Issues

January–February 2010

Re: “A Shameful Track Record,” by Laura Robinson

Every once in a while, even an experienced editor lets a real “stinker” slip through the judgemental net. Laura Robinson’s essay is a quintessential example. It is the journalistic equivalent of a blocked punt, dyspeptic, morbidly negative, mired in history from which everyone (except the author) has moved on and permeated by only a nodding acquaintance with the facts. How anyone could make, without blushing, some of the author’s tenuous connections between her barrage of complaints and a failure of the Olympic Movement defies imagination.

Perhaps some facts might be helpful. The Olympic Games bring together athletes from 205 different countries in the largest peaceful gathering on the face of this planet. To participate in the Olympics is the dream of every athlete—to be measured against the very best the whole world has to offer, in fair and friendly competition. Four billion spectators will share in at least some portion of the games, because of the underlying ethical, aspirational and international values they represent. No one would say the games are perfect, but the difference between the Olympics and professional entertainment sport is that the Olympics are founded in an ideal.

The world community unites in the effort to make the games a success, starting with the host country, but including every country that sends its athletes to participate. Governments and the private sector cooperate to finance the games and make them feasible, fun and secure, despite the many difficulties that may exist in the world at any time. All this is done in the context of the social and legal structures that are the mark of civilized societies, in which a balance is—and must be—struck between the anarchy of unlicensed freedom of speech and action (including libel and violence) and the peaceable enjoyment to which members of society are entitled.

The Olympic movement has contributed enormously over the years to international peace and understanding. It was the actions of the Olympic movement that did more to cause the dismantlement of apartheid than the tentative sanctions of governments. The Olympic movement has advanced the cause of gender equality and the elimination of racial, political and religious discrimination. Its success has not been universal (the International Olympic Committee was not the only organization fooled by Nazi Germany in the 1930s), but it has always tried to learn from experience and move forward in pursuit of its ideals. It has produced Olympians who have become icons, inspiring others to dare to imagine themselves as fellow Olympians.

Instead of being subjected to someone simply picking at scabs, your readers deserved better than the twaddle presented to them. No one in the Olympic movement minds constructive criticism—indeed, we learn from it and improve. Think how much better the essay might have been had there been even the slightest balance in the author’s approach. It was a great opportunity, sadly and completely wasted.

Dick Pound
Montreal, Quebec


I was happy to see that someone responded to Laura Robinson’s article “A Shameful Track Record,” because it contained so many references to acts clearly unacceptable in a democratic society. I couldn’t believe the media in general did not pick up on this. So, I read with great interest the response of Mr. Dick Pound. To my surprise, Mr. Pound complained that Ms. Robinson’s article was “morbidly negative,” and went on to repeat the litany of great things the Olympic movement has done for peace. But he said nothing, not a word, about the specifics of her article (“agents” harassing journalists on the street and other acts that should be condemned).

I read Mr. Pound’s response very attentively, and I think he could have summed it up by saying: I don’t like your article, and I am going to burn it.

André R. Gignac
Saskatoon, Saskatchewa


Laura Robinson’s spirited essay was fun to read. Any time we get to sling more mud at a self-important and corrupt organization such as the International Olympic Committee and its many sleazy members is at least therapeutic. But while Ms. Robinson’s essay is sufficiently outraged, it provides nothing new about the IOC. The Lords of the Rings: Power, Money and Drugs in the Modern Olympics (by Vyv Simson and Andrew Jennings), thefollow-up The New Lords of the Rings (by Jennings) and scores of related articles have covered this ground since at least the 1990s. Some cosmetic changes have been made to the IOC’s operations since those earlier revelations, including the elimination of the most blatant forms of bribery relating to the selection of host cities. But it is hard to believe that more secret and subtle forms of corruption do not still exist.

The rot at the core of the IOC clearly remains. In attempts to clean up the organization, the IOC has two huge advantages in its successful stonewalling. First, it is always able to wrap itself in the perceived moral purity of the Olympic movement and its (oft-professed, typically violated) ideals. “Attack us, attack the Olympics!”

Second, national Olympic committees and their countries’ governments are deeply hesitant to offend the IOC for fear of being blacklisted from hosting future games and of retaliation against their athletes. Even a general boycott of the Olympics might not defeat the IOC. It is clearly able to finance its own games, requiring only a host country (Switzerland? Spain? China?) from which to rent facilities. How long would such a boycott hold? Not long, I suspect. Countries such as Canada have far too much invested in national prestige and athlete development to throw that away on something as inconsequential as the integrity of the IOC.

One of the sad things about this situation is that the IOC’s membership includes many honest, well-meaning and dedicated people. But they are clearly torn between their pride in the principles of the Olympic movement and their embarrassment at being associated with other members who consistently disgrace the Olympics’ ideals.

As for complaints that VANOC and the IOC are not behaving democratically, when did sports become democratic? And why would VANOC be much different from any other host committee? It and Canada cut their deal with the devil the day they submitted their first bid to the IOC. Now we live with those consequences, good and bad.

John Butcher
Ottawa, Ontario


Re: “Troubling Tactics,” by Norman Ravvin

Heaven knows, no one in my family lost valuable art work during the Holocaust. They weren’t of that class. All the same, during a visit to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, my husband and I were startled to see rooms of western European art with acquisition dates corresponding to the war years. It felt like a violation, like unfinished business. So I can sympathize with the urgency and anger experienced by survivors who have sued to have their stolen property returned or to be properly recompensed.

I also understand the cringe factor experienced by some Jews at the very prospect of compensating unspeakable suffering with “filthy lucre.” This unease has deep roots in Jewish history, largely because for centuries European Jews were negatively associated with money, having been barred from other occupations. As Michael Marrus and reviewer Norm Ravvin point out, Shakespeare’s character of Shylock is still controversial centuries after it was first performed. Anti-Semitism still focuses on myths of Jews and money in the minds of the ignorant.

On the other hand, reparations are now a part of many, if not most, attempts to seek “a measure of justice” in the aftermath of crimes against humanity, whether through truth and reconciliation commissions or official apologies. The victims of Canadian residential schools have been compensated for their suffering, for example; although frequently, reparations are largely symbolic, as in post-apartheid South Africa, a country that couldn’t afford to pay out important sums.

I agree with Michael Marrus that reparations, whether substantive or symbolic, are probably not a useful way to understand the past, except marginally. What they can provide, though, is a sense of satisfaction, perhaps even triumph, although that’s a less obvious response. Reparations, real or notional, carry with them an admission that the victim’s suffering was real, and that what happened to them was wrong. Accountability is what many people crave.

“Put your money where your mouth is” pretty much sums it up. And in western capitalist societies, that’s not trivial.

Erna Paris
Toronto, Ontario


Re: “Our Healthiest Industry?,” by Stephen Schneider

This is an excellent and balanced summary of the history of organized crime in Canada, of the meaningless government policies on drugs and prostitution that create crimes and criminals where previously there had been no crime, and of the social conditions that lend themselves so readily to the provision of fresh recruits for organized crime from successive generations’ excluded ethnic groups.

I would, however, take some issue with what I take to be Schneider’s suggestion that the criminal justice system is of little or no use in these matters: “[because] it only addresses the symptoms of much deeper social problems.… the one institution that Canada places at the forefront to combat crime is incapable of preventing, in a proactive manner, the causes of the problem.” It is true that the justice system cannot address the causes, but it can harass and punish the members of organized crime. The justice system should be encouraged to do so with greater tenacity and strength.

With no little embarrassment I must also note that this argument resonates personally for me since I have recently discovered that one of Montreal’s most prominent gangsters during the Second World War, a close associate of the New York mafia families, deeply involved in the control of Quebec’s heroin and prostitution, was the son of my grandmother’s sister: Harry Davis took six shots in his chest from a rival gang and died on the street in 1948.

Elliott Leyton
Paradise, Newfoundland


Re: “The Myth of Chindia,” by Jonathan Holslag

This thoughtful review by a security analyst calls for responses to two points. First, Gravity Shift: How Asia’s New Economic Powerhouses Will Shape the Twenty-First Century is too rosy? The sources-of-growth framework not only brings out the different drivers of long-term growth in the two very different economies (trivialized by the Chindia hype) but also identifies serious obstacles to long-term success, contrary to the reviewer’s impression. Second, the review misses the profound change in governments’ recognition, in Asia and beyond, that the route to power and influence lies through economic development and reform rather than territorial expansion and military destruction. Economic reforms, growth and integration are positive sum—everyone can gain by cooperating and exploiting the gains from specialization and trade. My analysis shows potential gains from a bilateral trade agreement, but that does not mean it will happen. It illustrates the basic point that, as economic ties deepen and entrepreneurs specialize to exploit the gains from trade, shooting at each other risks shooting oneself in the foot. Even so, throughout Asia nationalist factions argue with internationalists at home and governments jostle for position and influence abroad.

Possibilities for rivalry and conflict are undeniable and flashpoints exist that obsess defence elites, but Holslag overlooks the shift that has already constrained China’s behaviour and plays an important role in my long-term analysis. Speculation that China and India will succumb to military adventurism or allow their economic relationship to be overwhelmed by political tensions and mistrust belittles this shift. Such speculation ignores areas of bilateral cooperation. It also ignores the recognition by their Asian neighbours of the need to balance the power of China, India and Japan by keeping the United States engaged in the region. And it ignores East Asian governments’ determined efforts to build cooperative regional institutions that tie the giants into pursuing common goals. These issues are discussed at length in Gravity Shift.

As I argue, both China and India face rising domestic risks from inequality and from the physical limits to growth. Such risks can be managed by further economic reforms and, in China’s case, by a serious rebalancing strategy. But such changes will not be easily made and will preoccupy both countries at home over much of the next 20 years with raising incomes and drawing tens of millions into the economic mainstreams. India is far behind China; it is too early to speculate that India will fail!

A final point: economists and various security experts often inhabit intellectual silos, something that is sometimes evident in the transpacific research networks in which I participate. It is like trains passing in the night. Looking at the same trends but using different assumptions and variables can lead to diametrically opposed interpretations and conclusions. Why not break out of these silos by communicating to develop a set of mutually agreed indicators of sustainable (and peaceful) long-term growth?

Wendy Dobson
Toronto, Ontario


The LRC welcomes letters. We reserve the right to publish such letters and edit them for length, clarity and accuracy. E-mail editor@lrcreview.com.