The Utopia of Olympic Integrity.
Tall, slim and long legged, Darya Klishina could have succeeded as a volleyball player had she not been spotted at age 13 by coach Olga Shemigon at a regional track and field championship. In 2011, she injured her foot just before the World Championships final, and pushed through the pain to place 7th in the long jump, before undergoing surgery and a lengthy period of rehabilitation. The following summer, she was back in shape for the Russian Championship but fell short of qualifying for the London Olympics. Since then, she has consistently placed in the top ranks of her sport, risen to celebrity model status and is now considered to be the future of Russian track and field.
But just days away from the opening ceremony in Rio, Klishina has found herself in the center of a storm. Earlier this month, she was approved to take part in the Games as an independent athlete by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), a decision that was subsequently validated by Olympic officials. The IAAF Doping Review Board found that the long jumper, who trains at a Florida sports academy, was not involved in the systematic state-sponsored doping scheme conducted for several years in her home country.
The same board that granted her the Olympic ticket also rejected almost 70 other applications from Russian athletes.
For a brief moment, it looked as if Klishina was going to be the only Russian athlete traveling to Brazil. She was widely criticized by her fellow citizens for “lack of solidarity” and denounced as a “traitor” on social media after she agreed to compete under a neutral flag. At this point, she is still the only Russian track athlete to have been cleared, but it is unclear whether she will appear at the Games under the five colored rings flag or be able to hoist her national flag in case she podiums.
Would either option be a good thing for her?
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) opted not to impose a blanket ban on the entire Russian delegation — composed of almost 400 athletes — and issued instead a report stating that “Russian athletes in any of the 28 Olympic summer sports have to assume the consequences of what amounts to a collective responsibility in order to protect the credibility of the Olympic competitions, and the ‘presumption of innocence’ cannot be applied to them”.
Wow, declaring that “the ‘presumption of innocence’ cannot be applied” to the athletes is definitely a new low for the IOC. This is not to say that some athletes don’t get carried away by their own ambitions, because that is certainly the case. However, the cultural context in which this happens is rarely treated with the same level of scrutiny as the individual.
The bigger question is: How can the IOC expect the general public to have any faith in its brand when it is not even willing to stand by those who make their brand possible?
The international federations that oversee each individual sport, ranging from aquatics to tennis, were requested to directly evaluate the eligibility of all athletes case by case. It’s been a race against the clock since, and several athletes have been cleared of any wrongdoing, but Russia’s delegation will still be severely depleted when the Olympic flame is lit at Maracanã stadium.
Not surprisingly, attacks have been flying in every possible direction. Vladimir Putin is accusing the West of conspiring against the Kremlin. The German News Agency Bild called the President of the IOC, Thomas Bach, “Putin’s Poodle”.
American sports columnist Christine Brennan also jumped in:
“This would be the equivalent in the United States of Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones and hundreds of other American athletes working in concert with government officials and the CIA over years in order to cheat … it’s unfathomable.”
Meanwhile, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is still trying to come to terms with the realization that the little urine sample bottles it has relied upon to safeguard the integrity of global sport are not as impenetrable as it had thought. Such discovery raises huge questions around virtually every medal won during international competition in past years.
This is a leadership crisis that goes well beyond Putin and performance enhancing drugs.
The IOC continues to devote a large chunk of its energy to controlling the damage of the London and Sochi Games, while simultaneously trying to contain the negative repercussions of conducting business in a host country (in this case Brazil) plagued by health and security disasters, political and social unrest, not to mention budget mishandling and construction delays leading up to the festivities.
Does anyone honestly believe that this should continue to be the normal state of affairs for the world’s most prestigious sporting event?
For the global sporting community, this is not just a passing storm, either. The events described above signal a much more systemic and enduring multi-level mess that only seems to be getting messier every year. As a society, we risk losing sight of the deeper value that sports are supposed to bring.
Pierre de Coubertin, considered the father of the modern Olympic Games, was an educator. He studied a broad range of topics, focusing particularly on the role of sport in schooling. The inclusion of physical education in the curriculum of French schools would become an ongoing pursuit and passion of his. While his efforts with schools failed, he later succeeded in reviving a “festival of international athleticism” and instituting the Olympic Movement. It was Coubertin who proposed Citius, Altius, Fortius as the Olympic motto upon the creation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894. “These three words represent a program of moral beauty; the aesthetics of sport are intangible”, he added.
Some considered that Coubertin had a romanticized vision and idealistic philosophy towards the Games, but at the core of his impetus was the vision that they should represent a celebration of sportsmanship.
“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
Pierre de Coubertin
One could easily argue that the Olympic Games stand amongst the world’s most powerful symbols of physical prowess and competition. Therefore, athletes are supposed to fight for medals with everything they’ve got and that’s just how things are. One could also argue that the transition from exclusively amateur to professional status brought more visibility and resources to the Games, and with that the inevitable economic and political pressures. That’s what makes the world go around. How about performance enhancing drugs? Well, once you mix high-level competition with money and politics, PED’s are just something you should expect having to deal with, aren’t they?
As this year’s Torch Relay approaches its final destination, however, I feel inspired to wonder whether Coubertin’s idealism should be so easily displaced by cynicism.
Sixteen years ago, Robin Williams was the English-language narrator for the global campaign themed Celebrate Humanity, which told the stories of remarkable dedication, friendship, strength of character and the joy in effort that Olympic athletes demonstrate. “Many of my favorite Olympic memories were not gold medal situations. They were inspiring moments of humanity that transcended borders, obstacles and languages — and unified people around the world. I feel this campaign conveys that, and I am proud to be a part of it”, said the Academy Award-winning actor.
What if the Games were truly a sanctuary for athletes to live their dreams and explore the limits of their own potential, while inviting the rest of us to reflect on how we can become better versions of ourselves?
What if they were allowed to self-organize in multinational teams that transcended geo-political limitations and nationalistic agendas?
What if they all had access to training centers around the world that complied with standard requirements?
What if corporations worked more closely with the international sports federations to provide athletes with on-going support in their journey (including proper compensation!) and help elevate their respective disciplines?
What if the IOC limited the number of host cities around the world and focused its resources on constantly improving infrastructure and increasing youth participation, thus sparing everybody the headaches and financial waste that currently takes place every two years?
It is time to reflect on the future of the Olympic Movement, as well as its real impact on people — mainly athletes — whether professional or amateur. It is time to think about what we really want to teach new generations — through sports or otherwise.
In his book David & Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell uses the most classic story of battles between underdogs and giants as a metaphor to explore the “greatness and beauty” that can emerge as a result of confronting powerful opponents, adverse circumstances and overwhelming odds. Relying on his famously provocative storytelling, Gladwell takes an even broader viewpoint on the subject when he invites readers to reflect on how our competitive mindset is shaped from a very young age:
“It is a strange thing, isn’t it, to have an educational philosophy that thinks of the other students in the classroom with your child as competitors for the attention of the teacher and not allies in the adventure of learning?”
Just like Gladwell questions the conventional structure of the educational system, we should start prioritizing the educational value of the Olympic Movement as a whole, rather than just celebrating the momentary excitement generated by the Games.
Who is going to do that? Certainly not the bureaucrats and politicians who put the athletes in a pressure-cocker and then cut their losses. It’s up to those who actually have a passion for the sport, and are willing to take a stance in spite of the bureaucrats and politicians. It starts with athletes such as Klishina. It starts with the schools, little league coaches, parents, junior varsity championships, local gyms, universities and 10k race organizers. It starts at home and public parks. It starts with you and me.
By all means, let’s enjoy these Games and cheer for our idols. But let’s not simply wait until PyeongChang or Tokyo and realize that things have only gotten worse.
The Olympic Movement isn’t just the IOC’s responsibility. Its ideals transcend the adrenaline of competition and the pride of counting the number of medals. It is intended to be a source of hope, courage, honor and enduring values. And it is also meant to be fun, let’s not forget that.
My biggest wish is that Klishina keeps her cool, regardless of which flag she ends up representing. She may be a fearless competitor and a supermodel, but perhaps she impersonates David in an epic battle against Goliath. Hopefully she can stand taller than ever and inject positive energy into the overall system, inspiring others to do the same.