Games in Athens, only 285 male athletes participated, representing some 13 nations, with the first women competing only in 1900.

At present, the number of participants runs into the tens of thousands, straining facilities and the infrastructure of host cities to such an extent that new facilities have to be built. With the enlargement of the Games has come the need to find the financial ways and means to cover expenses, and with that the gradual commercialization of the world's greatest sporting event.

As for the athletes, it seems no longer relevant to talk about amateur sports. With people increasingly aware of the promotional value that sports achievements can give to a country or nation, governments the world around are showering attractive "tokens of appreciation" on their winning teams and athletes.

In the meantime, politics and even the threat of terrorism are becoming more and more part of the Olympic event. In 1972, terrorists attacked the Israeli contingent at the Munich Olympics. Eleven Israeli athletes were killed as well as five terrorists and one German policeman. Boycotts plagued the Moscow Olympics in 1980 and the Los Angeles Games in 1984. The use of drugs is another development new to the Olympic movement. In 1988, no less than 10 athletes were disqualified after they tested positive for drugs.

To make a long story short, it seems appropriate to say that while some aspects of the modern Olympic Games, such as the death of amateur sports, can only be lamented, others, such as the use of performance-enhancing drugs, need to be addressed with a good deal more energy.

Whatever its problems and shortcomings, the Olympic Games is still the world's most spectacular sporting event. It provides good entertainment -- besides less commendable betting opportunities -- for millions of spectators the world around. To say, however, that it still serves the purpose of promoting world peace, friendship and amateur sports is to stretch the truth a bit too much.