It was called the “Own the Podium” campaign, Canada’s efforts to win enough gold medals to make Ron Paul defect. Its zeal for gold meant such sporting practices as locking athletes from other countries out of the practice facilities. Anything for an edge. This lockout included the luge sliders at the whip-fast run in Whistler. As a result, a Georgian luger by the name of Nodar Kumaritashvili had only one-tenth the practice runs as his Canadian opponents when he lost control and sped to his death.
Poor sportsmanship doesn’t always kill. But it has been evident at every corner of the games, and not just from our neighbors from the North. There was Russian skater Evgeny Plushenko, who, after earning the silver medal, first climbed up to the gold medal spot. “I stepped on the gold medal position because I forgot that I came second,” he said. “To be fair, I felt that I’d stepped on to my position. It wasn’t planned, of course. It’s just that in my brain, I’d won.”
He also decided to go “figure skating macho” by criticizing gold medal winner Evan Lysacek’s gold medal, saying, “If [the] Olympic champion doesn’t know how to jump quad. . . . I don’t know. Now it’s not men’s skating. Now it’s dancing.”
Then there’s the Russian ice pair, Maxim Shabalin and Oksana Domnina, who performed a dance they called a “tribute” to Australian Aboriginal culture. It was a tribute only if you consider Amos & Andy to be a tribute, as well.
Stephen Page, the artistic director of the Bangarra Dance Company, told the AFP news service that their accompanying music was more African or Indian than Aboriginal Australian and their body paint seemed as though “a three-year-old child had drawn it on.” “It looks more like they were trying to emulate the token savage cave man,” he said.
At least Shabalin and Domnina didn’t use their “brown-face” makeup, which they had used in previous routines.
Lest anyone think I’m picking on just the Canadians and the Russians, we also had U.S. skater Johnny Weir say, after coming in sixth, that he lost “not because I wasn’t good enough, just that politically, no one was thinking of me [as a medalist].”
Then there was South Korean gold medalist Lee Jung-Su, who slammed the U.S. speed skater Apollo Ohno as “too aggressive” in a post-race news conference. Even though Lee won the gold and Ohno the silver, Lee said, “Ohno didn’t deserve to stand on the same medal platform as me. I was so enraged that it was hard for me to contain myself during the victory ceremony.” In South Korea, you can buy toilet paper with Ohno’s face on it.
This range of ugliness—from the catty to the racist to the fatal—is significant because it exposes the reality of what the Winter Olympics are all about. The International Olympic Committee—that sewing circle of monarchists, extortionists, and absolved fascists—likes to hide behind the pretense of nobility. It claims to care not for profit or personal gain. Just the glory of “Olympism” as represented in its Magna Carta: “the Olympic Charter.” That charter states: “The mission of the IOC is to promote Olympism throughout the world and to lead the Olympic Movement. This includes upholding ethics in sports.” On the IOC’s website, there is a quiz: “The Ultimate goal of Olympism is to a) Organize the Olympic Games, b) encourage new world records, c) build a peaceful and better world through sport. It’s perfectly understandable if you needed three tries to answer that correctly. The answer is, of course, c—although that would certainly be news to the family of Nodar Kumaritashvili.
What trumps these grand “ethics” is the reality of what makes the IOC go ’round: television and corporate dollars. And if corporations can’t come up with the money, then cities and host countries pay through the nose.
This is why—despite the death of Kumaritashvili, despite the terrible sportsmanship on display, despite the protests by Vancouver residents and at times violent confrontations with the police—these games are being regarded as a profound success. The IOC is claiming that more people will have watched the games across the globe than any Winter Olympics in history with a 47 percent jump from the Torino Games. In the United States, even American Idol is eating the dust of Olympic fever. “Going for the gold” is no longer about winning races but beating Simon Cowell.
For athletes, the costs of training for the Olympics means that losing are not an option. As a result, we have petulance. We have spectacle. And we have death. We also have something that is no longer the Olympics but reality television, where as many titillations take place off the field of play as on. An international sporting competition could be something to treasure. In particular, having female athletes and a variety of different events leading off sports coverage is very welcome. But in the hands of the IOC, it’s all a gigantic fraud.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing [email protected]. Contact him at [email protected].]