The first athletics event of the current, 2016 Olympic Games starts today. It is the Heptathlon. A few years ago I would have been looking forward to it and nearly all the following events in the athletics stadium and on the road. The exceptions? Walking events. I can’t take competitive walking seriously. It’s not the action or the slow motion quality of the overtaking, it’s not the fact that it looks, well, generally comical. I know it’s hard work. We used to do a bit of speed walking as training in rugby and on fartlek sessions and it is exhausting, so I admire the fitness. But walking? Honestly? All top notch walker run at some point. It was okay when athletes were pushing up to the boundary limits of walking speed, but now and with the slow motion camera ability to analyse every step I doubt whether there is one race in which most of the walkers don’t ‘lift’: i.e. have both feet off the ground at the same time.
Which rather neatly brings me to why I am not really looking forward to the athletics events as much as I used to. I was never that bothered by most of the fol de rol around the Olympics, particularly the other sports. I used to like the boxing, weightlifting and one or two other sports but as the facade of amateurism faded to nothing and more and more professional competitors from circus sports arrived so the appeal evaporated as well.
The Olympics was a once every 4 year opportunity to see the best athletes (let’s concentrate on them for a moment) from each country contest the title of world’s best. The first Olympics I remember properly was Tokyo in 1968. I saw it in black and white and it had another resonance for our family because my father had fought the Japanese in WWII and whilst it was nineteen years later, the memories lingered. Not that my father displayed any animosity to the organisers or the venue. He shielded me from any bitterness he may or may not have carried. But I knew where he had been and it added a frisson that Mexico for example lacked.
But I enjoyed it immensely. My Dad and I watched together through Mexico and the horror of Munich and Montreal and Moscow. By the time LA arrived I couldn’t be with him to watch it together and anyway the pzazz of LA set the tone for the decline of my interest. The Olympics got organised as an EVENT to be sold. As Hitler had turned a low key sporting get together into war by proxy the back to back Moscow and LA games turned the Olympics into ideology by proxy. When the Cold War ended with the triumph of Capitalism, Fukuyama’s “End of History”, so the Olympics had moved with it from Corinthian Amateurism (sham or not) to outright blatant finance driven circus sport. The same athletes now competed against each other all year round, every year. There was not the rarity value in seeing a possibly once in a lifetime show down as two sprinters whose careers might just overlap in an eight year cycle faced each other in rare 10 second window of competition. Sure they raced but in a fortnight they would do it all again at the next league meeting wherever the caravan halted next.
Then there are drugs. Poor old Ben Johnson gets the blame for drugs. He won gold in Seoul in the 1988 100 metres sprint,but had it taken off him because he tested positive for using anabolic steroids to build muscle. He still had to do the running of course. And he wasn’t exactly alone in taking them. He was the one that got caught. Others have been caught and the opprobrium has varied depending on how the person was viewed by the public, the media or needed by the athletics union concerned. Linford Christie doesn’t get the contempt Dwayne Chambers gets. And while we are still thinking about Seoul, who was gifted the Gold after Johnson was banned? Carl Lewis. Who now admits he tested positive for three banned stimulants in the trials leading up to Seoul and shouldn’t even have been at the games. And who, by the way is completely unrepentant about it.
You may be forgiven in the current climate for thinking that my disillusion with athletics at the Olympics is because drug use. Well it is but not because I am disgusted with the drug users. I wouldn’t do it myself because of the medical contraindications of most of them. But I think the self appointed industry of witch hunters in WADA and associated national moral guardians are dancing to the tune of those who themselves created the urge to take drugs. Making it a financial circus, treating athletes like warriors in a gladiatorial contest for top nation status has driven the urge to push over those boundaries of human performance.
I get fed up with the goody two shoes approach of those who label everyone who tales a cold remedy a ‘cheat’. Yes there are undoubtedly those who ‘cheat’ to get an advantage, but before we consign them to outer darkness, remember were the suits that swimmers wore cheating? No, not when they appeared because there were no rules governing something that hadn’t been invented. Then they were available. Then someone decided they shouldn’t be used. So using them would be cheating. Except of course they are obvious, so you wouldn’t even get into the pool. But anabolics and many other drugs were not illegal or banned by sports governing bodies initially. They became banned and users ‘cheats’ because people made a decision that they were and it was. There is nothing inherently morally wrong with taking performance enhancing drugs. The Ancient Greeks did.
It’s crazy if it harms you, but athletics is a pretty weird activity when you think about it- and I did a bit.
If you want ‘clean’ athletes competing as nature intended, get rid of synthetic tracks, spiked shoes, sorbothane insoles, clothes even and let people run. No altitude training to boost your red blood cell count.
I wouldn’t mind a drug free games but I hate the moral fervour and hypocrisy that surrounds the Games now.
The attack on Russia finished off my interest. A political attack that ignored the findings on other countries and athletics trainers to concentrate on Russia. Hitler’s and the Cold War’s legacy lives on. The Olympics is diplomacy and war by other means. I love athletics. I hate the people and attitudes that are running it now. I’ll watch and I really hope Jessica Ennis wins gold again but I can’t join in the finger pointing and moral hypocrisy of the people who are creating the climate that drives drug use.