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Friday, September 15, 2000

Olympics survive despite themselves

 Survival being a hot topic these days, let's have a look at the survivor for the ages.

 We present the Olympic Games, that celebration of sports excellence that steadfastly refuses to succumb to threats almost numbing in their relentlessness. Against the odds, here they go again in Sydney.

 Surely, the Olympics are divine. They thrive, a bastion against assaults that would take down the walls of a city, an unbreachable institution in an increasingly contradictory world (Summer Games in the fall?) that has featured stupid and hypocritical management, the poison of performance-enhancing drugs, rampant commercialism and tawdry political posturing.

 Against this backdrop, the essence of what Baron de Coubertin had in mind when he championed the modern Olympics has survived. It hasn't been easy.

 External and internal forces have been gnawing at the fringes for years, since the days when people used to say politics and sports don't mix. Neither do gasoline and alcohol, but that doesn't mean somebody doesn't try.

 Twenty years ago, the Canadian government ambushed its Olympic athletes by joining the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Games. Trade missions continued between the countries, business as usual.

 Four years later, the Soviet bloc pulled out of the Los Angeles Games and the only difference that time was the elite athletes of those nations had to seethe quietly at four years' training down the drain. Again, on the business and cultural fronts, not a beat was missed.

 Nowadays, the Olympics are big business, a multi-billion-dollar enterprise that has added a word to citius, altius, fortius. What's Latin for profit? Or, for that matter, graft?

 We know by now many of the disgusting details of payoffs to International Olympic Committee members by people involved in the Sydney Games and the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics and there's enough smoke surrounding the Atlanta Games to leave the most charitable observer pretty disenchanted. Outright payoffs, school tuitions for the kids of IOC sleazebags, the scandal reached far and deep.

 A dozen heads rolled within the IOC in a damage-control initiative led by Canadian IOC vice-president Dick Pound. You have a right to wonder how many of the guilty ducked in time.

 Meantime, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, ensconced in his $4,000-a-day Sydney hotel suite (all the el cheapo $2,000-a-day digs must have been taken) pretty well sums up the mindset of the many aristocrats and pretenders to royalty who cling to the 115-member IOC court. They still feel the little people, the athletes, ought to know their place even though 15 were taken on board in a piece of IOC window dressing.

 Philosophically, the Olympics have strayed from the purity of de Coubertin's ideals to the sanguine addition of a professional all-star team that has turned the Olympic basketball competition into a turkey shoot embarrassing to thinking people inside and outside the NBA. Others have lost their moral compass.

 We all know by now some of the 10,500 athletes in Australia will be achieving their results partly through pharmaceutical flim-flam. Some will be caught in the cat-and-mouse game between the forces of drug-testing and those of drug-masking.

 "As long as the rewards of top performance remain where they are, or even accelerate, the situation of the athlete, coach and their medical advisors 'being one step ahead of the tests' will persist," says Bob Barney, founding director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario.

 So the end (big money for gold-medal winners) will continue to justify the means (illegal performance-enhancing substances). It's not just the $100,000 to $1 million some nations will pay their gold-medal winners, it's the four-year window of corporate and competitive earnings that follow.

 But we also know there will be athletic stories certain to dispel the stench, the unknown guy from the Kenyan highlands coming up with a lifetime performance or the Balkan belle beating the odds. Canadians and those Americans able to pick up their northern neighbours' TV signals will be able to catch it live on CBC and TSN.

 NBC, as usual, will be unable to resist turning an athletic event into an advertiser-driven and stage-managed production and will, with a stupefying display of parochialism, massage it into a highlight package featuring American athletes with everyone else -- gold-medal winners included -- as merely backdrops to the show. Thinking Americans will again be embarrassed.

 How many of those medalists will be Canadian? Fewer, it would seem, than the 22 who made it to the podium in 1996 at Atlanta. Cutbacks in government funding, especially in an Olympics for which the hosts' government pulled out the fiscal stops, will be reflected in the medal count. My guess is 15 for Canada.

 But the Games will survive and whether Samaranch concludes these with another "best-ever" pronouncement is in the hands of organizers, who apparently did not take the horrible transportation woes of Atlanta to heart. Whether a rower takes a bus hostage to get to a race on time, as in Atlanta, remains to be seen.

 Despite all this, the Olympics remain the most exciting show on Earth. Athletes from the fjords to Fanshawe Lake will strive to be the best that they can be.

 If the IOC really wanted to commemorate achievement, it would strike special medals for those athletes who attain personal bests at each Olympics. What more, after all, can one do?

 In a real sense, the Olympic Games bring the world together, be it millionaire American basketball players or struggling sportsmen from the Steppes. Out of it comes a move toward peace and tolerance, a raised awareness of environmental concerns and, usually for the host nation, an improved infrastructure and legacy of improved recreational facilities.

 The Australian Olympics are of particular concern to Canadians, Toronto being a strong candidate for the 2008 Games. The Toronto 2008 organizers aren't shy about pointing out the poor human rights record of their major competition, Beijing, China, but that hasn't proven a great deterrent in past winning bids, considering Australia's abysmal record with its aboriginal people.

  For the next 21/2 weeks, Sydney will be the centre of the universe. It will be the scene of agony and ecstasy, of warmth and rancor and delirium and delight, a congress at the bottom of the world that will celebrate the lofty achievements of men and women in a way no other earthly event possibly can.

 The Olympic Games will survive. The athletes guarantee it.