Monday 11 December 2017

Joe Brolly: Win-at-all-costs philosophy has destroyed the Olympics and the GAA is next

With commerce and elitism taking over, the GAA's sense of a shared journey is now an illusion

‘It is like the finale of ‘Animal Farm’, where the hungry animals watch in wonder through the windows of the farmhouse as the bloated pigs host a lavish banquet’. Photo: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images
‘It is like the finale of ‘Animal Farm’, where the hungry animals watch in wonder through the windows of the farmhouse as the bloated pigs host a lavish banquet’. Photo: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Joe Brolly

A photograph taken on the night of the Rio opening ceremony shows a group of poverty-stricken inhabitants of the favelas standing on tiptoes, looking across at the gleaming stadium. Fireworks light up the sky. It is like the finale of Animal Farm, where the hungry animals watch in wonder through the windows of the farmhouse as the bloated pigs host a lavish banquet for the neighbouring landowners. All animals are equal. But some are more equal than others.

Brazil is in deep recession. Teachers have not been paid for six months. The hospitals are crumbling. Old age pensions have been unpaid for the last two months. Violence rages in the impoverished streets of Rio, where there are, on average, 400 murders a month. The New York Times carried an interview last week with 64-year-old Marie Auxiliadora, a pensioner from the favelas. Beckoning towards the stadium, she said tearfully, "The rich play while we die."

The IOC has overseen the construction of huge colourful walls (paid for by the Brazilian government of course) to cordon off the real city from the fantasy they create every four years. Visitors arriving at the airport for the Games travelled to the Olympic arena without having to see anything that might put them off their caviar. It is estimated that the IOC will make $8 billion from the games, tax-free. Their base is in Switzerland and the host state must sign tax-free warranties before the Games will be awarded. It is estimated that the final bill will be $24 billion.

The idea of Olympic spirit and values is a nonsense. Ewan MacKenna, a freelance journalist from Ireland who lives in Brazil and has been appalled by what he has seen, said on Newstalk last week that the Olympics "is big business masquerading as sport, profiteering masquerading as heroism." The sheer awfulness is summed up by the fact that inside the Olympic village, a deputation from the IOC went round the urinals, taping over the name of the manufacturer in case anyone might think the bog-maker was an official partner.

Some 50,000 volunteers keep the Games afloat while the IOC makes billions. Last week, the IOC's director of communications Mark Adams, in response to complaints by volunteers that they are going hungry and facing demands that they be paid a small amount to cover essential costs, said: "Volunteers are the backbone of the Games. Paying them is against the spirit of the Olympics." Meanwhile, IOC executives in Rio got $900 a day to cover expenses. The Games haemorrhaged volunteers. By the second week, almost 20,000 had called it a day.

Few broadcasters have the stomach to call the Olympics for what it is. The BBC and its journalists are cheerleaders, ghastlier than the ecstatic mother at her child's beauty pageant. 'It's another golden day for Britain' they gush, as the rest of the world thinks to itself, 'Drugs?' The eyebrow-raising performances of their cyclists aren't raising any eyebrows at the Beeb. The atmosphere of forced jolliness and sycophancy drowns out logic and decency.

In the mouth of the games, when runner Mo Farah was shown a photograph of himself with the notorious drug coach Jama Aden, he dismissed it as a selfie with a stranger, before being shepherded quickly away from the press by British Athletics. This was a problem, because in Mo's autobiography, published in 2014, he had described training in Kenya in a training camp run by . . . you'll never guess who . . . Aden. "Like me, Jama was Somalian and we had known each other for years," he wrote. A few days after Mo had denied knowing Aden, British Athletics 'clarified' that Aden had in fact worked with Farah in 2015 in Ethiopia (another training camp) but was no longer involved in his coaching. Hooray!

Aden was arrested and charged in June this year when the banned blood booster EPO was found in six rooms at his athletes' training quarters, along with steroids and 60 syringes. British Athletics' most recent statement describes Aden as an "unofficial facilitator" for Farah, whatever that means. During the 10,000 metre final at Rio, Farah fell heavily, but he got back up, zoomed past the field and romped home a genuine British hero. Hooray! He repeated the trick in the 5,000m, managing to look barely out of breath. "It's Mo Time," screamed the BBC.

The icing on this ghastly cake came with British Airways flying them all home on a jumbo jet with its nose painted gold. The price paid by the UK tax payer for each gold medal? £4m. Meanwhile, grassroots sport in the UK is on its knees. The government axed the £165m-a-year school sports partnership three years ago. The UK has the lowest number of community soccer pitches in Western Europe. Major participation sports like basketball had their Olympic funding cut completely. They are losers, with no chance of a medal. But don't complain. We won a gold medal in dressage! With Valegro, a £20m horse. Hooray!

In the women's 10,000 metre final, the world record was broken by 14 seconds, to the disbelief of everyone in the world with a brain. The first eight runners in the race broke either the World, Olympic, or their national record. The winner, Almaz Ayana, said afterwards: "My doping is Jesus." Two rosaries a day between now and the 18th should do the trick for Mayo.

In the RTé studio, Sonia O'Sullivan, who has been the victim of doped runners in major championships in the past, expressed her incredulity, face etched with weary resignation. As I write, retesting of samples from the 2008 Games has resulted in three gold medallists being stripped of their medals and 11 other athletes, including weightlifter Andrei Rybakou, the world record holder in the 187kg snatch, testing positive.

The Games, like all pro sport, have been hijacked by the capitalist win-at-all-costs philosophy. Travis Tygart, the CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency, says: "We like to imagine we are watching the triumph of the human spirit, when in fact we are highly likely to be watching the ingenuity of the criminal mind." Victor Conte, who ran one of the most successful, large-scale doping programmes in the history of sport from his US-based BALCO lab, doping Olympic athletes, boxers and cyclists, told the author Margaret Heffernan: "The Olympic Games are a fraud. There is no Santa Claus, no Easter bunny, no tooth fairy. The whole history of the Games is full of corruption, cover-up, performance-enhancing drug use and systematic cheating. It's not what the world thinks it is."

Last week, The Times carried an interesting stat: Of the 30 fastest 100m times in history, 21 were by runners who have been caught doping. The other nine are by Usain Bolt. Hooray!

The World Anti-Doping Agency's chief investigator, Jack Robertson, carried out a painstaking investigation which established (through whistleblowers and covert surveillance) that Russia runs a state-sponsored doping programme, not involving regular prayer. Athletes must submit to doping to compete. They are tested only when it is safe. The athletes make appointments with the Russian anti-doping agency "like making a dental appointment". Robertson's report was shelved by the IOC when they received it in the summer of 2015. The IOC buried it, until it was leaked to The New York Times, who put it on their front page in July this year. This finally forced the IOC into actions they clearly wanted no part of. The entire Russian track and field team was banned from competing. But most of the rest of their teams were allowed to compete, including their boxers. Medals flowed in the boxing ring, this time courtesy of judge doping. Jesus has been flat out at this Olympics, give the man a break.

As Robertson put it recently: "Those involved in running sport are former athletes, so somehow I figured that they would have honour and integrity. But the people in charge are basically raping their sports and the system for self-interest. Sport is seriously broken."

Several boxing judges were expelled from the Games. The decision itself was an example of corruption, since the bouts in question have not been specified and all results stand. When Vladimir Nikitin, the Russian boxer who won a bronze courtesy of repeatedly bashing his face off Michael Conlan's fists, arrived back in Russia, Vladimir Putin presented him with a brand new BMW X3 and 1.7 million roubles (€24k). At the same lavish reception, Gold medallists got a BMW X6 and four million roubles (€55k). Silver medallists an X5 and 2.5 million roubles (€35k). Governments use sporting success as prestige. It plays extremely well with a gullible public.

The Olympics demonstrate the fallacy that winning is the only thing that matters, a worthless, capitalist philosophy that creates elites and destroys real sport.

I spoke to Jarlath Burns in Croke Park last Sunday. His point was that the GAA is in a healthy position and that I am overly concerned about the direction we are taking. I said to him: "Can you imagine if I'd said to you 10 years ago that we'd be giving a private free market company €6.5m a year to represent county players?"

"Never thought of it that way," he said.

Nor could we have imagined then that we'd sell a third of our games to Sky, pricing the vast majority of GAA folk out of the market (Sky's average viewing figure is around five per cent of RTé's)? Nor that the county game would be a commercial juggernaut that would completely dominate the season to the detriment of 98 per cent of our members. Or that county teams would become uber professional, obliterating any normal sport/life balance. Or that we'd have county development squads from the age of 13 onwards. Or that the vast majority of county and club teams would have professional managers. Which makes us semi-professional. Doesn't it?

Increasingly, even the club game is becoming commercialised. All the while, the volunteer principle is being eroded. More and more money is being spent on salaries. As this happens, the volunteers (like the Olympic volunteers) are saying: 'Why should I do this for free? Why should I cut the grass? Why should I take an underage team? Why should I go to these meetings? Why should I travel the county, sell tickets door-to-door for three months, so it can ultimately be used to pay for a county manager or strength coach?' More and more money is being spent on vanity projects (at an estimated cost of €80m, for example, Páirc Uí Chaoimh is as expensive a white elephant as any Olympic venue).

I visit small clubs all the time and hear the same stories over and over. They tell me they are struggling to survive. They ask where the money is going. The argument used by the hierarchy is that the money goes back into the clubs. Well it doesn't go to St Canice's Dungiven or Kevin Lynch's, or St Brigid's, or any club I know of. Trickle-down isn't working. On the contrary, a larger and larger share of the pot is reserved for the elites. The GPA award, for example, amounts to almost 15 per cent of our average annual revenue.

The nub of the GAA has always been that we feel we are on a shared journey. That we are all in it together for the greater good. But as we have allowed ourselves to be hijacked by commerce and elitism, that sense of a shared journey is steadily becoming an illusion. All Gaels are equal, but some are more equal than others.

The Olympics started out as a beautiful thing. An amateur world games created and manned by volunteers, where amateur sportsmen and women competed for the love of their sport. Look at it now. Rio is just the latest in a long line of warnings to us.

If we continue to ignore them, some day in the not too distant future, what's left of the GAA will be run by men like those who run the IOC.

Sunday Indo Sport

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