Monday, August 25, 2008

Slippery Slopes of Olympism

2008 quadrennium summer Olympic Games in Beijing has come to an end after 16 days of intensive competition of over 10,000 athletes in 302 events in 28 sports. It is time to reflect upon this arguably biggest and most expensive international event – the total cost of hosting the Beijing Olympics is estimated to be over 40 billion dollars when all public infrastructure investments are included.

First, the top controversies of the 2008 Beijing Games:

In the opening ceremony, three stories topped the news: a)lip sync by the 9-year old girl Lin Miaoke in the stadium of the song “Ode to the Motherland" which was actually performed by the 7-year Yang Peiyi, b)the 29 giant footprints fireworks which was faked with pre-recorded and computer-generated graphics, c)kids representing the 56 ethnic groups carried the national flag turned out to be all Hans, the most dominant group that accounts for over 90% of the Chinese population.

While I appreciate the pursuits of visual perfection in arts, music, filmmaking and marketing, these are poor judgment calls by the world famous Director YiMou Zhang and other decision makers involved. No question that Olympics ceremony performances are indeed entertainment and the shows were spectacular. However the sense of fair play is so important to the games that one must not overdo it. I have to say Director Zhang (or someone above him) got carried away a little too far as he became increasingly obsessed with the visual and cinematographic effects, judging from his recent works. Why can’t we acknowledge and celebrate the imperfections of human and nature? Don’t we all have enough illusions in our overly commercialized lives?

For the games, the most covered and talked-about controversy is the accusation that China’s women gymnastics team has several athletes whose age are under 16, the required minimum age for the competitions by FIG (Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique). While FIG and IOC are investigating the alleged violations, it is interesting to note the emotional aspects and biases of this controversy by some media reports. To begin with, many reports appear to be less interested in the principles and the rationales behind the changes of age requirements over the years (protecting the physical and mental health of youth) than for self-interests. It all started as U.S. team is very competitive but has been slightly edged by the Chinese team when counting medals and recent performances.

For more subjectively judged sports like gymnastics, there is no lack of major controversies in the history of Olympics. The suspicion and flame reached its peak when Nastia Liukin of U.S. lost the gold medal to He Kexin in the Parallel Bar event under FIG’s tie breaking rule while she appeared to make fewer mistakes to the naked and untrained eyes like mine (and NBC’s commentators). The ignorance of the tie-breaking rule has certainly added fuel to the flame as reporters and commentators scrambled to find out how it works and declared it does not make sense without knowing the science of it (while this tiebreaker is not the only choice but it does make sense based on Statistics considerations). At one point, NBC’s anchor Bob Costas was misstating that tiebreaker of Vault was easier to understand when citing the case where that gold medal was won by Leszek Blanik of Poland over France's Thomas Bouhail in a tie. But who cares about what happens with Poland and France?

With so much attention being paid by so many, and thus the media, to the medal counts, the stars, stories, controversies, records, etc, it is worthwhile to take a step back and refresh ourselves the history and the goal and spirit of modern Olympics that was revived by Pierre de Coubertin in 1894. It is stated in the Olympic Charter, the Fundamental Principles of Olympism are:

1. Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

2. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

3. The Olympic Movement is the concerted, organised, universal and permanent action, carried out under the supreme authority of the IOC, of all individuals and entities who are inspired by the values of Olympism. It covers the five continents. It reaches its peak with the bringing together of the world’s athletes at the great sports festival, the Olympic Games. Its symbol is five interlaced rings.

4. The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. The organisation, administration and management of sport must be controlled by independent sports organisations.

5. Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

6. Belonging to the Olympic Movement requires compliance with the Olympic Charter and recognition by the IOC.

The key idea is thus the promotion of a harmony and peaceful world (between countries) with ethical principles through the joys, solidarity, and friendships developed in free practice of sports and festivals of fair competitions. To realize the Olympic movement, organization and material support is required. There are three key organizations: the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Federations and the 205 National Olympic Committees. Thus it is a given that geopolitical boundaries and powers need to be recognized to resolve many of the political issues and challenges; not unlike what some United Nations organizations face.

The next issue is what is a fair play and leveled playing field when different nations have distinct social, political, and economic status and systems? Prior to 1986, professional athletes like NBA players were not allowed to participate. The argument for adopting the change had to do with the dominance of the performance in 70’s and 80’s by communist bloc countries led by Soviet Union where Olympians were trained full time as a career sponsored by governments. What is the difference between sponsorship by corporations vs. by government? Recall that Article 6 of the Olympic charter stipulates that “The Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries.” Nevertheless with the success of Olympics, each country is serious about winning as much as they can.

This brings us to the most serious challenge that is financial resource. Let us face it: financial health is a pre-requisite for any movement to be viable and sustaining. IOC now generates over 4 billion dollars of revenue quadrennially. The largest revenue sources, not surprisingly, come from broadcast rights (50%) and sponsorship (40%). For example, NBC paid almost $900 million dollars for the rights of broadcasting the Beijing Olympics in US. It went as far as time-shifting the programs including the opening and closing ceremonies to prime time so that it can maximize its revenue from filling those advertisement slots. Further, you can see clearly logos of many global corporate sponsors from Coca Cola to Nike are everywhere including many athletes’ apparel. No wonder until now, one out of the five rings/continents had yet to host Olympic games and you can guess which one it is.

This development would not surprise anyone as further commercialization and merchandizing seems inevitable when capitalism is increasingly popular and the trend towards to globalization appears to be unstoppable.

Interestingly, in Beijing Olympics you can find may athletes represent countries other than their homeland for a variety of reasons, ranging from business to an opportunity to be in Olympics. Becky Hammon, an excellent American WNBA player who is on Russia’s women basketball team that won the bronze medal and was called a traitor by some although U.S. women basketball team did not select her. Bernard Lagat, a long distance runner on U.S. Team was from Kenya and had sparked a similar controversy in Kenya as Hammon when he had to make a choice. Henry Cejudo, 55 Kg freestyle wrestling gold medallist is a Los Angeles-born son of illegal immigrant parents from Mexico. I certainly hope his mother will not get into trouble with ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement) now the spot light is on. On the other hand, Liang Chow, the coach of gold medal gymnasts Shawn Johnson was from China. Same as Lang Ping, head coach of U.S. Women Volleyball team that just won the silver medal. This is not unique to U.S. Many countries including China has employed best Olympics coaches for their teams in various sports. After all, there is no fundamental difference between sports and other business when you consider the talents and monetary issues. How and when should nation’s interests (definition?) come before individual athlete’s in sports?

In all, Beijing Olympics has brought us fabulous entertainment and exciting sporting events with the best of the best; it is entertaining and inspirational. I believe open access, exchanges and communications is always a better policy than isolation and boycotting. We may not be able to solve any social political ills overnight through events like Olympic Games that require delicate balance of sportsmanship, international politics and economics. But Beijing Olympics, like the previous ones, surely has open further the hearts and minds of billions and billions of people throughout the world. That is the invaluable contribution of Olympism!

Talk to you soon!

1 comment:

T.Paul said...

You sure have covered extensively on the spirits of Olympics. Overall it was a good event although I was inspired more by the Paralympics that followed. To feel comfortable and accept the physically challenged is an on-going universal task. It might have an unexpected positive impact in China to get comfortable with imperfection and reality and not feeling shame and pity with the unpresentable fellow country men and women.