Winning Gold at Being an Olympic Cynic

I told my friend the other day that I think the Olympics has become a sham. He said,  

“When did you get so cynical”? Well, I can tell you it didn’t happen yesterday. The Olympics have marked the passing time of my once innocent youth, to becoming a cynical, but wiser adult.  

Growing up as flag waving American, I remember watching the U.S. hockey team win gold with the 1980 “Miracle on Ice”.  I was inspired by this underdog team and reveled in watching sport and patriotism being celebrated in unison.  In 1984, I fell for Mary Lou Retton and marveled at the circus like routines all the gymnasts performed.

Four year later however, I found my innocence slipping away.  The myth of America was beginning to fade for me and with that I found myself cheering with the rest of my Canadian school mates for Ben Johnson in the 100 metre dash.  Early on, when Johnson claimed that he had not taken steroids – I believed him. I was naïve to believe that some people may lie privately – but never publicly, especially not on television. Well, I soon learned that some people do lie and deny – no matter in what public forum they are speaking.  Cheating in sport to win, was apparently rampant and future scandal after scandal only continued to move me further down the line toward being a cynic.

My love for sport was not completely lost however. I even minored in sport administration while at university. But during one of our sport marketing classes a speaker who was involved with Gymnastics Canada gave us some background on how judges can be influenced during major competitions – including the Olympics. I heard how during social engagements the officials and judges from various countries would get together and sometimes make side deals. Such as the “you vote for my gymnast and I’ll vote for yours wink, wink” variety.  This apparently did not just go on in gymnastics, but figure skating as well. I was shocked, but the information was presented to me in such a matter of fact manner that my feelings of naïveté resurfaced again.

It is why I was not surprised by the judging scandal that plagued the figure skating at the 2002 games at Salt Lake City. I heard about it all before, including the bribery that was needed to be an Olympic host city. My knowledge of sports marketing also had me learn how the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles were the birth of the “Corporate Games” and how the Olympic rings became a brand unto them self and were sold to international companies that had global brands that needed a global event to sponsor.  I enjoy business and understand the benefits of sponsorship, but the purity of the Olympics like so many other things in sport became as much about selling something as the game itself.


This brings us to this year’s games in Beijing. They have provided their own wake up call for me, but my cynicism has not come from the smog or the underage Chinese gymnasts. It surrounds the funding of the Olympics and my realization that whether it be greater funding to elite athletes or hosting the games themselves - no public money should be made available.  If corporations or private individuals want to foot the bill go ahead, but wise public servants should see we have much greater priorities for our sacred tax dollars.  

A mature, self-confident country such as Canada doesn’t need the Olympics to validate ourselves or prove something to the rest of the world. Leave that to countries like China and the U.S. Where is the glory of winning the medal count if you suppress the rights of your people? What pride can a country have of winning gold medals if it leads the world in child obesity and early on-set diabetes?  During these Olympics we’ve had Canadian athletes whining for more funding at the same time former Toronto Mayor David Crombie is struggling to rub two nickels together to save Toronto’s public swimming pools.  I use to naively believe that the Olympics inspired a country’s youth to get involved in sports, but what good is that inspiration if cannot be fulfilled because of a lack of facilities.

Luckily, I have regained some of my youthful innocence watching the Olympic Games with my four year old son. He wants to swim at the Olympics when he gets older – good for him and all kids that dream big. Hopefully, they will grow up in a country with wise adults that realize the priority is to make sure that kids have a pool to learn a life saving skill rather than having their governments drown in debt trying to host a global, corporate pitch tent event.   

Yes, maybe as I have become more cynical as I’ve grown older, but they say with age comes wisdom.   

Originally Published in the Guelph Mercury August 2008