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Games Over

Olympic Opening Ceremonies are, by their nature, kitschy. And last week's four-and-a-half-hour extravaganza in Sydney--complete with a "lawn-mower ballet" and children costumed as flowers--proved no exception. But this particular halftime show, according to Olympics boosters, held deeper significance. That's because, for the first time since North Korea and South Korea went to war in 1950, the two countries' Olympic delegations marched together under the single banner of Korea. The gesture symbolized, in the words of International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Juan Antonio Samaranch, "friendship, peace, and solidarity." Or, as the Los Angeles Times put it in a front-page article, "The joint march ... vividly made real the symbolic power of sports to bring people together. It was an evening rich with possibilities--the very reason the Olympic movement relentlessly persists in promoting sports as a path to world peace."

Hogwash. The joint march (in which some North Korean athletes wore pins bearing the visage of Kim Il Sung) didn't promote world peace; it promoted the moral equality of states--the notion that there is no important distinction between a liberal democracy like South Korea and the primitive despotism to its north. North Korea shouldn't even have an Olympic team. This is, after all, a country where millions have starved to death in the past few years. Surely North Korea has better things to spend its money on than training the 31 athletes it sent to Sydney (accompanied by 30 government officials, some presumably sent to prevent defections). For the Olympics to help the Stalinists in Pyongyang--whose only deserved international exposure would be in front of a human rights tribunal--place propaganda above food is bad enough. For egocentric gasbags like Samaranch to call it a step forward for humanity verges on obscene.

But this is what the Olympics have become. The games don't simply efface the moral distinctions between democracies and dictatorships; they actually favor the latter. Ever wonder why India, which is nearly as big as China and at least as sports-obsessed, has won fewer than one-tenth as many medals? It's because China, as a dictatorship, can do what it takes to win--spend vast sums on government-run sports facilities in every major city; take complete control of young athletes' lives; and, if necessary, pump them full of performance-enhancing steroids to give them an edge. That's what the regimes in East Germany, Romania, and the Soviet Union did during the cold war, and the Chinese well understand the benefit their athletic triumphs brought--in propaganda abroad and ultranationalist distraction from misery at home.

And, if the Olympics showcase the worst of communism, they manage to showcase the worst of capitalism as well. As previously noted in these pages ("Unspecial Olympics," by Jason Zengerle, February 15, 1999), the Olympics, originally intended to celebrate the amateur ideal, have become occasions for gross profiteering. Representatives of cities vying to host the games routinely offer what are essentially bribes to IOC officials. To get the Summer Games in Sydney, organizers lavished IOC members with free accommodations at five-star hotels and resorts and "sporting scholarships" for their home countries. At the IOC's museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, there's even an exhibit--dubbed the "Juan Antonio Samaranch Collection"--of all the gifts bestowed upon the IOC president by suitors over the last 20 years. And, if that weren't bad enough, the Olympics don't even really benefit their host cities economically. While enriching a few, they usually leave cities mired in debt--debt for which ordinary citizens generally pick up the tab.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with athletes from different countries competing. That already happens at myriad world championships held across the globe. But such competitions are usually modest affairs--free of the pomposity and graft that accompany the Olympic "movement." And the competitions can be strictly screened for drugs--something the people who run the Olympics have generally refused to do. That alone might give democracies a fair shot, and even when dictatorships did compete they would not enjoy the vast propaganda stage that the Olympics afford them today.

In a sense, it's too bad that the Olympics are being held in Sydney and not Beijing, the early favorite. Were they being held in China, the moral farce that the Olympics today represent would be plain to see. Promoted to foster "friendship, peace, and solidarity," the games now subvert the ideals of freedom and human rights on which any meaningful international solidarity must be based. Designed as a tribute to human excellence, the Olympics are now a testament to human greed. On October 1, the Olympic flame will be extinguished in Sydney. Let's never light it again.