Olympic Dreams and Fairy Tales

How will Canada’s Olympians acquit themselves in Beijing?

On April 6, 2008, Canada’s biggest Olympic trials wrapped up at a swimming pool in Montreal. This was the final competition for swimmers hoping to take the next logical step in their sporting careers. As for many other Canadian athletes, competing at the Olympic Games is equivalent to climbing Mount Everest. It is simply the biggest show on earth. Like mountaineers, Olympic athletes can be tongue-tied when trying to justify their pursuits. Why do you climb the mountain? Because it’s there. Why do you want to go to the Olympic Games? Because they are there.

This is the reasoning that the International Olympic Committee and its franchises such as the Canadian Olympic Committee depend upon for their self-preservation, and it is the reasoning they hope Canadian athletes and Canadian sport fans will draw on when asked to justify participation in Beijing. While debates over political protests and potential boycotts are prominent in the news, the logic seems to be working. Collectively, Canadian athletes, their administrators, the CBC and the wider Canadian public all seem prepared for this year’s pursuit of Olympic dreams.

A recent special edition of CBC’s Sports Weekend was a classic illustration of this outlook, combining all the essential ingredients of a message that cultural theorist Richard Gruneau would identify as “stupid realism”—one part news coverage, two parts melodrama and a dash of travelogue, blended with promotional hype, nationalist excess and kitschy sentimentalism. When the coverage did address the broader social and political context of the Beijing Olympics, prominent athletes and their coaches did not represent themselves well. Those of the present generation, as well as those affected by the 1980 Moscow boycott, made the same hollow claims: boycotts destroy the dreams of innocent athletes and deprive the next generation of young Canadians of their role models.

Why do so many of our Olympic-bound athletes make me cringe whenever they respond to inquiries from the media on current international events? Because I believe it is not an Olympic dream they are pursuing, but a fairy tale. Dreams can be forgotten or can turn into nightmares, while fairy tales endure as entertainment for children or those adults with child-like imaginations. Heroes and heroines live happily ever after in fantastic other-worlds without complex social concepts such as the collective good and transnational diplomacy. Fairy-tale characters are not burdened by taxes, passports, education or jobs. And like fairy-tale characters, many Canadian athletes do not expect to endure such burdens of the world beyond their world. Does this have to be the case?

I should make it clear that I have participated in high-level sport throughout my life. As a university professor in a faculty of kinesiology I try to position myself as an advocate for athletes. Indeed, many of my students are elite athletes aspiring to compete at the Olympics. That said, I am distressed when they stumble so awkwardly in the media. I am beyond distressed when they fail to defend their basic human rights and bend without resistance to the institutions that claim to represent their better interests.

International human rights activists have targeted the Beijing Olympics as a logical site for political protest against the Chinese government’s oppressive policies and actions, and as a chance to challenge the world’s perception of China as a legitimate player in global society. This is not a plot line that IOC heavyweights want to address, preferring their fairy-tale script. But how do you write a script for a pantomime? Mario Vazquez Rana, president of the Association of National Olympic Committees, threatens athletes who might engage in political protests at Beijing with the possibility of serious sanctions. Canadian IOC member Richard Pound suggested that Canadian athletes should be silent or stay home if they cannot resolve their moral issues over China. It appears that the IOC has learned a thing or two from its Chinese hosts. They are willing to disregard the fundamental human rights of athletes to ensure that the 2008 Olympics and their precariously thin ideological veneer are neither cracked nor stained. Of course this is not the first time the IOC has threatened athletes into a state of submission. In 2000, athletes heading to Sydney were expected to waive their rights for independent dispute resolution in the event that they were presumed to be drug cheats.

When sport leaders such as Rana engage in these bullying tactics, Olympic athletes need to regain their voice—taking the example of two-time silver medalist Elvis Stojko, who recently argued that Canadian athletes should “make a stand” for human rights, and that if he were competing in Beijing he would think twice about attending. I agree with many of the athletes that boycotts are not necessarily the most effective form of protest. But ignoring the very real situation you are venturing into and allowing yourself to be muted by a self-serving sport administrator is not acceptable. Many Canadian athletes associated with Olympic sports seem perfectly happy to be silenced. Even more distressingly, they seem to regard this sanction as welcome permission to remain self-absorbed and dependant on sport administrators who claim to have their best interests at heart while presenting themselves to Canadian society as hapless victims of an irrational force that will destroy their chance for Olympic glory. When responding to journalists, they represent themselves with mindless rhetoric and a lazy reliance on tired stock arguments.

Canadian Olympians need to realize the misconceptions associated with their argument that a life singularly devoted to making an Olympic team is a life of sacrifice, and that sacrifices of education, careers and family should be recognized and rewarded by society. These are lifestyle choices, nothing more—the same types of choices that all adults make without expecting public sympathy and support. Instead, I would encourage Canadian athletes to think about how they themselves have been sacrificed by institutions like the IOC, the COC and the Beijing Olympic Games Organizing Committee.

Athletes trust and obey these organizations; they exchange their right to free speech and their right to democratic protest for the opportunity to compete at an Olympic Games. Their trust and obedience to the administrative bodies is based on a belief that the Olympic Games experience is worth more than being muted and socially disenfranchised during the months leading up to, and the period of, the Olympic Games.

For example, the IOC and the Beijing hosts promised athletes the best competitive environment, facilities and competitions. For elite athletes, seeking optimal competition environments at a peak moment in one’s career is a logical expectation. However, for swimmers and many other athletes who have grown accustomed to competing in evening finals over the duration of their careers, the optimal competition environment has been traded by the IOC to TV networks seeking the largest possible audiences during prime time in the United States, not China. As a consequence, these elite athletes will be expected to deliver their peak performances first thing in the morning. Athletes travelling to Beijing because they wanted to reach their full potential need to recognize that they have already been sacrificed by the organization they trust for television advertising profits.

From a different perspective, athletes are willing to exchange their fundamental human rights for the opportunity to return home as Olympians. The result, they believe, will be more doors opened for them after the games. Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with the logic of cultural capitalism. However, the cultural capital of an Olympian is relative—dependent not just on the athlete’s success at the games but also on the prominence of their sport, the relative success of other Canadian athletes at the games, the natural charisma of the athlete and, ultimately, the ability of the athlete to make a productive contribution to whatever field of endeavour he or she seeks once doors are opened. There is also a longevity factor to keep in mind. How long after retirement can an Olympian remain relevant?

But all these arguments pale in comparison with the human rights issues that lie at the core of the current debate. The Olympic movement has retained its prestige in part because the potential of sporting humanism and peaceful internationalism continues to resonate with sportspeople and fans. This prestige is also tied to the historical roots of the Olympic movement and the social and political intentions of its founders. Still, athletes who are willing to disengage from the current debate on human rights and still expect to emerge clothed in this prestige must be exposed as frauds. After all, the idea of an Olympian role model who refuses to speak up for the fundamental principles of positive social change is simply anachronistic.

Gag orders from IOC officials such as Rana and Pound are a sacrifice of real Olympians in an effort to preserve the honour of the Chinese hosts. If such threats are acted on, then the IOC will have effectively negated the potential for legitimate Olympian role models to emerge in Beijing. Athletes who choose to address the very real political context that is shaping their competitive careers will instead be set up as anti-heroes.

It is important to remember that precedents exist for prominent Olympians not to turn their backs on the world beyond Olympic fairy tales. The 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer featured two prominent athletes. The great Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss dominated those games. In addition to his dominance in the athletic arena, he emerged a champion of athlete activism while remaining a darling of the IOC. He did so to bring awareness to the critical issues of child poverty in war-torn Eritrea by announcing that he would donate his prize money to the cause. Strategically, he drew on history and the sentimentality that the Olympics still manage to evoke. Some might regard Koss’s campaign as simply fundraising, but it was also a bold assertion that the Olympics are an extremely effective venue for highlighting social and political concerns. At the same Olympics, figure skater Katerina Witt also made an innovative political statement. Witt and a number of other skaters had fought for reinstatement in the Olympic movement following successful professional careers. In itself, this was a bold rejection of the archaic amateur codes that dominated Olympic sport. But as part of her comeback, Witt dedicated her skating performance to the people of war-torn Sarajevo. While this was simple gesture (if somewhat kitschy), it was timely, potent and effective.

Given the IOC’s need to control all aspects of the Olympic performance, how did Koss and Witt get away with such blatant acts of political and social activism? Both drew on powerful cultural capital as mature, well-spoken and good-looking gold medalists. They also knew something of Olympic history and respected the humanitarian ideology that is part of the Olympic tradition. But, ultimately, the power of Koss and Witt came from their curiosity about the world beyond their training programs and competitive goals. Rather than separating their athlete identities from their humanitarian identities, they let them converge in ways they knew how to control.

Canadian athletes could learn much from Koss and Witt and the precedents they created. They can no longer pretend that their Olympic world is separate from the world of global trade agreements, child poverty, terrorism and corrupt dictatorial regimes. They can no longer turn away from the disruption and violence that followed the global torch relay. Nor can they face journalists and continue to claim that they are simply elite international athletes and that the Olympic Games are just a sport competition. They are Canadian athletes who travel the world with Canadian passports. They need to stop referring to the years of training that will go unrewarded if there is boycott. And athletes who did not go to the Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980 have to stop referring to “what could have been.” They need to think about how they represent themselves. They need to think carefully about the words they choose and the arguments they formulate.

I want Canadian athletes to be politicians and social activists. It is time that Canadian athletes owned the Olympics Games. If athletes had asserted themselves in 2001, Beijing would not be hosting the Olympics in 2008. Politicized athletes would have had the common sense to recognize that Beijing was too risky, with too many uncontrollable variables. These politicized athletes would have helped ensure the choice of a host city within a politically and economically stable nation. They would have chosen a city that was internationally respected and uncontroversial. These politicized athletes would have made selfish decisions that I wholeheartedly support. They would have made logical decisions to guarantee that their athletic careers would climax at an Olympic Games. To make these self-serving decisions, these athletes would have engaged with current events. They would have understood the financial relationships between corporate sponsors, television and international non-governmental organizations.

But that is what could have been. Canadian athletes now need to change their rhetoric and their attitudes. They cannot allow the IOC and the COC to tell them to be silent; nor can they distance themselves from controversy. If some Canadian athletes sincerely believe that they have no obligation to react to the international controversies of the Beijing Olympics, then I don’t want to see them representing this country. Maybe the Canadian government should take away their passports to give them an opportunity to argue for the honouring of their own human rights. The COC might also consider new qualifying criteria for Canadian Olympians: the achievement of all-round athletic qualifying standards, the successful completion of an Olympic Games history course and, most importantly, the elimination of the word “sacrifice” from their vocabulary.