The Winter of a Sports Fan's Discontent

From skaters in sequins to scandals, the Games are about anything but athletes. Don't be shocked. Corruption and expediency are Olympic traditions

By Howard Gleckman

After watching the flap over the Great Olympic Skating Scandal, I've concluded that sports fans the world over should agree on a few basic rules: 1. If it has judges, it isn't a sport. 2. If it has music, it really isn't a sport. 3. If it has both judges and music, it is to true athletic competition as John McEnroe, host of the new TV quiz show The Chair, is to Harvard University President Larry Summers.

The larger truth? The Olympics is all about money and politics. Sports has little to do with it.

Before the International Olympic Committee became embroiled in corruption charges -- long before skategate, by the way -- the nature of competition was pretty clear. If you got to the finish line before the other guy, you won. If you put the ball in the basket more often, you won. If you scored more goals, you won. This principle is applied even to a sport as basic as the one the Afghanis play riding around on horses whacking at a headless goat carcass. You get the goat to the scoring area, you win. No style points. No music. And judges? Well, I don't even want to think about what would have happened to the much-maligned French judge with the magnificent fur coat if she had stiffed the real winners in the Afghan goat game.


  No such luck at the modern Olympics. TV runs the games. And TV has learned that traditional sports fans -- that is, older men -- don't care about Winter Olympic sports. Skiing is something you do, not something you watch. Curling and luge? They're about as appealing to men as The Young and the Restless. Those who make up marketing's demographic mother lode -- women age 18 to 35 -- don't care about any of these sports either. But they do love figure skating.

The sequins, the music, the handsome couples, the high-strung, teary-eyed prima donnas: Female viewers love it all. And the Great Gold Medal Controversy? Women loved that too, especially when they got the fairy-tale ending that the Olympic Committee worked up. Gold medals for everybody. Just wait 'til they make ballroom dancing an Olympic sport. (No kidding, it's being considered.) Figure skating has come to dominate the Winter Olympics because of its appeal to a largely female audience, not because of its standing as a sport.

As much publicity as this skating drama has garnered, the truth is the Olympic movement has been rife with manipulation for almost 100 years. In 1912, the suits who ran the games took two gold medals away from Jim Thorpe. His sin? He had been paid $25 for playing semi-pro baseball -- compensation that, it was said, tarnished the Olympic spirit of amateurism. Keep that in mind when you see the Nike swish on every stitch of clothing at the Salt Lake show. And keep it in mind when you think about the walking-around money doled out to IOC officials that it took to bring the Olympics to Salt Lake in the first place.


  In 1936, two members of the U.S. 400-meter relay team never even got a chance to compete for a medal. They were banned from running by the U.S. Olympic Committee itself. Why? Because they were Jewish. And committee president Avery Brundage didn't want to offend Hitler -- the host of those games. So Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller were kicked off the team the day before the race.

I once worked for a congressman named Ralph Metcalfe -- one of the men who, as a young runner, had been named to replace Stoller and Glickman (no relation to me, despite our similarly spelled names). Metcalfe always acknowledged that, as great an athlete as he was, he did not deserve to be in that race. It is a pity Brundage and USOC didn't share that sentiment.

Let's get real. The Olympic movement has been financially and morally corrupt for generations. It is the Enron of athletics. It's about money and politics. Sport? Not really.

When he's not getting exercised over the Olympics, Gleckman is a senior correspondent for BusinessWeek in Washington Follow his views every week in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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