Like most people, these last two weeks I have been captivated by the spectacle that is the Olympic Games. In a summer that has been defined by such tragedies as mass shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin and an increasingly violent civil war in Syria, watching Olympic athletes vie for medals in largely peaceful competition offers some much-needed respite.
London’s Olympic organizers faced a truly monumental task. Namely, hosting the Games during a global economic downturn and in the face of ongoing terror threats. I imagine that they also wanted to outshine the 2008 Beijing Games. I don’t believe that they achieved that goal with the Opening Ceremony, which I found to be oddly frenetic in design and execution. However the competition in London has so far been largely scandal-free, something that is rare in the modern history of the Olympic Games.
That’s not to say that there hasn’t been some controversy. On the political front, for example, the International Olympic Committee and its President have been criticized (and rightfully so) for again refusing to have a minute of silence for the Israeli athletes murdered 40 years ago at the Munich Games.
Several athletes have also expelled from the Games for cheating, most notably four badminton teams who were disqualified for purposefully losing matches. Other athletes have openly admitted or been suspected of cheating, but allowed to remain in the competition.
On Tuesday night, for instance, I watched Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi take gold in the men’s 1500m race. Originally disqualified after a lackluster attempt in the 800m, he was reinstated only after providing officials with medical documentation of a knee injury. With just 24 hours rest, however, he apparently had recovered enough to beat the other competitors by a comfortable margin. While morally questionable, this was a tactically brilliant move on his part.
The winner of the men’s 100m breaststroke, South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh, openly admitted to breaking the rules. He justified his use of an illegal whip-like dolphin kick during the race by claiming that all swimmers cheat. To not do so, he argued would be tantamount to sacrificing his “personal performance and four years of hard work for someone that is willing to do it and get away with it.” The use of underwater video technology to look for illegal kicks and strokes, he also suggested, would make the competition cleaner. He’s absolutely right, but his victory at the London Games is nevertheless tainted.
To be honest, I’m not all that surprised that athletes like Makhloufi and Van der Burgh do everything they can to bend, stretch or break the rules in order to achieve Olympic success. They’ve often spent years training to compete in a race that lasts 5 minutes or less, and winning a medal in the Games can be financially lucrative even for those who live outside of a commercially-oriented country like the United States.
Moreover, many of those rules are subjective or opaque, particularly the requirement that athletes must always use their best efforts to win a match or a race. In watching the Games it has been clear even to me that many top track-and-field competitors gave less than 100% in preliminary heats, saving their energy and efforts for the semi-final and final heats. Yet none of these competitors were disqualified.
Finally, what has truly surprised me is the apparent lack of doping scandals in London. This week, a local man became one of the Olympic competitors to be expelled for use of a banned substance. Somewhat ironically, he tested positive for marijuana rather than a known performance-enhancing drug.
Some also have questioned the success of female swimmer Ye Shiwen, a 16-year-old from China who clocked a faster time in the individual medley than the current male world record holder. So far, however, she has tested negative for any banned substances. While it is possible to get around drug screening – for example, by using masking agents or by taking new synthetic drugs that are not detected with current tests – I believe we should take Ms. Ye’s negative test on face value and celebrate her amazing victory. The onus should be on the IOC to prove conclusively that someone has cheated and not on the athletes themselves.
These Games have been, in my opinion, the best in modern history. If there were a single thing I could change about this year’s Games it would be this: less commentary and more competition on TV. For the most part, however, I think we should all just keep calm, carry on, and continue to root for the underdog (or the overdog, or our national representatives). Whomever.
Now, I’m off to go and watch some rhythmic gymnastics.
A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Dr. Sean Philpott is a professor of bioethics at Union Graduate College in Schenectady, New York. He is also the Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, which reviews all research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
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