Sunday, August 24, 2008

Biased Opinion - Olympic Fraud and Disillusionment

I love the Olympics. At least I used to. I'm not so sure any more.

I like baseball, but pretty much only to the extent that I will play it if the opportunity arises (and in that case, I'm usually playing softball, not baseball), or to the extent that I am participating in a fantasy baseball league. I will watch football or basketball, but usually only if the Hoos are playing. But ever since I was a kid watching guys run around a track in Montreal, or slide down a bobsled run in Innsbruck, I've always felt the allure of Olympic sports. They always seemed to have a different aura about them - perhaps it was just that they happened only once every four years, as opposed to the hum-drum regularity of professional sports games. perhaps it was that the sports were so varied and different. I don't know.

I remember watching the Lake Placid Olympics and noticing the first wedge of hypocrisy in the rules - athletes from western nations were held to a strict amateur code, usually struggling to make ends meet, while athletes from behind the Iron Curtain were, essentially, professionals paid for their athletic skills. I remember asking my father about this, and it was one of the first questions I posed that he had no answer for. It wasn't his fault. He didn't make the rules. He couldn't be expected to justify their stupidity.

But, looking back, that was the first real indication I can remember that the IOC was a corrupt and ineffectual organization. Things like the allegations of corruption surrounding the original Salt Lake City bids and the skating judging fiasco, the allegations of gambling influence at the Seoul games, the doping scandals that have grown every games, and the mess that gymnastics always is simply make this clearer with every scandal.

And now it is pretty clear that the Chinese gymnastics federation cheated by using ineligible gymnasts, specifically He Kexin, Deng Lilin, and Yang Yilen. Whether you agree with the age limit rules or not, violating them and using ineligible athletes is cheating. The evidence of this cheating keeps piling up. And the response from the IOC on this simply confirms, once and for all, that the IOC, and possibly the modern Olympics, are past their sell by date.

The first thing about this scandal is that it is clear that the Chinese government is really not good at covering their tracks. I'm guessing that they are so used to controlling the media, and having their pronouncements accepted at face value that they have simply been unable to comprehend that some people would go back and double check what they said. They certainly didn't expect people to go onto their websites and dig up older versions of their published materials to contradict the official line.

However, the Chinese have had a willing accomplice to their fraud in the IOC. First, the IOC tried to sweep it under the rug and hoped it would go away. That might have worked thirty years ago when media outlets were few, and a week old sports story would fade off the wire. But now? Not a chance. Then the IOC tried to dodge responsibility saying that it was up to the gymnastics federation to decide (which makes one wonder what the IOC actually exists for, if it isn't to run and police the Olympic games). Then it decided to use the silliest investigative technique one could imagine:

Policeman: Hello, did you rob that bank over there? I have two witnesses that say it was you and videotape of you pointing a gun at the bank teller.

Masked man: No, it wasn't me. I had an appointment elsewhere. I'll go get my date book and let you look at it, umm, tomorrow.

Policeman: That's good enough for me. As long as your documents say otherwise, that videotape must be some sort of mistake.

Silly, isn't it? But that's basically the nature of the IOC investigation. Now, the IOC has made noises about "not wanting to offend the Chinese", but that just seems to illustrate the inherent corruption here. If the Chinese didn't manipulate their gymnasts' ages, then they wouldn't be offended - most athletes from other countries have been extraordinarily open about things like testing, many even volunteering for additional tests just to demonstrate their innocence and willingness to cooperate. But China? To even suggest that the Chinese might have cheated, even with piles of evidence that they did, is somehow too insulting to consider. And that's because the IOC is desperate to pretend that there are no problems with the Beijing games because, I think, they have been stung by the very legitimate criticism that Beijing should have never been awarded the games to begin with.

And, in many ways, that's the fundamental issue here. The IOC should have known better. Getting a big prize doesn't make a police state become more open, more liberal, and more tolerant. Getting a big prize just legitimizes a police state and gives it a platform to engage in propaganda. It did in 1938, it did in 1980, and it did in 2008. The Chinese government, rather than opening up and becoming more tolerant, has used the "security" concerns of the games to crack down in Tibet, arrest thousands of people, and basically tighten up security and suppress dissent. The Chinese prettied up Beijing for the games, and tried to combat their horrific pollution, but essentially this amounted to building a giant Potemkin village for the television cameras. And the IOC looks like the corrupt, clueless gang that they actually are. To me, it highlights the true ineffectiveness of the IOC - they don't dare offend anyone, because they, like an abused child who craves the abusers love, they are desperate for countries like China to "be part of the Olympic movement". And China knows this, so they make veiled threats, effectively acting like a spoiled child on the playground who threatens to take his ball and go home unless he can break the rules. But scandals like this only serve to show that the "Olympic movement" is hollow and meaningless

As an aside, can we finally put the whole "Eastern harmony with nature" thing to rest? It should be clear to anyone who paid any attention to the run up to the games that China is a cesspit with levels of pollution almost incomprehensible to Americans. I remember watching one of the bike races, and having the commentators note that although it had rained and cut down on the humidity, the rain was so polluted that it made the roads oily and slick. Think about that for a moment. Then think about how the Chinese banned half the cars in Beijing from driving, closed down dozens of factories, and had to desperately scrub rivers to get them clean enough for boating events. If that's the result of Eastern wisdom, spare me any of that kind of advice.

If the IOC were a real organization, with a real concern for the Olympics, they would aggressively pursue the allegations that the Chinese cheated and used ineligible athletes. If the Chinese didn't, then they will have done their job, and China will be vindicated and the world will be assured that the Olympics are well-run. If China did field ineligible athletes, then a drastic solution will have to be found - because falsifying several passports and birth certificates is not an athlete cheating, but rather an organized conspiracy to cheat by an entire sporting federation. (By the way, doesn't it seem pathetic that China would feel the need to cheat to win. It makes the Chinese sporting federation look childish and insecure that they would do something like this). The only solution is to punish the entire federation. It would not be enough to strip the ineligible athletes of their medals, for the same reason that it isn't enough to simply have monopolists or those who defraud the government pay simple damages (and instead they pay treble damages). The only real sanction that would achieve the effect of showing the IOC isn't a weak and toothless caretaker of the Olympics would be to strip all Chinese gymnasts at the 2008 games of their medals, and ban China from international gymnastics competition until after the 2012 games. Effectively, this would be the equivalent of the NCAA giving a corrupt football program the "death penalty".

It won't happen, of course. Rogge will make noises about fairness. He will dissemble in public. The IOC will accept forged documents from the Chinese. And the IOC will declare that no cheating occurred. And then they will wonder why people aren't enthused about the games any more.

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