When Sports Became a Big Game

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The Article

Remember the movie Chariots of Fire? Sprinter Eric Liddell ran for the pure joy of running. But when the 1924 Olympics scheduled the 100 m dash for the Sabbath, he balked. Running, though thrilling, was not his whole life. All was not lost, though, because he transferred to other events and brought home several golds anyway. It was pure sport at its best.

Like the rest of the country, I cheered wildly when Ben Johnson ran that 100 m in 9.79 seconds back in 1988. Then we learned that it had all been a fraud. Sure Johnson was fast. Super fast. Even without the drugs, he very easily could have been the fastest man in the world. But we’ll never know, because he cheated. It wasn’t sport; it was all a mirage.

For years doping has given the Olympics a bad name. But this year in Beijing, the wizard has really pulled back the curtain. If we thought the Olympics were fake then, now we know it. This nation, which just twenty years ago massacred 7,000 students in cold blood wants us to all think everything is just dandy—and please ignore the political prisoners. Sure they persecute religious believers, use forced prison labour in their factories, mow down Buddhist monks, and constitute one of the worst human rights abusers on the earth. If they can pull off a great show, all of that will be forgotten, right?

Well, it turns out their show is just as false as their society. First came the fake fireworks, and then a cute little seven-year-old girl is caught pulling a Milli Vanelli and lip synching their national song, so the true songbird, with her buck teeth, could remain invisible. Add allegedly doctoring gymnasts’ birth certificates to make the pre-pubertal girls seem older than they are, and you have the perfect storm of what the Olympics has become.

It’s all about the show, and not about the sport.

I don’t know how many athletes at the Olympics are doped up today. Most of them are probably trying to abide by the rules while working their whole lives to get to this moment. But the amount of sacrifice that that involves in 2008, compared to Liddell in 1924, just makes the whole endeavour look a little pathological, or at least masochistic, to me.

Today, to obtain a coveted medal, you have to sacrifice your whole life on the altar of winning. That just makes me uncomfortable. What if someone’s having an off day? These athletes have so much riding on 100 metres, or one game, or one jump. What if they have PMS? What if there’s some strange pollen in the air? All that training down the tubes.

But there’s more to it than just the disappointment if you fail to give your best performance. What if your natural best is no longer good enough—and not just because of widespread doping? When it comes to the elite of the elite, there’s only the most minute difference in raw skill level anyway. All of these athletes are amazing. Ultimately, today, it all comes down to the training, which means it all comes down to money. That’s why China wins and Canada doesn’t. We don’t invest the money, and we don’t cheat.

In other words, we don’t play the game right.

Personally, I’d rather just watch the sprinters running on the beach, like in Chariots of Fire. I don’t need to see them competing in a brutal communist country which is trying to convince the rest of the world it’s actually a decent place. And I don’t want to see these truly gifted athletes lose because they couldn’t play the game.

We live in a world where image is all that matters, so it’s hardly surprising that the Olympics should stop being about pure sport and start being about the show. The truly sad part is that I think most Canadian athletes, with their small budgets and their big dreams, have more in common with Eric Liddell than with Ben Johnson, but unfortunately that can’t translate into winning for most of them. And that’s why I haven’t watched.

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