The Right to Play God Puts the Olympic Ideal at Risk

There have been many debates over the years on how the professionalism of sport has killed the spectacle.

Rather than a coach and an assistant coach of yesteryear the top teams around the world now have full time physios, sports scientists, nutritionists, psychologists, analysts, as well as peripheral services for the players. To be a professional athlete is to enter a whole new world. No longer do many players play on through injury for the team, now the slightest twinge they come off as the fear is they will be lost to the team longer if they play on.

One of the last bastions of amateur sport was the Olympic Games. Eventually though, even the Olympic Games had to bow to the pressure of professionalism. The days of ‘Shamateurism’ made sure of that; a period where to all intents and purposes athletes were amateur, but had bank accounts brimming with money that they could only touch for training purposes or when they retired.

In the last thirty years more and more nations have created sporting centres of excellence, where those identified as being their most promising athletes are given access to the best their country has to offer in the fields of sports science, nutrition, etcetera. The aim being to produce an athlete who is primed in every area and ready to bring home medals from the world’s biggest events. The reason is simple, sporting success on a global scale helps national pride, as well as politicians.

The trouble is the cost of achieving success has become higher. With so many nations having schools of sporting excellence the field has narrowed when it comes to competition.

This was the reason behind the Australian Sports Commissions creating their “Winning Edge” program.

As they stated in the document explaining the reasons behind the program: “Key statistics give us a true sense of the challenge:
Australia is winning less gold medals.
Australia is winning less medals
We are achieving less top-eight placings
Our conversion of top-eight placings into medals is below the average of the top 15 nations at the Games.”

“The other measure of sustained success — annual world champions — tells a similar story and extends beyond Olympic sports. There is a trend downwards in priority sports, with 2012 likely to be the lowest result in the last 12 years,” It states.

As a result the Australian Sports Commission in its own words stated, “the Australian high performance sport sector will need to do things smarter and better, without calling on the Australian Government for additional funding given general economic pressures.” So now the focus is “investing for success: Investment is targeted to achieve the greatest chance of international success.”

Australia is sadly not alone in taking this approach. More and more nations are adopting the same attitude.

As a result the Rio Olympic Games may be one of the last to witness such large teams being sent by the competing nations.

The sad thing by taking this approach have those running sport lost sight of the fact that sport can be unpredictable? That is the beauty of it. How many people have marvelled at the performances of Iceland and Wales at the European Championships. Were shocked but at the same time loved to see the World number one, Novak Djokovic beaten by number 41 ranked Sam Querrey at Wimbledon. Then there is Stephen Bradbury who won Olympic gold in the most unlikely of circumstances when he won the men’s short track 1000 metres event at Salt Lake City when the other competitors fell in front of him.

Of course such stories do not happen every day. Frequently the favourites win, but it is those moments when the underdog comes to the fore and wins, or at the Olympics finishes on the podium, that makes sport so wonderful. The fact that the favourite is not guaranteed a gold medal.

Sergei Bubka is probably the greatest pole vaulter of all time yet he only won Olympic Gold, despite winning six World Championships. At the start of his career the USSR boycotted the 1984 Olympic Games. In 1988 Bubka competed in the Seoul Olympics and won his only Olympic gold medal. In 1992 he failed to clear in his first three attempts and his competition was over. At the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 a heel injury caused him to withdraw from the competition. In 2000 at the Sydney Olympics he was eliminated from the final after three unsuccessful attempts.

The men who claimed the gold medals would have been given little chance of beating Bubka by their Olympic Committees when they left for those Games, yet they returned with gold.

This is yet another example of the beauty and unpredictability of sport. Yet sadly this could well become a thing of the past with so many nations opting to only fund, and send athletes with the possibility of medalling.Irrespective as to whether they have qualified to go to the Olympic Games.

Incredibly there are still many sports where athletes are pretty much self-funded. Even most of the new editions to the Olympics are fully fledged professional sports.

For those athletes who are self-funding to qualify for an Olympics is for many the main goal. The rules on qualification in every sport are very clear, yet we are seeing more and more National Olympic Committees override that qualification process. Does the IOC step in and protect those athletes? Are those athletes given the chance to find the money to pay their own passage to the Games, as in the days of old? Does their sport’s governing body step in?

For example the Badminton World Federation’s Olympic qualification criteria for Men’s, Women’s and Mixed Doubles in this region is that to qualify you must be the top ranked pair in Oceania, and inside the top 50 in the world. Yet for players in New Zealand they were advised by their Olympic Committee that they needed to qualify ‘outright.’ In other words qualify without using the continental spot given to Oceania. What this means is that with only places for 16 pairs in the Olympic draw these players needed to achieve a ranking in the top 20 or 30 in the world to qualify. One feels that if the National body paid any money to these athletes then it could stipulate such rules and change the qualification criteria, but as they don’t, and the athletes are self-funded, surely they deserve the right to be able to compete at such a major event. After all they have met the qualification criteria that was set out by the BWF. Should the BWF now step in on behalf of these athletes?

In this particular case to make the issue even more painful is New Zealand’s Olympic Committee has agreed to send representatives for the Men’s Doubles in Tennis, even though the pair in question are ranked outside the top 50 in the world.

If we turn our attention to South Africa, both the men’s and womens hockey teams qualified for the Rio Olympic Games winning the Confederation’s title, yet the South African Olympic Committee (SASCOC) opted not to send both teams.

Both teams were told that they must qualify via the Hockey World League, the second way of qualification set out by the International Hockey Federation. The men’s team, ranked 15th in the world at the time, were eliminated in the second round of the Hockey World League, while the women’s team, ranked 11th at the time, reached the semi-finals of the third round, where they lost to Great Britain.

The South African Hockey Association had allegedly signed an agreement with the Olympic Committee that they understood that this was the required path of qualification, yet were quick to say that the decision would “cripple the sport” in South Africa when it was enforced. For the first time in 20 years South Africa will not have a team competing in the Olympic Games field hockey event.

The SASCOC said that the decision was in line with their policy of “producing world-class athletes who will compete at the highest levels.” In other words, neither team was likely to medal at the Olympic Games in Rio, so that was the real reason why they would not run to the cost of sending the players who had earned the right to compete by qualifying under the rules set out by the FIH.

What has made this decision all the more baffling is that after announcing that the teams will not be competing in Rio, SASCOC named hockey as the sport of 2017 and promised ZAR10 million to run a national league competition.

So who has the power in deciding who competes at the Olympic Games? The sporting bodies who decide the qualification criteria? Or is it ultimately left to the National Olympic Committees?

It is a worrying state of affairs if it is the latter. As the days of Stephen Bradbury look set to definitely become a thing of the past.

Maybe it is time that the athletes and the public reminded those National Olympic Committees of the words spoken by the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who said, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

Every athlete who is privileged to attend an Olympic Games will tell you that their first goal was to qualify for an Olympics. Only a very small percentage will admit that the dream ends there. Once they have qualified nearly all dream of a “Bradbury-moment,” or that at this Games they will perform the best they have ever done, and may in fact make a final and end up on the medal podium. Very few go there to make up the numbers. They go to the Olympic Games to do the best that they possibly can and represent their nation with pride, and in the process make those of us at home proud of them representing us.

The Olympic Games needs these athletes, not just those with the best chance of returning with a medal. If the focus on who is allowed to attend the Olympics switches to only those who warrant investment, and will give the best return on that investment, the future of the Olympic Games and the kudos attached to being part of such an event is likely to change dramatically in the next twelve years.

If the Olympics becomes purely about the business of sport, the Olympics will lose its gloss, it will lose its magic and it will lose the viewers. That would be very sad.

The Right to Play God Puts the Olympic Ideal at Risk

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *