London 2012: Why an American Swimming Coach Needs to Shut Up and Why the Olympics is Ridiculous to Begin With

I try to avoid watching the Olympics, given that it encourages the continued exploitation of young kids in sports that nobody really cares about, but for whatever reason, I caught myself watching the other night. And I was quickly reminded why I am at times embarrassed to be American when I’m overseas. I hadn’t really felt this way since Bush left office four years ago, but American swimming coach John Leonard’s comments brought back some ugly flashbacks.

Leonard, who has a history of idiotic, sexist comments, wanted “to be careful about calling it doping,” though essentially accused Chinese gold medalist Ye Shiwen of exactly that. This pissed me off on two levels: firstly, that it’s surely okay that Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte win EVERY swimming event, shattering world records in the process, and of course would never raise any suspicion of doping. I guess this is because NBC shows us day and night the touching stories of how hard they have worked for this for four years (spare me, please). Apparently, despite building our entire railroad network in helping the US attain its industrial power status in the 19th century, we cannot believe that someone from China could possibly have the same work ethic of some rich, white kids who grew up in suburban swimming pools. Secondly, for Leonard to even say “we want to be very careful about calling it doping” while clearly implying exactly that is just cowardly. If you’re going to say something and try to smear this girl’s hard accomplishment, then at the very least put your neck out there and just say it—don’t dance around your point.

It’s a typical arrogant American attitude in full display, which I go to great lengths to try to downplay when I’m overseas. We’re not all that way, I try to explain, but idiots like Leonard make this very difficult to sustain.

That being said, I’m not really in favor of how the Chinese handle their athletics program either, which is exactly why I’m pretty much anti-Olympics. Let’s be honest—nobody really cares about swimming, from a spectator standpoint. Sure, people watch at the Olympics, but that is solely because of the bigger stage of what the overall competition is. People plan vacations around it, and not to watch a 200m freestyle relay. Soccer, basketball, American football, baseball, hockey, auto racing, and to some extent golf and tennis—these are the sports that have a continued following and can sustain themselves as professional businesses based on fan interest, ticket sales and television demand. Equestrian, swimming, or synchronized diving? I think not.

Yet despite this, I continue to hear stories from the Olympics like the one of China’s gold medal diver Wu Minxia, who had news of her grandparents’ deaths hidden from her for over a year so as not to interfere with her concentration for London. This poor girl was training daily from age 6, and taken from her home and family at 16 to be enrolled in a government aquatic academy. Even her father, who presumably (we hope) had to agree for this to happen, said his family “accepted a long time ago that she doesn’t belong entirely to us,” and that he doesn’t “even dare to think about things like enjoying family happiness.”

For what, may I ask? Is it really worth it for this girl? This is a perfect example of why the Olympics are really for the benefit of everyone but these athletes. In Wu’s case, she has become a gold medalist, which (we hope) will lead to opportunities that she can personally benefit from in the future. But for every Wu, there are hundreds and thousands of other athletes who do not register the same success after going through the same process. Can you imagine what the psychological impact must be on them for being expected to produce the same results and “failing” on the world stage? They are treated like machines that exist solely to bring gold medals back to a country, and if they fail at that, then what good are they, really?

Sure, for some who are clearly participating in the Olympics on their own terms, like the USA men’s basketball stars or Paraguayan track athlete Leryn Franco (who is not even in London to compete, but to boost her modeling career), it is just a fun event with which to further elevate their global celebrity. But the vast majority of these athletes are not rich, visible celebrities. Their hard work and, in cases like Wu Minxia, personal sacrifices, are solely for the benefit of the Olympic television sponsors, the rich IOC, and the corrupt politicians from various countries who can leave their 20-year-old mistresses aside for a  moment to revel in the fact that they are developing a “successful” athletic program.

If the Olympics truly were an amateur event which benefited the athletes who partake, I would be all for it. But unfortunately it’s anything but, and the existence of institutions that take “amateur” athletes from their homes and families and hide news of family tragedies from them in the name of “focused preparation” make this fact painfully evident.

-JG

5 comments

  1. Soraia

    I really enjoyed the text and critical vision contained therein. In the Overview, the Olympic Spirit and Very beautiful and exciting but in the games world wide repercussion are present the greatest exploiters masquerading as saviors, creating small machines for cash and projection.
    We can see this clearly in Brazilian football schools, where children 10 years old are tested for large clubs and chickens are treated as being prepared for slaughter, after this life becomes one big negotiation … and only love in this field is the money.
    We created human beings with this mentality.
    Healthy sport is one that starts in school and parents is only punishment for having missed a class to play on the court, is pleasure without pressure, something also has another name.

  2. C L

    Olympics itself is not to blame.

    Everyone including you and me works hard to achieve goals in careers. Olympic is just a stage where athletes can shine to the world. We are privileged to share their tears and every emotional moments.

    People who are overly protective are to blame. I have seen this similar reactions in other forums including economy and politics. When it comes to global competition, accusations between nations will be even stronger and fierce. It is not just the Americans.

    You are right on exploration. However bear in mind, this exploration will be worse in developing countries. You guys should be proud that your country can produce some great atheletes via scientific and more humane approach, considering the quarter population of China. However please remain humble;)

    The American coach is just being out spoken. Believe me he is not the only person in the world with that thought in mind. Of course everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

    The untold family secret is a joke to me. It doesn’t show sacrifice to me. It simply shows parents are not open and honest to their children and they think their children are mentally weak. I wouldn’t be happy that this story was released if I were her…..

    Take it easy and enjoy the game;)

    A heart from London

    • admin

      Thanks for the comment. I hear what you’re saying…the other thing that really upset me when I read about it was that there is a swimming coach in Australia who trains these Chinese swimmers, and takes home $150,000 for each gold medal they win, with lesser amounts for other medals. That is just crazy to me. How much of that sum do you think the kids actually doing the work and winning the races are seeing? It’s just really sad, and even more sad that the Chinese powers that be endorse this as though nobody in their entire country of 1.3 billion can teach someone how to swim.

      • A heart from London

        Hi Admin, please correct me if I am wrong here. You mean you don’t think that australian coach is worth that bonus/motivation scheme. If so, I disagree. It is too often that we are seeing athletes are making more money, once they become successful, than their coaches. I am delighted to see a world-class trainer who is offered as such. When a profession can reach a global level then the pay will be decided by the international market. It is market driven. A few hundred thousands dollars compared to multi-million deal endorsed by athletes is relatively small. Again markets decided it.

        Of course there are coaches who can teach swimming in china. What they lack of is the science and technology. I am happy to see China acknowledge their weakness and scrap the absusive program and adopt better approach to trainer their talents.

  3. C L

    Exploitation I meant to say:)

    I have a seperate note on celebrity. I see nothing wrong with that. I am actually happy to see people to become famous through different paths, not just singing or acting. They are all talents to me.

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