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Is it Time to Get Rid of the Olympics?...By Hartley Henderson

The worldwide protests that have occurred over the last couple of weeks, particularly the ones involving the Olympic torch relay, have shown once and for all that the original purpose of the Olympics is gone. Every city where the Olympic torch was being run saw protesters attack the flame in a symbolic gesture to demonstrate their disapproval of China's treatment of Tibet (among other reasons). While the cause may be noble, the Olympics were supposed to be apolitical. The truth, however, is that the Olympics are all about politics and the athletic events are almost secondary. The original intention of the Olympics was to provide a non-political spectrum for amateur athletes to demonstrate their skill and win medals for themselves and their country. Now the games are just political grandstanding in an effort to show how one country is morally superior to another, and the athletes are generally used as pawns.

For the Beijing games there has been talk about some countries boycotting the Olympics to try and coerce China to improve human rights and allow Tibet to be free, but boycotts clearly don't work. In 1980 the U.S. boycotted the games in Moscow to illustrate their disapproval of Russia's invading Afghanistan, and in turn the Soviets and East Germans boycotted the L.A. games in 1984. The only ones that really suffered as a result were the athletes. Furthermore, even the method by which countries are chosen to host the games are political. By all accounts Toronto's bid was far superior to Atlanta's bid for the 1996 games, but the IOC felt there was more to gain politically for them to award the Olympics to a U.S. city. Toronto's chances were sabotaged by a group called Bread Not Circuses who used the Olympic bid as a political maneuver to illustrate concerns about poverty in the city. As most will attest, the Atlanta games have gone down as one of the worst in modern times.

And with the Beijing bid there was never any real consideration given to other cities. Juan Antonio Samaranch wanted his legacy to be that as the person who gave China its first games, regardless of the fact that they had an atrocious human rights record, a terrible environmental record and it was uncertain they had the infrastructure to hold the games. Even in 2004 the games were given to Athens as a ploy to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Olympics, even though it was clear the Greek City did not have the infrastructure or money at the time to host the games properly. Of course the games have always been somewhat political, starting with Adolf Hitler's snub of Jesse Owens at the Berlin games in 1936. But at least the sports themselves were highlighted and the athletes came first and foremost. The 1972 Munich games will always be remembered for the murder of Israeli athletes, but through it all most can still vividly recall Mark Spitz winning 7 gold medals. The athletes were generally honest and hard working amateurs and their achievements were something kids in their respective countries could aspire to.

The same can't be said today. While many sports do involve amateurs, many more involve professionals. The miracle on ice in 1980, where a bunch of young no name amateurs from the United States beat the Soviet Union to win Olympic gold was indeed a feel good story and that one event helped build hockey in the United States. It's difficult, however, to feel the same sense of pride and accomplishment when the USA Dream Team, consisting of a group of professional basketball players that make close to a combined quarter billion dollars in annual salary are able to beat the crap out of a bunch of laborers from Latvia. To make matters worse, the pressure put on the athletes is astronomical. If a swim or diving meet took place in a local pool it would be difficult to get the public or media to care about it, let alone cover it. Yet when those same swimmers or divers go to the Olympics, the pressure is put squarely on their shoulders to win at any cost. And should the athlete or team underperform, as was the case with the first Dream Team or Mary Decker when she fell at the 1984 games, the athletes are ridiculed by the media and citizens for "embarrassing their country."

But more upsetting than that is the lengths with which athletes will go to nowadays to win. Not getting caught in a doping scandal in recent Olympics seems to be the exception rather than the rule. And it seems clearer every Olympics that the winners who pass doping tests are not necessarily clean, but indeed have better methods to hide their steroid use. The IOC demanding the return of medals from Marion Jones and her teammates this past week is indication that even athletes who people thought were clean have been caught up in the doping game. So the question has to be asked: how can a responsible parent or government urge their children to strive for perfection when doing so will almost certainly entail the eventual destruction of their bodies from drugs? If someone insists on being clean in any sport involving a lot of strength and/or exertion, it's almost certain they won't be able to compete for the win.

As well, in most team sports the "nationality" goal seems to be irrelevant since all good players already compete with each other in the major leagues. What's the big deal that Mats Sundin can win an Olympic medal for Sweden when he spends 3/4 of the year living and playing in Canada? Similarly, Peja Stojokovic will give Serbia a chance for a medal in Beijing, but to people in New Orleans he is one of theirs. So what exactly is accomplished when regular NBA players can score medals for countries they rarely visit anymore?

Of course since MajorWager is a betting site, we can't ignore the wagering value of the Olympics either. With the exception of team sports where bookies can make competitive odds as a result of point spreads, there is generally no value in 90% of the other events. The favorites tend to almost always win and the incredibly high odds make them unplayable. Few sportsbooks are willing to put up lines on events like weightlifting, wrestling, judo or gymnastics-because there is usually such a huge discrepancy between the competitors that they know they will lose money if they offer odds. As a result the only betting available is for fairly even sports like the marathon, kayaking and cycling which offer little in terms of spectator enjoyment (in the winter games for events like skiing and biathlon). Indeed watching the marathon or the biathlon can be about as exciting as watching paint dry. Arguably the most exciting event at the summer Olympics is the 100 meter dash, but it's hard to bet that comfortably knowing that steroids will be a factor and you aren't sure whether the athlete you're betting on will pass his urine test. In most cases the payouts are now only awarded at the time of the medal ceremony, so even if you pick the winner you could lose the bet if they test positive immediately following the race.

So again the question has to be asked: is the Olympics an ideal worth pursuing or have it outlived its purpose? If the reasoning for keeping the games is financial, forget it. Almost all games nowadays leave the countries in debt and astronomical security costs ensure the countries can't turn a profit. Even the boost to the economies after the game, which many like to talk about seems, to be a lie. Most people from Montreal, Athens and Atlanta will tell you that the games were a disaster and did little to promote tourism. All it did was leave the taxpayers with a big bill. So are the games still worth the cost and effort? What happens in Beijing in a few months should give a good indication.

Hartley Henderson

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