Wednesday 25 April 2018

Sinead Kissane: Olympics always brings out the winners and the cheats but you can decide who to admire

Michael Phelps this week said he’s never “competed in a clean sport”. Photo: Getty
Michael Phelps this week said he’s never “competed in a clean sport”. Photo: Getty
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

If American film-maker Bud Greenspan were still alive to make a TV documentary about the Rio Games, he would have sidestepped the controversies leading up to the Olympics as fast as American gymnast Simone Biles performs a twisting somersault.

Greenspan was famous for his soft-focus portrayal of Olympians and went heavy on stories designed to drain every drop of our admiration.

"I've been criticised for having rose-coloured glasses," Greenspan said in an interview with the 'New York Times' in 1996. "If that's true, what's so bad? I'm not good at hurting people."

In Greenspan's ideology, the desire not to hurt people meant showcasing athletes' weaknesses and faults as their strengths and moral of the story.

In his film about Seoul '88, Greenspan ignored Ben Johnson's failed drugs test and instead focused on American Calvin Smith's upgrade to the bronze medal in the 100m because that was the story he thought worth telling in a race considered the dirtiest in history.

"Mr Greenspan's filmmaking style was consistently familiar; it was cinematic comfort food for those who believe in the Olympics as an inspiring, almost spiritual athletic gathering," stated the obituary in the 'New York Times' following Greenspan's death in Manhattan in 2010.

"He unapologetically glorified athletes for overcoming injuries, failures and obstacles with a straightforward storytelling style intended to strike emotional chords".

Greenspan didn't just avoid stories about cheats but wanted the Olympics to appear like an exclusion zone for any kind of failure. In his '16 Days of Glory' official documentary about the 1984 LA Olympics, Great Britain's Dave Moorcroft's struggle in the 5,000m final was featured.

Two years after he set a world record, Moorcroft finished last in the final in LA as he struggled with injury. Greenspan saw glory in Moorcroft not getting lapped by the winner Said Aouita and in finishing the race.

Greenspan's message was clear: only the worthiest of human traits were found at the Olympics and there was honour in everything they did.

Of course, that's far from the full truth about the Olympics. The preamble to the Rio Games has felt like a plotline from the very opposite of a Greenspan movie with the carry-on from Russia and the IOC, Brazilian athletes not being drug-tested before the Games, reported death threats to Seb Coe and all the other jaw-dropping stories which have polluted the build-up.

What has felt utterly disappointing and embarrassing for our nation has been the failed drugs test by boxer Michael O'Reilly. Due process has yet to be completed in this case at the time of writing, but the fact that Irish sport and Olympic time have previous when it comes to failed drug tests doesn't make this case any less demoralising.

It is not a denial of knowledge or perspective to want to attach some sort of ideal with the Olympics. But while the Olympics brings out the best and good in humanity, it also brings out the less attractive.

Greed, corruption, lies and cheating are as much part of the Olympics as honesty, truth, decency and deserving glory. The best and the worst don't just come in the polar opposite 'good' versus 'evil' portrayals the way Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin have been pitched against each other.

But there are also areas of wrong decisions and bad judgements which add to the wonder if the biggest lie of all is the one we say to ourselves that the Olympics should always be held as the ultimate ideal to strive for.

In the build-up to these Games there have been conflicting messages and propaganda about doping that the easiest place to settle at in the continuum is doubt. On the day that news of O'Reilly's positive test broke, Michael Phelps was lamenting that he's never "competed in a clean sport" while the BBC broadcast its documentary of Mo Farah's 'Race of His Life' which seemed designed to fill in the blanks for any doubters as he goes for the double-double in Rio.

The blurb for the programme promised us that we would "see Mo Farah as never before". And while the first conversation between Mo and his twin-brother on why Hassan stayed in East Africa when his mother and Mo moved to London was broadcast to the world, the conversation the world probably wanted to see was one between Farah and his coach Alberto Salazar after the allegations last year linking Salazar to violating anti-doping rules.

Of course, we didn't get to see that with Farah saying that nothing has ever been proven against his coach. The doc also boasted the presence of two of the most powerful men in world athletics, Bolt and Coe, showing us they're in Farah's corner as the essence of this programme was typically Greenspan-esque: "Cinematic comfort food for those who believe in the Olympics as an inspiring, almost spiritual athletic gathering."

So where does all this leave us, the viewers? The best thing for the Rio Olympics is the Rio Olympics finally starting. But it leaves us deciding what way to approach these Olympics which is like having your tearaway childhood sweetheart land at your door begging you to run off with them. Do you forget the past and just enjoy the present?

Do you forget the present and get on with the pretence that you can believe everything you see? Do you turn off and miss out? Does the fight between 'good' and 'evil' become irrelevant when you can't be sure of when 'evil' ends and 'good' begins? Or do you decide that morality is over-rated and just wait to be entertained?

At least we get to control some of the storyline. There is no place for rose-coloured glasses at the Olympics. There will be winners and losers over the next 16 days. But at least you can decide who you reserve your ultimate admiration and respect for.

Irish Independent

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