End the Olympics?

Yes, until we find a way to fix what is so wrong with an idea thatshould be so right

By

I was 12 years old when I competed in my first Olympics. OK, those Olympics were held in my backyard in Saint John, New Brunswick, and the competitors consisted of me, my brothers, my sister, the O'Briens from around the corner and the Lunds from up the street.

We struggled to be stronger, faster, higher in events like the around-the-house-twice marathon, or shot-putting my mother's old iron. After all, we were absorbed with the "idea" of the real Olympics, taking place that summer in Mexico City.

But 30 years after my introduction to the games, I believe it's time to face the facts and end the Olympics.

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Beseiged by corruption and scandal, unable - and unwilling - to deal effectively with rampant drug use by elite athletes, and so subsumed by corporate interests that actual athletics are now secondary to merchandising and the interest of the TV networks, the idea behind the Olympics has been so polluted that it is sending the wrong message to athletes and young people worldwide.

What about current attempts at reform, some will say.

True, some minor fixes are being made after recent revelations of corruption.

But will true change come as long as current International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Juan Antonio Samaranch remains in charge? Not likely. Nor is it likely that genuine change will come from any of the hand-picked lieutenants that might succeed Mr. Samaranch.

Even if the IOC removed the abuses associated with the awarding of the games, the drug problem alone could bring the movement to its knees.

"Athletes are a walking laboratory, and the Olympics have become a proving ground for scientists, chemists, and unethical doctors," Robert Voy, the director of drug testing for the US Olympic Committee (USOC) at the 1984 and '88 Games, told Sports Illustrated in 1997.

"The testers know that the [drug] gurus are smarter than they are. They know how to get in under the radar."

How bad is the problem? A 1995 poll of 198 top Olympians, most from the US, posed the following question: If you could use performance-enhancing drugs and get away with it, would you do it? One hundred and ninety-five athletes said yes.

They were then asked a second question: If you could take these same drugs, not get caught, win every race for five years, but then die from side effects of the drug, would you take them? More than half said yes.

What kind of message does that send to young people?

Meanwhile, the level of corporate sponsorship at the '96 Atlanta Games was so outrageous that even the IOC felt the need to look a little ashamed - even as they made billions.

And these days the TV networks seem to call most of the shots about the actual games - sports that draw poor audience numbers are dropped from broadcast in favor of pseudo-sports of questionable athletic heritage that look great on TV: beach volleyball and snowboarding come to mind.

Perhaps Samaranch was right to recognize that the era of "shamateurism" was over, and that in order to survive, the Olympics had to become more business-oriented. Unfortunately, he has allowed that commercialism unhindered access to all elements of the games.

The classic example of this was the refusal of several members of America's basketball "Dream Team" to wear the official USA jackets to their gold medal presentation because they came from the wrong corporate sponsor.

Never mind that the players were representing their country - the truth seems to be that they were representing their corporate sponsors just as much.

Again, supporters of the games will point to current attempts at reform - won't that make a difference?

I don't think so.

Sometimes, when there has been a fire in a house, the owners can try to repair the damage, particularly when it has been confined in one area. But when that fire has burned in many parts of the house, at the same time, often its better to tear the structure down and rebuild a new one on the same patch of ground.

THERE have been too many fires in the Olympic house to do minor repairs - it's better just to tear the whole house down.

The Olympics of ancient Greece were abandoned because of corruption and other problems.

Then Pierre de Coubertin revived them centuries later. Now it's time to abandon the Olympics again, and leave it to someone in the future to find a way to fix what is so wrong with an idea that should be so right.

*Tom Regan is the associate editor of the Electronic Edition of The Christian Science Monitor. He also writes the "Bandwidth" column for the Monitor's Ideas section.

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