An Olympic Debacle
C’mon, just admit it. You know you tuned into the Rio Olympics this past week at least in part to see the disaster it had all the potential in the world to be. You know that like Heath Ledger’s Joker, you wanted to see the dumpster fire this Olympics was supposed to be- that you wanted to watch it burn, burn, burn. But then something happened. That spirit of universal competition, that passionate athletic drive that transcends national or ethnic divides and brings us all together to bring out the very best of our common human forms, all of that came rising from the ashes as it does every four years and reminded us of what the Olympics has always had the power to be.
It didn’t start well. For weeks now, we’ve been hearing the horror stories coming out of Brazil. The Zika virus, housing shortages, traffic issues, and serious security concerns. And then there’s the water. In July, the AP reported testing showed human sewage levels in the Rio water that were 1.7 million times what would be considered “highly alarming” in the United States or Europe. Folks, that’s 1.7 million times higher than water that would make an American health official slap a glass of water out of your hand and yell, “Damn, don’t drink that!” I didn’t even know you could have that much human feces in the water, at least not without evoking an instinctive gag reflex. You certainly couldn’t convince me to swim in it- at least not without an innovatively-designed, full-length body condom.
And then there came the inevitable drug scandals. The International Olympic Committee gave 278 Russian Olympic athletes a last-minute reprieve so that they could participate in this year’s Olympics despite compelling evidence that the Russians have been involved in a state-sponsored doping program for years. The Russians were even doping their paralympic team, for crying out loud, an institutional moral failure that led to 118 of the 389 members of the Russian squad being banned from this year’s events. Now if you were somehow shocked by the Russians doping their Olympic athletes, you really need to get out more; Russian doping scandals are as commonplace as John Travolta career comebacks, and about as welcome. But giving performance-enhancing drugs to parathletes? Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help thinking that Russia is missing the point here.
Yes, the whole use of performance enhancing drugs in sports simply sickens me. Call me preposterously naive, but I like to believe that the Olympics represent the last vestiges of equitable global competition, that these games are supposed to represent the democratization of sport. Certainly, some athletes and teams receive more financial support than others, but in the end, each athlete has the ability to represent themselves to the best of their capacity against a likeminded competitor. When an athlete, or in this case, country, violates this principle, it chafes my ass like sand in a beach volleyball players bikini bottom.
This was particularly the case when the IOC allowed Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova to swim even though she had tested positive for banned substances in 2013 and 2016. This young lady had more foreign substances coursing through her blood stream than the lead singer of a 70’s British punk band, and yet other swimmers who had trained for four years without the advantage of chemically-enhanced performance had to compete against this steroid-monster. So if you think I sound irritated by this scenario, imagine how Lilly King felt? This young woman from Evansville, IN had to get in the pool with a known cheater and swim against her anyways. She had to compete against someone who had been given a head start no other swimmer got. And you know what happened? She beat her anyways- fair and square.
Now some folks have criticized King for being too outspoken about her victory and her strong stance about the prohibition of steroid use in her sport. They suggest that King was gloating, but that criticism entirely misses the point of what King was up against. I am completely opposed to self-congratulation in sports, but if it had been me that had beaten a known doper, I would have gotten out of that pool and done a little victory dance around Efimova’s pool lane before extending my finger at her disparagingly and saying “Suck it, bitches!”
I know, I know. That’s hardly the spirit of Olympic competition, but King’s story is. Her triumph, though rare and unlikely, reminds us that in these games, where athletes from around the world gather to compete against each other just every four years, anything can happen. Her story reiterates why we watch: We want to see how competition brings out the best of our human selves. While it is true that many of the winners will come from industrialized nations that can afford to bankroll their athletes in a way that allows them to focus their efforts on being the best possible athlete they can be and that there will be untold cases of athletes who use PED’s to gain an unfair advantage over their competition, there will also be moments that reflect the best of what these games represent. Over the next two weeks, we will be witness to numerous athletes who overcome challenges none believed possible, all through their own dedication, passion and perseverance. Pushed to be the best at what they do, these athletes take the human body further and further, thus redefining just what we are truly capable of. They are an inspiration to all of us, even if we are just watching from our couch.
Side note: I want to thank my loyal readership for your interest and support in reading my column each Thursday. As you all eagerly await the publication of my second novel, tentatively titled, Take the Long Way Home, I would like to urge you to check out my uncle Geoffrey’s novel, Scudder’s Gorge. Available in all formats at Amazon or Barnes and Noble, Scudder’s Gorge is a remarkable historical novel that explores the nature of love and violence in the lens of just what we are capable of doing to our fellow human beings. It is a truly exceptional work, and family or no family, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Please find it at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01AL3GR70/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: in 1000 Words or Less every THURSDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com