By David C. Speedie, published by Carnegie Council, August 16, 2016
This week, I made the mistake of tuning in to NBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. I say “mistake” because I had resolved some Olympics ago to avoid this crass quadrennial excess of commercialism. Sure enough, I found that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It was all perhaps accentuated by the fact that just a few weeks before I had visited Olympia, the original home of the Games, a place redolent of centuries-past true sporting combat. From there to the Copa Cabana, from the heroic original marathoner Pheidippides to professional beach volleyballers, was altogether too much.
Saddest to say, as an American, is the fact that if medals were offered in jingoism, we’d sweep the boards. This is true from the febrile home-cooking commentary box to the preening of athletes themselves—I think especially of the swimmer, Lilly King, whose over-the-top finger wagging was described by one courageously honest commentator, Bomani Jones of ESPN, as “just a little self-aggrandizing.” Yes, Ms. King is a mere 19 years of age, and may be pardoned some youthful lack of decorum, but is there no pre-match guidance from coaches or U.S. Olympic officials along the lines of how to be a good winner, let alone a gracious loser? (In that regard, further national embarrassment came with the U.S. soccer goalkeeper, Hope Solo’s bewildering blast at the “cowardice” of the Swedish women who has upset the American.) And is the original spirit of the Games so hopelessly diluted that the kind of hyperbolic demonstrations we usually equate with NFL touchdowns are now the norm?
Ms. King’s exuberant excesses were pointed [literally] at—who else—a Russian, Yulia Efimova, whose miserable “failure” lay in the fact that she only gained the silver medal to King’s gold. Now, the rap on Ms. Efimova is that she served a suspension for ingesting a banned substance. It is also true, of course, that other Russians have been banned from competition in Rio for similar offenses, or at least allegations thereof. But in the “people in glass houses” spirit, who are we to elevate this opprobrium to the level of one nation lecturing another? Think Olympic cyclists Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton (ironic footnote on the latter: when he tested positive after winning gold in the 2004 Athens Games the Russian Olympic Committee appealed—unsuccessfully—to have the gold awarded to the Russian runner up]; or, indeed, think the whole rampant and ugly business of human growth hormones that has sidetracked what seems like inevitable entry of a gaggle of superstars to baseball’s Hall of Fame and infested other professional (and quite likely college, or even high school) sports).
In the current mega-political climate, of course, Russia is an easy and gratifying target. And it began, not in Rio, but in Sochi, for the 2014 Winter Olympics. First, Mr. Putin overspent lavishly on the Sochi Games—my, that’s a first in modern Olympics history, isn’t it? Think London, and Tony Blair’s citadel on the East London banks of the Thames—a billion-dollar stadium (the contract for which the London Legacy Development Corporation fought hard to keep a secret, foiled by a Freedom of Information Act request) and a multi-billion dollar “restoration” of the East London docks area that displaced hundreds of low-income rental families. Second, that erudite international relations commentator, Bob Costas, weighed in with his take on civil society in Putin’s Russia. Then the same NBC home team crew pointed with glee to a malfunctioning light bulb or two in what the rest of the world applauded as a most impressive opening ceremony.
Sad to say, these Olympics and the palpable ugliness in the swimming pool and beyond, offer just one further illustration of the zero-sum state of affairs in U.S.-Russian relations. Russians are banned, and Russia claims selective discrimination. Yulia Efimova is dissed by her American conqueror, and is treated as a heroine in her homeland. And, pious commentary to the contrary, any residual “true Olympic spirit” is further toxified
David C. Speedie is a Carnegie Council senior fellow and director of U.S. Global Engagement program. He is a member of the board of the American Committee for East-West Accord.
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