e-mail us


Olympic ideals trashed by abuses


There is something oddly human about sports. Who but people would chase around after a ball or run fiercely the arbitrary distance of 26 miles, 385 yards for no better reason than to be first?

Being human, sports evolved until one day they became games. Long ago, before Nike. There were Olympic Games at least eight centuries B.C. In 776 B.C., a cook named Coroebus of Elis won the sprint. It was no doubt a great honor then and ever since a prize place in the annals of our race. But it was more. The Olympics and other Greek games were integrated into religious celebrations. People were reaching not only for physical excellence but for spiritual and moral exaltation -- the apogee of human existence.

Then the classic games fell from favor. There was a hiatus from the late fourth century A.D. to the end of the last century. In 1896 the Olympics came back bigger, faster, higher and eventually more lucrative than ever. And not by accident -- they respond to that human propensity for play that has allowed us to live with ourselves without going crazy all those centuries. Most human projects are imposed or inflicted on us by our human condition, from work to war. But not sports, which are akin to religion in the freedom with which we undertake them.

The current Olympics scandal is a reminder how much we might lose if this capacity to play were stifled. Baseball and basketball strikes in recent years already leave a sour taste, reminders of how destructive greed can be. But the Olympics are on yet another level.

Just mention the word and images crowd in: of near-perfect bodies in sync with their spirits, imbued with indomitable will layered over with courage; of the five Olympic rings shimmering on flags worldwide in universal friendship; of mythical names from Baron Pierre de Coubertin to Jesse Owens to the local heroine or hero in your home town who beat the odds and climbed that golden podium to the top of the world.

Yet the Olympics are bigger than youth and prowess. All of us somehow carry the ethos around with us, the lore but above all the idealism, in the same way we carry poetry or friendship or even religion in our baggage.

Such a great human movement needs wisdom, age and grace to foster and preserve it. The world has long known the International Olympic Committee as an august body with rare competence. To fuse so much idealism with so much action and, yes, money, is an awesome undertaking.

One occasionally heard rumors of corruption, of autocratic rule, of a jet-setting elite with lavish lifestyles, but these were drowned out by the cheers every four years. Now the cat is out of the Olympic bag, and it’s a sinister cat.

The distinction between idealistic athletes and disgraced committee is clear enough. Sources also distinguish between the international body and the U.S. national committee, which is not implicated in this scandal.

In the eye of the storm sits a Spanish marquis, Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the IOC since 1980. Only when their career trajectory goes awry is one abruptly forced to ask how such people climbed to such power.

Perhaps it should be no surprise to learn that Samaranch was a member of Gen. Francisco Franco’s fascist government, or perhaps it should. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that he is a member of Opus Dei, or perhaps it does. He was once Spanish ambassador to Moscow as well. A man of the world and a man of the spirit, then, the ideal leader, on paper at least, for a great Olympic movement.

He says he knows nothing of the corruption swirling around him. It’s surprising, though, how so much money and gifts, so many prostitutes and scholarships could be in play without this accomplished man even suspecting it.

In a cynical age this scandal further shreds scarce idealism. A few token dismissals will not redeem the tarnished Olympic image. Samaranch’s control of the Olympic movement was total. The abuse of power, of people, of trust, rests at his door. The bad odor will not depart the Olympics until its discredited leader is removed. The buck stops there.

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999