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.