As the world settles in to watch its most beloved sporting event, the critics of that event are having a field day – and with good reason. There is a bountiful smorgasbord of things to criticize the Olympics about. First and most prominent is the ugliest doping scandal in the history of sport. Then there is the story of a host country struggling to put on the Games in spite of the economic disaster that the Games will almost surely leave in their wake. Unfortunately, traveling much more under the radar, but much more dangerous to the future of the Games than anything else is the politics – the rampant, pervasive and despicable politics of nationalism that have corrupted the glorious, beautiful and uplifting event the Olympics should be.
Despite these and other issues, most likely, as has been the case in the past, the magnificent athletes of the Olympic Games will overcome all. They will exhibit absolutely astounding levels of athletic skill, strength, speed and endurance. They will manifest a celebration of youth, with all its innocence and potential. They will offer displays of courage and character that will leave the world in awe. They will exhibit a level of cooperation, mutual support and joy that will spread among all the world’s people as they watch humanity at its best. Their example celebrates the value of human achievement across borders, devoid of any discrimination on the basis of color, creed, gender, wealth, culture or any other of an unlimited number of characteristics humans devise to justify irrationality toward others. Yes the athletes will triumph over all, but only to a point, and perhaps for the last time, if something specific doesn’t change – the politics of nationalism that has crept into, and become the norm of, the Olympics.
If the Olympics are to survive and prosper, to reach the pinnacle of what they can and should be, they need to make one simple but major change – eliminate the ugly aspects of nationalism. Drive it out of the Games once and for all. And then let the world see how truly great the Olympics can be.
Nationalism? Really? What’s wrong with people being proud of their countries? What’s wrong with people carrying their flags? What’s wrong with people cheering for athletes from their own nations? Nothing at all, but…
What’s wrong is the kind of nationalism and nation based sport that has led to national doping scandals, to the widespread abuse of athletes, to the infusion of politics into sport and to actually precluding devoted sports fans around the world from seeing some of the best athletes in the world in action. In short, irrational nationalism has crippled the Olympic Games, and may destroy them, if the insidious elements of nationalism are not eradicated once and for all.
Let’s take the sport I know best, Weightlifting, as an example. When you tune into Weightlifting in Rio, you will not see many of the best athletes in the world competing. Now some may think that is because the doping scandal in weightlifting has disqualified some of it stars. And that is true.
But what has led to this unprecedented stream of drug positives in Weightlifting? Is it that we have just have a high number of individual athletes who are cheaters? Is the character of weightlifters any better or worse than the characters of athletes in other sports? Well, strength and power being a major determinant weightlifting success, and the use of anabolic steroids having the greatest effect on those qualities, is certainly a factor leading to doping. But the deeper driver, in my opinion, is really nationalism. How so?
Apparently, some sports leaders in countries like Russia feel that “proving” their standing as a powerful nation through the Olympic Games is so important that they must do whatever it takes to win, including cheating to assure success. But why do they feel they need to cheat? Partly because they must believe that their sporting foes, most especially the United States, are doing the same thing. Now I don’t expect to persuade the Russians otherwise by my statements. But as someone who has been inside the sport of weightlifting for more than 50 years, who has been involved at the highest levels of that sport’s leadership in the US, and who has had an intimate relationship with the US Olympic Committee for many years, I can assure the Russians the USOC is doing everything it can to assure clean sport in the US. That may not have always been the case, but it is today, and has been for decades.
Nonetheless, a certain variety of nationalism has led to state sponsorship of doping, accomplishing what no athlete could have accomplished on his or her own – rampant and systemic doping, and the ensuing disgrace of entire nations, despite the efforts of any clean athletes those nations may have.
Now some might think state sponsored doping, and other violations of athlete’s rights, is an isolated and extreme case, and in some respects that is true. But only in some respects. In most countries in the world today (the USA being a major exception) Olympic sports are state sponsored. What this means is that you can’t train for the Olympics, or represent your country, without the approval of the state. It further means that you do as you are told. You train as you are told, you take the drugs you are given, even if these things ruin you for life. You are subject to the irrationality of desperate coaches whose own survival depends on production at any cost. If you cripple an athlete with a training regimen they cannot tolerate, or you make them sick with drugs, you simply say they “didn’t have it” and move on to other victims. And there are essentially endless streams of willing victims, young people and their families who are struggling to survive and who will subject themselves to nearly anything to improve their economic situations.
Consider countries with the most blatant dictatorships in the world, where food (not to mention other essentials for living) is necessarily scarce. You can get ahead in such countries in two basic ways: become a high level member of the leading party (apparently an occupation with a relatively high mortality rate) or become a high level athlete (or similar professional). Even in better countries, if the sports leadership is dictatorial, they can preclude athletes from competing at the Olympics and similar events at their complete discretion. Consequently, athletes in many nations are subject to the whims of dictatorial coaches who administer dangerous training programs and/or drugs, whether the athletes like it or not. It is sad enough when an individual athlete feels the need to cheat. But such a tragedy is dwarfed by the practice of systemic and forced cheating.
Doping and poor treatment of athletes are terrible, but they are not the only reason related to wrongful nationalism that you won’t see the best in Rio. An even deeper problem is the way athletes are selected to compete in the Games. It’s not anything like the selection system used for non-Olympic events. In many such events, at least many of those involving individual sports, athletes are selected (permitted to compete) on the basis of their previous performances. For instance, consider the British Open in golf, or Wimbledon in tennis, or the NYC Marathon. If you are ranked among the best in the world in golf, or tennis, or running, you will be able to compete at St. Andrews, London, or NYC, respectively, no matter what country’s citizenship you hold. If the 10 best golfers in the world are from the US, then you will see them at “The Open” if they wish to compete. If the 10 best tennis players are from Spain, you will see them at Wimbledon. If the 10 best marathoners are from Kenya, they will be in NYC, or at least they are welcome to come.
This is emphatically not the case at the Olympic Games. For instance, China has at times had the best female weightlifters in the world in all seven of the bodyweight categories that are contested in the Olympics. But according to the selection procedures for Rio, China may only send four female athletes to the Games in all the weight classes combined. That means that their very best in at least three bodyweight categories cannot even compete in Rio. And it can be worse.
For example, you may not be able to compete in Rio, even if you are the best in the world, if you happen to be from a country that has qualified no athletes for the Games. This can happen, for example, when a country has not produced high enough results as a team in the past two World Championships — even though Weightlifting is not a team sport (there are a handful of discretionary spots, but not nearly enough to address this kind of problem). In addition, the Games organizers have permitted only a total of 260 athletes to compete in Weightlifting in Rio. This combination of factors virtually assures you will see only a handful of the top ten in the world in each bodyweight class competing at the Olympic Games. In some bodyweight categories, if not most, you will not see even see the majority ranked in the top ten.
If at least one major goal of the Olympic organizers is to have the very best in the world to compete at the Games, they should ensure the top ranked athletes in the world are there, regardless of their national origin. But because of the organization of the teams by nation, and the relatively arbitrary limits placed on each nation as a result, with only a limited relationship to that nation’s number of top athletes at best, you will not be seeing many of the best athletes in the world in Rio, or at any other Olympic Games. It’s a strange practice to say the least, but truly a tragic one for some extraordinary athletes who have a legitimate chance, on the merits, of being named the greatest athlete in the world in their sport, but who will not get that chance. And this situation is certainly not limited to Weightlifting. It applies, at least to some extent, to such popular sports as Track & Field, Swimming and Gymnastics, if not to all sports.
What the Olympic organizers need to do to correct this is to change their selection procedures so that they guarantee the right to compete to the best athletes in the world, regardless of the country they represent.
This will end the empowerment of the nation states throughout the world from abusing their athletes. It will end the irrational nationalism that is inextricably linked to the Olympics because of the focus on national teams and medal counts, instead of the competition among great athletes, regardless of each athlete’s nation of origin.
It is fine to cheer the athletes as they enter the Olympic stadium, to show the true diversity of the nations and athletes who are competing, and to celebrate the fact that for a brief moment in time in this world riddled with violence, all of the peoples of the world can come together. It’s great for athletes from every country in the world to celebrate the magic of the Olympic Games together. And it’s great for athletes to be able to rejoice in what happens when different sports get together in one place, so athletes in those different sports realize how much they have in common, how much they can learn from each other and how wonderful the achievements of those outside their sport are.
But if one of the fundamental purposes of the Olympic Games is to see the best in the world compete, and to assure they are free to do so without being compelled to take drugs or train in a dangerous way, then let’s take national politics out of the Olympics – and then let the best Games ever begin!
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.