Thursday 19 September 2019

Ewan MacKenna: Did you allow yourself to be conned by a dazzling opening ceremony? The Olympics are morally bankrupt

An artist performs during the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang
An artist performs during the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

The Olympic hymn starts up, bouncing around a stadium named in honour of the late João Havelange who, as president of the IOC, had been accused of taking everything from diamonds to bicycles in bribes. That irony is lost on almost everyone who in turn are lost to this moment.

Bodies all around get to their feet as opening ceremony giddiness turns to solemn respect. We're told this song takes sport to a higher plane, fusing it with some unbreakable human goodness. “Immortal spirit of antiquity; Father of the true, beautiful and good; Descend, appear, shed over us thy light; Upon this ground and under this sky; Which has first witnessed thy unperishable fame.”

It's swallowed whole by the majority without so much as a question being raised in their minds.

Remaining seated in the press box, a disgruntled hand from behind bangs you on the shoulder. Turning, surprised, some journalists gesture at you to arise and join in this important moment. What? Why? No f**king way. How can the media buy this nonsense? Actually, how can anyone?

That was the beginning of the 2016 Olympics. From there it got much, much worse.


* * *

It was in January 2008 that South Korean police entered the home of Lee Kun-hee as part of their probe into claims his Samsung company was behind a slush fund used to bribe key legal and political figures in the country.

“I will assume full moral and legal responsibility,” he said in advance of a ruling that found him guilty of financial wrongdoing and tax evasion. Friends in high places however decided such responsibility didn't apply to one of the richest men on the planet. Fined about €80m and sentenced to three years in prison, he was swiftly pardoned by then-president Lee Myung-bak.

The reasoning brings this right back to sport.

Lee Kun-hee was a member of the International Olympic Committee, his pardon saw him allowed to continue on, and his nation wanted the 2018 Winter Games. He put in time and effort, spending 170 days on 11 separate trips selling the idea Pyeongchang would be perfect and, despite his corruption, it mattered little to the real power-brokers in sports biggest governing body.

Today those Olympics he worked so hard on officially opened, although health and a heart-attack see Lee Kun-hee pushed off stage and this is now about his son. De facto head of the company, Lee Jae-yong had more recently been sentenced to five years for attaining government favours via millions in kickbacks only for a timely appeal this week to suspend punishment. His company has said he will use the Games to resume business activities as, after all, Samsung is official worldwide partner.

It's been a series of events that inadvertently surmised much. As an insider recently told The Guardian about the IOC, “[it's] one of the most corrupted networks in the history of sport.”

It makes it so frustrating that much pre-Games attention has been directed towards the Court of Arbitration as if a re-run of 2016, when that's all smoke and mirrors and noise leading the masses away from the issue. This shouldn't be about some Russians wanting in for that's the symptom of what's promoted. If you want the disease you need to go past the curtain to what the IOC is and what the IOC does. Then you'll get a true sense of this and all of the modern Olympic Games.

It isn't just Samsung for they are a microcosm (we've had the likes of BP after the Gulf of Mexico disaster signing up as sustainability partner, and Dow who took over Union Carbide and refused to assist in Bhopal as chemical partner, using this sport to scrub their brand and their image). And it's not just sponsors either, for they are a microcosm too. This is all merely big business. In fact aside from Samsung, in Korea there have been other arrests of sports officials and politicians for trying to use their hosting of the event to profit from construction deals and force money into “non-profit sports organisations”.

Legally questionable, no sporting body does morally bankrupt like the Olympics. They hide behind intangibles like their spirit and their movement and their motto, cliched gimmicks that convey integrity. But if you want to know what they're really about, cast your mind back to their last edition. While the biggest media engaged in marketing rather than journalism given how much they paid for rights, away from sanitised TV pictures a very different portrait was being painted in Rio.

The city is now a bloodbath, with police begging for toilet paper on the streets and mobile phone apps available showing where the latest street gun battles are taking place so you can avoid them. That isn't all down to the Olympics but their farcical cost didn't help and, as predicted, their presence allowed for a huge transfer of wealth from public to private and massive property speculation. Yet again it was sport being used to wash dodgy business deals while people cheered.

Athletics tickets cost five weeks local minimum salary in Rio and so greedy were the IOC that amidst low crowds, rather than give those tickets out across the poorer areas of an impoverished city that paid for it, allowing atmosphere and gaining goodwill, they kept them. We shouldn’t be surprised, as that was also a Games where 30pc of volunteers quit due to long hours with no promised breaks or meals, while IOC members picked up envelopes containing $900 each morning in their hotel lobby before being chauffeured between venues and drinks receptions.

President Thomas Bach, who says he’s a volunteer despite the uncapped credit cards put in his wallet and year-round luxury suite back in Lausanne, made it worse again. While his IOC claim it's committed to protecting human and children's rights, back in 2016 in the midst of so much carnage, Bach said he hadn't heard of any abuses. It was a comment as disgusting as it was extraordinary given years of well-documented evidence of forced evictions and police brutality. A blind man who sees is better than a seeing man who is blind.

The creed says, "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." But it's b*llocks. All of it. Brazil may be the last example but we've gotten used to this circus selling its wares every couple of years to some unsuspecting, ill-informed, flag-waving host nation. What it leaves behind however is a grim reminder of what it's become.

Take Sochi in 2014 where human rights organisations quickly discovered the non-payment of wages to workers, the refusal to provide contracts, illegal hours, no time off, passports taken by employers, and a lack of food and shelter in what amounted to slave labour. And while brief lip-service was paid, nothing was done before it was shunted into the history folder. Take Rio in 2016 and Tokyo in 2020 which are both under investigation by prosecuting authorities in relation to corruption around bidding. Take Oslo 2022 which never materialised after the IOC insistence on high-value accommodation, free transport and other perks like drinks with the Queen.

In fact you can just take Pyeongchang 2018 if that makes it easier. When you watch the skiing you can see the hypocrisy and the lie that is sold by empty promises. Many years ago the IOC came up with the Third Dimension, it's glistening environmental policy that tapped into a shift in global thinking as green became good. They still harp on about it regularly yet recently they were more than happy to hack down one of the most sacred and important forests on the Korean peninsula to make way for a slope; and more is to come with Songshan National Nature Reserve in Beijing making way for the next edition of the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022.

If that's a lot to take in, we understand. What prevents repulsion is often that there's so much that repulses. But this is IOC Inc. Who cares about the how - what it really comes down to is the how much.




When it comes to the Olympics, it always finds a way to wriggle down further, to push the bar lower, to get somehow worse. Pat Hickey's arse would work as a logo at this stage but if he was part of the problem, you wonder if Ireland can ever be part of a solution.

Last month talking to new Olympic Council of Ireland president Sarah Keane, she said that “my experience is around the performance piece, looking at strategy around participation. The part you're talking about is a part athletes never think about, but is a huge challenge for the Olympic movement. Hands up, I'm only learning and it's clear it is facing challenges. I need to get more behind that and see what's being implemented...” If she ever does go looking it might be through her fingers.

The Intentional Olympic Committee right now has a board of 99. They aren't the elected members of the national committees like Keane, rather they are the engine room and what makes this whole behemoth move. Going through them tells its own tale.

Right now, Hickey is the only one whose had the wherewithal to suspend himself, amazingly the best the Olympic movement can put forward in terms of an example of self-awareness and decency. Of the other two not serving, they were forced suspensions as Alexander Zhukov was banned as Russian head and Frankie Fredericks was put on hiatus for alleged bribes in the IAAF corruption scandal. That leaves 96 still standing and it doesn't inspire confidence. We aren't talking about the eight royals and two sheikhs or the host of athletes expected to confront political nous, we are talking about this lot...

There's Pál Schmitt, a former president of Hungary who was forced to resign after evidence of mass plagiarism from sporting sociologists for his own doctorate.

There's Wu Ching-kuo who was driven out as president of the AIBA after allegations of massive financial mismanagement that are close to forcing amateur boxing into bankruptcy.

There's Gian-Franco Kasper who said women should be banned from ski-jumping on medical grounds but couldn't say what those grounds were exactly.

There's Yelena Isinbayeva who quit pole-vaulting and went straight into this position after not being allowed to compete in 2016 due to her nation's state-sponsored doping programme.

There's Juan Antonio Samaranch Salisachs whose New York scholarship was funded via private money belonging to a bank that his father was in control of.

There's Mario Pescante who left the Italian Committee disgraced after doping scandals and who in 2014 went after the United States for having homosexual athletes in their delegation.

There's Guy Drut who received amnesty via French presidential decree after picking up a 15-month prison sentence for accepting fictitious employment and receiving misused company assets.

There's Bernard Rajzman who was sacked by Brazil's Olympic Federation during a clean-up operation after his boss was found with 16 gold bars following on from Rio 2016 bidding.

There's Alex Gilady, the chairman of the IOC board overseeing Tokyo 2020, who is embroiled in allegations of rape, sexual assault and harassment via his role as a television executive in Israel.

There's Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani who as emir of Qatar has been hugely criticised for doing nothing about World Cup slavery and is regularly linked with funding terrorism.

Like the ship of the damned, it makes you wonder when doing the right thing became such a difficult decision and when doing the wrong thing had consequences? Then again, the Olympics provide enough to satisfy every man's need but not every man's greed.

Still, today that lot and others stood for their hymn. “Give life and animation to these noble games; Throw wreaths of fadeless flowers to the victors; In the race and in the strife; Create in our breasts, hearts of steel.” Let the Games begin, they'll say with masks on for the cameras. But they know the real Games never, ever stop.

Online Editors

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