Editorial from the July 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard
It really is four years since the last Olympic Games, and the whole jamboree is ready to roll again, this time in Barcelona. The Earth’s largest gathering of athletes and other sportspeople will assemble there this month and compete for medals and glory. Television and newspapers will keep the world informed of what is happening, compile the medal tables and search out the best news stories. And many people (not just the Barcelona hotel-owners) will be turning a nice profit.
For the Olympics of course are not at bottom about running and jumping and swimming. Like so many other things, Olympic sport has been moulded into a capitalist image, with money and nationalism the motivating factors. The sponsors don’t do it out of the goodness of their hearts, rather they expect good returns for their investment. Every winner wearing the gear of some manufacturer is adding to their coffers, while the greatest prize is that of hosting the Games themselves. The members of the International Olympic Committee are being wined and dined by those hoping to strike it lucky when the site for the 2000 Games is announced.
Besides the money, national pride and reputation are also at stake—as if having the fastest runner somehow proved the worth of a country’s government. But that, alas, is more or less how many workers will see it, that “their” country did well in terms of winning golds and silvers. The countries of Russia’s former East European empire used to be the most desperate for success in these terms, but the shamateurism rife elsewhere was equally hypocritical. Despite the fine-sounding words of the Olympic motto, nobody can pretend that taking part is anywhere near as important as winning.
The financial and nationalist pressures are responsible for the way so many competitors are forced to resort to drugs of one kind or another. The real crime is getting caught, misjudging how long before the contest you can safely stop the drugs you’ve been taking. For a tiny minority, Olympic success does open the door to relative wealth and comfort, but most have only broken dreams to show for their efforts, and often damaged bodies as well. There have been recent claims of athletes being used as guinea-pigs in the testing of unproven drugs, sometimes with appalling consequences.
The Olympics, then, are not about the pursuit of sporting excellence. Despite the dedication and talent of the participants, the name of the game is money and power, in various forms. Just as teaching under capitalism is not designed to educate in a real sense or help people to learn and think, top-level sport is not aimed at finding the best runner or swimmer. The flag-waving and money-grubbing, the deadly rivalry and the underhand tactics all reflect the sick society in which they occur. There is nothing wrong with striving to do your best, whether in sport or any activity. But the Olympics do not exist for this purpose at all—and it’s as well to remember that the next time you flick the TV switch to tune into the latest from Barcelona.