Political games

SCMP Wednesday April 16 2008

Call me a spoilsport if you will, but the Olympics has become a monster, undermining values for which it is supposed to stand. Thus, Hong Kong's Olympic representative, Timothy Fok Tsun-ting, is a son of a famous father, rather than someone known for active participation in sports - let alone at a high level. Thus, it is hinted by the government that the chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen - another non-sporting dignitary - may take part in the torch relay for these 'non-political' Games.

Thus, large sums are spent on hosting equestrian events, despite the almost non-existent local participation in the sport. To enable Mr Tsang, Mr Fok and other dignitaries to preen themselves as Olympic hosts, Hong Kong's real athletes have their training disrupted, and money that could have gone into improving sporting facilities in schools, or for the general public, funds a brief event in which less than 10 per cent of Olympic teams compete.

Thus, a huge fuss is made of the Olympic torch relay, quietly forgetting that this was not an ancient Greek institution; it was invented for Hitler's Berlin Games of 1936, the apogee of racist nationalism thinly disguised as sport.

The most blatant politicisation was the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. That was followed by a Soviet boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games. But Beijing cannot claim innocence, given its use of the Games to boost China's image abroad and its image at home. It should not be surprised that critics should seek to draw attention to grievances. That is not to say that unruly demonstrations about Tibet , Darfur or other issues will do any good. More likely, they will stir nationalist sentiment in China and lead to even harsher measures against Tibetan and other dissidents. But until politicians everywhere stop trying to be associated with the Olympics, they will attract dissenters.

The bigger the Olympics becomes, the more public money must go into it and, thus, each Games requires top-level political support. In addition to bribery of delegates, political lobbying plays an important role in the awarding of the Games - as Tony Blair showed on London's behalf.

The costs of providing for so many events and so many athletes have become prohibitive for most of the world. The proliferation of medals for often obscure sports, practised by tiny numbers of people, intensifies the nationalist competition for position in the medals table. At each Olympics, the number of events expands.

In principle, it should not be difficult to trim the Games to a more manageable and affordable size, with minimal impact on global public interest. We should:

Cut the grandiose opening ceremony, a costly spectacle and grandstand for politicians more than athletes;

Abolish all team games and revert to the original Olympic ideal of competition between individuals, with a focus on athletics. For most of these sports, the Olympic event is unimportant - who cares about Olympic football compared with the World Cup?

Abolish events such as tennis, where there are better-established venues for global competition;

Reduce the number of medals for swimming/diving, which enables one person to collect multiple medals;

Set more stringent criteria for event inclusion that would eliminate many medals - from shooting to wrestling and synchronised swimming - practised by only a tiny number of people worldwide, and;

Eliminate events requiring very costly facilities such as indoor velodromes available only in a handful of countries.

Drastically cutting the cost of the Olympics would make it less political and possible for many more countries to play host. It would also leave the Games less hostage to commercial interests, sponsorship deals, television rights and the like, which play such an important behind-the-scenes role in the organisation and coverage of the Games. I hope the Beijing Games is a success, not disrupted by either pollution or protest. But it is my hope, too, that the sheer cost of the Beijing investment in the Games, and the level of politicisation it has attracted, will force the Olympic movement into a fundamental rethink.

Judging by the vested interests at work, that is probably a vain hope.




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