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Owen: The Olympic Movement has Become Remote from the Real World

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When Ron Clarke was 19 years old, he was chosen to light the Olympic Flame in the stadium during the opening ceremony of the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne. An amateur athlete, he worked as an accountant when he wasn't running. Photo: theaustralian.com.au

Other work projects have had me immersed in the world of sport of 50 years ago just lately, a world in some ways impossibly distant from ours today, albeit one that many contemporary sports administrators will remember quite well, as I do.

This got me thinking about the changes time has brought and whether any of them might hold pointers as to what the Olympic Movement should be looking to do to improve its standing, particularly in the West, where city after city has turned its back in recent times on a shot at hosting the Games.

The tail-end of the 1960s – Vietnam, the summer of love, student demonstrations, the last knockings of amateurism; it doesn’t look very fertile ground for lessons from history, does it?

And yet there is something from those messy last days of the amateur era, before the imperative of somehow keeping pace with the “full-time” athletes of the eastern bloc finally killed it, that is I think worth mulling over.

This was no longer the amateurism of the late 19th century, of the period when de Coubertin reinvented the Games, when amateur sport was for gentlemen who had no need to earn money from it.

The athletes – and to some extent the officials – of 50 years ago were generally ordinary people of extraordinary ability but far from extraordinary means.

They needed to make a living and, with broken-time payments limited under International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Avery Brundage, a zealot of amateurism, this could well mean holding down a job or a profession.

Long jumper Sheila Sherwood was, as Lord Coe could tell you, a PE teacher; Ron Clarke, the Australian long-distance runner, a qualified accountant.

This economic anchoring gave Olympic personalities from that era a much stronger connection with the real world, it seems to me, than many of their modern-day counterparts who have access to meticulous, enveloping support networks enabling them to dedicate themselves utterly to optimizing personal performance.

Half-a-century ago, you might say, what might almost appear a random selection of individuals would absent themselves for two or three weeks from their normal stations in society, gather in the same place and that would be the Olympics.

Today you might liken the situation to a spaceship full of utterly focused, perfectly prepared individuals touching down for a time wherever the host-city happens to be before zooming back into orbit until their next event.

At Mexico City 1968, the connection with the real world was most dramatically underlined, ironically, by the Black Power salutes; but it mainly consisted of people drifting back to their day jobs once the Games were over.

This distancing process is not unique to the Olympics: pretty much every sporting entity enriched by the boom in broadcasting rights has seen a similar thing happen.

The late-60s, for example, must mark just about the end of the days when club footballers would travel to games on the same buses and trams carrying the crowds coming to watch them.

But we expect more of the Olympics – and, to be fair, the Olympic Movement expects more of the Olympics.

We expect them to give us a glimpse of humanity at its best, a sort of stylized utopia of how things could actually be, to impart a grain of hope and the strength to cope with the drudgery of how things actually are.

This only works though if we feel an umbilical connection to the Olympic world; once the connection is lost, the event starts to appear trite, staged, at worst irrelevant.

Children run during an Olympic Day event. Photo: olympic.org

Don’t worry, I am not about to argue for a return to amateurism. The days are long gone when that particular genie could be put back in the bottle and there are many reasons to be thankful for that.

But I do think the Movement needs to find some way of re-establishing the strength of that connection we used to feel all those years ago.

And no I do not think the vogue for selfies, Instagram messages and the like from our Olympic heroes will do the trick.

Once the initial buzz has died down, kids tend to be quicker than anyone at seeing through the good-natured superficiality of such gestures.

Perhaps the increasingly strident nationalism that seems to accompany the Games nowadays is an attempt to reconnect, by emphasizing something we hold in common with competitors who happen to be our compatriots.

I struggle, however, to see this as a positive development, as it is ultimately divisive: by highlighting a link to a small group of Olympians, we magnify the distance from all the others.

I am not convinced either that the mass volunteering programs which are part and parcel of a modern Olympics, and other mega-events, are as helpful as some would maintain.

You could see them, indeed, as the last vestige of amateurism.

Yes, I know, many people have had remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime experiences thanks to these programs.

They seem to work particularly well in cities such as London with big reservoirs of motivated, talented people who can afford to take a few weeks off to live a dream.

But, with youth unemployment too high just about everywhere, it seems an obvious thing for the Movement – which has benefited more than most from the TV rights boom – to re-examine, so as to see whether it would be feasible to replace some or all of these posts with genuine, paid opportunities for young people.

If it were recognized that hosting the Games would bring – how many? – 10,000 perhaps 20,000 paid placements for local youth, albeit mainly short-term, who knows, you might start to chip away at those No majorities in recent Olympic referenda.

I do believe that the IOC senses there is an issue here and is trying to address it.

Ibrahim Al-Hussein carries the Olympic torch at the Eleonas refugee camp, Athens. Al-Hussein, a Syrian refugee, represented the Independent Paralympic Athletes Team at the 2016 Summer Paralympics and resides in Greece. Photo: Anadolu Agency

This would explain the initiatives we have seen over the years on sustainability, non-discrimination, the Olympic truce, refugees and others.

The problem is that while every one of these is worthwhile in its own terms, besides setting a good example, they have limited impact in the real world; this is, after all, a sporting movement we are dealing with, not a Government.

If every athlete who mounts an Olympic or Paralympic podium in Pyeongchang were to bear the slogan, “Stop killing and displacing children”, that might have a real impact.

But, of course, that would be a political gesture and might well have the counterproductive side-effect of causing the Movement to unravel.

One has to be realistic, I can accept that; but equally if a gesture has no discernible effect on the issue it is directed at, it can all too easily appear self-serving, even when it isn’t.

I do not have an easy answer for reinvigorating this connection which seems to be continuing to wither; but I do think the Movement needs to devote attention to it.

Half a century ago, it was as if a cross-section of what was best in society took time out every four years to put on the Games.

Little by little, the Olympics seems to have transmogrified into a parallel universe almost independent of the real world that most of us inhabit.

It needs somehow to achieve a measure of reintegration.

By David Owen

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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