Olympics: The Straight Dope!

And it shall follow as the night the day that there will be doping allegations at the Olympics.  The most recent concerns the Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, who, according to what I saw, could have outrun Free Willy.  The only thing faster was the accusations of “hot sauce” which started flying before the other swimmers were even dry.  The story’s all over the Internet, so I’m not going to go into here.  Suffice it to say that Ye won the 400 metre something-or-other with enough time left over to order a pizza.  Pretty well anybody who saw the race said, “Hey! Wait a minute” and the debate was on.  Olympic debates are great events in themselves.  Even though no medals are awarded the competition is fierce.

The “Hey! Wait a minute” crowd made the opening move with Ye’s time over the last fifty metres was better than American male swimmer Ryan Lochte’s over the same distance.  (A good trick, regardless of what you think.)  They went on to point out that halfway through the race, Ye was so far back she couldn’t even see the other swimmer’s bubbles.  Yet she not only managed to made up that distance but was actually pulling away from the other swimmers.  They maintain that it’s impossible to close that kind of gap in a 400 metre race — even if you could swim that fast – which you can’t.  Basically, they strongly suggested that no swimmer outside of The Little Mermaid’s big sister could accomplish what Ye did without a little chemical assistance.

The “We won the Gold” crowd immediately countered with a three-pronged defence.  First of all, they said Chinese athletes are focused and competitively superior to other athletes.  They are not distracted by things like Michael Phelps’ bong.  Secondly, they maintain that Chinese training and nutrition is far better than anything lazy Westerners can come up with on their best day.  And thirdly, they asked, why is anybody accusing the Chinese of doping; the Americans use dope all the time.  Look at Ben Johnson (not technically an American, but he’ll do) and Marion Jones.  Oh, and, by the way, you’re a bunch of snarling racists for even bringing it up in the first place.

Obviously, points were scored on both sides.

Let’s cut the crap.  There are only two things going on here.  One, Ye Shiwen is a very, very, very good swimmer or two, Ms. Ye added some dolphin growth hormones to her Wheaties.  There’s no third road.  So, what is anybody going to do about it?  Probably nothing!  The anti-doping ship of sport left the harbour many years ago.  The IOC can yip all they want about zero tolerance, but when the anthems are being played, nobody’s hearing that song.  After all, a good percentage of the athletes competing in London have either failed drug tests or have been banned at some point themselves.  Besides, as long as Barry Bonds is still in the record books and Roger Clemens is walking around a free man, nobody west of Manhattan has any moral high ground to crawl up on.  The reality is without the weight of America to back it up, the IOC is spitting into the wind.

There is only one solution to doping in sports – genuine zero tolerance.  The IOC and every other governing body in sport (professional and “amateur”) need to take the “Hot Stove” approach.  If you fail a drug test, you and your coaches are put on notice that anyone can make a mistake.  However, nobody involved can participate in any sport at any level until you’re drug free.  If you fail a second drug test, you, your coaches, your trainers and everyone else right down to the ball girl are banned from all sports, in any capacity – for life.  You get one independent appeal (just in case) but after that, it’s see you later – go sell furniture.  With the kind of cash and prestige that’s on the line these days, the athletes would insist on being clean, and the coaches would demand it.  This may sound harsh, but at this point, there are so many drugs floating around upper echelon athletes that even Keith Richards is embarrassed.  The anti-doping bandaids that various sports are applying are simply never going to work.

At the end of the day, Ye Shiwen, enjoy your Gold Medals.  You probably worked very hard to get them.  All the rest of it is just a parlour game, played out over the media.  Everybody, from the World Record holder in Underwater Gymnastics to the eight-year-old kid kicking a ball around the schoolyard and dreaming of Olympic glory, knows that the anti-doping rules in sports are just a joke.

The Olympics: Plus Ca Change…

I’m walking on dangerous ground here, but I’m going to write about the Olympics anyway.  The multi-nationals get a little tetchy when minnows like me try swimming where the big fish feed, and, frankly, I don’t blame them.  If I were paying north of 50 million bucks for the five-ring logo, I’d damn well get my money’s worth, even if it meant passing out “cease and desist” orders as if they were “Two Can Dine for $8.99” coupons.  So, I’m going to insist my use of the various names of organizations is fair comment and hope for the best.  This may seem an excessive disclaimer, but I’ve seen what the IOC does to transgressors (the Olympics came to my town a couple of years ago) and it’s not pretty.

The law dogs are off the leash because the Olympics are the Big Kahuna of organized sports.  They are the perfect ménage a trois of sport, sponsorship and the media.  The revenues they generate are beyond the imagination of Croesus.  Of course, this kind of cash flow means power and the Olympics enjoy the kind of power that the ancient Greeks only dreamed their gods had.  Even the mighty FIFA, Lord High Mafia Caesar of the World Cup, kowtows to the IOC.  Governments tremble and start coughing up cash when the likes of Mario Pescante, Thomas Bach and Jacques Rogge come to town.  It’s a far cry from what Baron Pierre and his Olympic committee envisioned back in 1894 — but this is 2012, and times change.

The tale of Baron Pierre de Couberin and the history of the modern Olympic Games has been over-told by every media outlet that ever existed since 1956.  However, during those televised sidebars that fill in the blank spaces between Olympic Events, there is a large part of the story, as it is retold every four years that kinda gets glossed over.

The fact is De Couberin and his compadres never envisioned the Olympics as an egalitarian gathering of the world’s athletes.  They were men of their class and time, and they saw athletics as strictly a gentleman’s game (de Couberin was an admirer of Thomas Arnold.)  To that end, the Olympic Games have always featured sports that have been historically associated with the upper classes.  The first Games included (among other events) fencing, shooting and tennis.  It’s widely documented that very few 19th century coal miners, factory workers or stevedores played tennis, and although fencing and shooting were not unheard of during the many labour disputes of the period, they were never considered leisure activities.  Polo was introduced to the Games in 1900 and remained part of the Olympics until 1936 when the German team’s aggressive use of the mallet was considered unsportsmanlike in finer circles.
Cricket was also introduced that year, but when the rest of the world found out how insanely complicated, long and boring it was, it was immediately dropped.  Unfortunately, it may return to London 2012.  Sailing, a hobby synonymous with the wealthiest among us, has always been a popular Olympic event.  The oddest activity of the upper classes to become part of the Olympics, however, was Dueling Pistols in 1906.  It was dropped after only one year possibly because, even though there was an undisputed champion, no Silver or Bronze medals were awarded.

Likewise, the original Olympic committee went to great lengths to preserve the Games as the province of the gentleman athlete by insisting that all Olympic participants be virginal pure amateurs.  This kept the professional bully boys away from the podium because, in the early days, this rule was usually enforced.  The most famous case, of course, was Jim Thorpe, who was stripped of the medals he won in 1912 when it was discovered he had once been paid ten dollars to play football.  In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler’s famous competitive spirit led to some pretty serious bending of the Olympic amateur rule.  Luckily, however, Jesse Owens preserved the integrity of the Games when he singlehandedly took on the Nazis and beat their brains out.  In the late 1950s, the IOC adopted the “nudge-nudge/wink-wink” classification for its wealthier athletes when it became patently obvious that the Soviet and East German “amateurs” were anything but.  This system was finally abandoned in the 1980s, when everybody realized that the athletes were wearing more gold during the competition than they were actually competing for.  These days, aside from a few African marathon runners, most athletes in the medal rounds are millionaires.

Thus, more than a century later, the Olympics have remained true to Baron de Couberin’s original vision.  Despite the corruption, bribery, doping and out-and-out cheating, the Games remain the province of the rich and famous.