Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Karl du Fresne: Underwhelmed by the Olympic Games? So am I

I’m already over the Olympic GamesIt wasn’t always like this. Historically, the Games have been the ultimate sporting contest, commanding rapt worldwide interest.

I’m no sports fanatic, but even for me there was a frisson of anticipation as the Games approached and a feeling of being caught up in the contagious general excitement once they began. Everybody watched and everybody talked about it. It was the subject of water-cooler conversation before we’d heard of water coolers.

Heck, I even recall getting excited over the Fosbury Flop – the revolutionary new high-jump technique that won the American Dick Fosbury a gold medal at Mexico in 1968.

But I sense that the public no longer feel quite the same spirit of ownership and involvement. You could say the Games have been stolen from us.

There are multiple reasons for this. Drugs, for starters.

In the past, the pre-Olympics media buzz was typically about who was going to win what. But for weeks now, Games reportage has been focused on allegations of large-scale, state-backed doping by Russia. 

Drugs are nothing new in sport. In the 1960s and 70s, people would look askance at suspiciously masculine-looking female athletes from the Soviet Union and East Germany and wonder how many male hormones they had ingested.

It was even suggested that the unbeatable Soviet shot-putter and discus thrower Tamara Press was a hermaphrodite. She and her equally suspect sister Irina retired before gender verification became mandatory.

There are echoes of the Cold War in the allegations now being levelled at Russia. But drug use isn’t confined to Russian athletes; it's rampant in international sport.

New Zealanders aren’t above dabbling in drugs either. Discus thrower Robin Tait and weightlifter Graham May both admitted using steroids.

What makes it even more problematical these days is that laboratories keep coming up with ever more sophisticated performance-enhancing drugs and seem able to keep one step ahead of detection techniques.

So every time someone wins gold, there’ll be that nagging suspicion: was it pure strength, skill and determination that did it, or was there a Swiss lab technician in a white coat lurking somewhere in the background?

Then there’s the influence of corporate and state sponsorship, which tilts the field in favour of professional competitors with wealthy backers.

The days when raw, naturally talented amateur athletes like Peter Snell and Murray Halberg prepared for the Olympics by pounding roads in the Waitakere Range at weekends under the critical gaze of Arthur Lydiard (who owned a small shoe factory and earned money on the side as a milkman) are long gone.

If Snell were running now, he’d be supported by a retinue of professional trainers, motivators and even PR minders.

Sport is inextricably linked with national prestige, so governments have got in on the act – something once confined to the Soviet bloc. A recent study found that every Olympic medal won by an Australian cost the Aussie taxpayer more than $9 million.

That surely places competitors from impoverished Third World states at an enormous disadvantage against those from countries that can afford to fund institutes of high-performance sport. That’s a double blow to the old Olympic ideals of amateurism and a level playing field.

So much for the competitors, then. But what about the slackers at home who want to watch the Games on television?

Sorry, but unless they pay a Sky TV subscription, they’ll have to make do with edited highlights packages on Sky-owned Prime. Sky enforces its exclusive rights ferociously, as its ugly dispute with Fairfax Media and NZME showed.

Some countries – Australia, for example – have legislation requiring that major sport events be televised free. But not us.

What this means is that the sense of community involvement that came from the entire nation watching – a living room of 4.7 million people – is now the stuff of nostalgia.

I could go on. I could talk about how corruption has contaminated sport (witness the FIFA scandals), how corporate sponsors now call the shots, how the Games are a prime target for terrorists (although that's not entirely new - remember Munich?), and how professionalism has spawned a new breed of overpaid, pampered and often dysfunctional sports celebrities.

I could point out that the Games have imposed a massive financial burden on an economically struggling nation. It's no surprise that Brazilians, according to reports this week, are underwhelmed by the event. They have more pressing issues on their minds, like surviving.

The common denominator linking so many of the factors tarnishing the image of sport is, of course, the baneful influence of money. Not even the Olympics, which once rejoiced in the spirit of amateurism, are free of its grip.

Capitalism is a wonderful thing, but there are some things that the vulgar money men should never have been allowed to get their hooks into. Sport is one.

Karl du Fresne blogs at  this article was first published in The Dominion Post.


J Bloggs said...

I don't miss the days of TVNZ's hegemony over the Olympic coverage one bit. My personal nadir of TVNZ's olympic coverage came during the 2004 olympics, where TNVZ's advertising offered the promise of being able to watch an event I was keenly interested in during the 12am-4am slot. For hours I sat waiting, through endless replays of kiwi medallists who had already been granted live coverage, until finally, at 3.55am, they showed one quick segment of the event I was interested in, the one bout with a kiwi competitor (and it wasn't even live coverage), then immediately moved onto the next set of jingoistic replays.

Instead of being forced to sit through endless replays of kiwi performances, in the usually vain hope that I might get 10 mins coverage of the sports I enjoy, I can now sit at home and watch the complete coverage of the sports I want to watch at the olympics on one of 10 channels devoted to following the games.

Long may SKY continue to have the broadcast rights

Anonymous said...

Why call it 'sport' - its not in the true sense. Its game playing by overpaid celebrities!

Max said...

I don't understand why the Olympics have to be held in a different city every cycle of the games?
The mind boggling expense of creating and building huge and expensive sports complexes and infrastructures that would financially cripple many countries is a ridiculous burden on the citizens of those countries.
Surely the sensible thing to do would be for the very well funded Olympic Games Organisation to pay to maintain the many excellent facilities created for past games in different geographical locations around the world and create a cyclic roster of countries where the special venues have been previously been constructed for all future Olympic Games gatherings and events ,not leaving them to go to disuse and ruin.

jh said...

I haven't watched as
1.not on freeview
2. Golf at Olympics
3.poo in the water (kind put me off).

Unknown said...

What a load of piffle!
Seriously most people don't take sports that seriously any more, they have plenty to do themselves.
The Olympics are now just a part of the sports circus, they have been very political since at least 1936 and we certainly knew that in the 70's. Athletes who were 'physical training instructors' in police colleges the world over. Not professional!
Also most older people have been watching the Olympics on TV since the 60's and with widespread international travel these events don't have the allure of foreign mystique.
The drug thing is a load of cobblers. They should drop the rules completely and then we can see what the effects of various 'enhancing' drugs are on fit healthy volunteers! The idea of cheating is surely about fairness, and nobody complained about the blatant unfairness of disc wheels when they first appeared with only one country's riders. They cleaned up all the medals and it is an obvious point to question whether they would have if they had been on conventional wheels, let alone if another country's riders had come with such wheels.
There was a swimmer who came along with a 'go fast' swim suit' and he thought it was OK, but when others came along with 'go faster' swimsuits he complained about unfairness....
Sadly I think the mass event format of the Olympics is just dated and no longer relevant in a world of live TV and World Championships for every individual sport.

Anonymous said...

... and now our "heroic" All Blacks (e.g. Read and Carter) are coining it advertising various substances they supposedly take on a regular basis. I am not suggesting they are on drugs but they are clearly "popping pills" to improve something - not a good look.
Aunty Podes.

Anonymous said...

It's simply a hyped-up five ring circus. Ridiculously impoverishing the host countries building facilities which largely turn out to be white elephants costing a mint to maintain. As for the conceited self-agrandising clowns running the organisation they are vying closely with politicians for the highest sense of entitlement. Then there are the ticket rackets - and it all goes on and on - increasing costs every four years ...
Aunty Podes