A tale of two Olympic worlds

Click to follow
The Independent Online


If a demonstration were needed of the different worlds that the Olympics will bring together over the next fortnight, it could be found here on Thursday as competitors prepared to celebrate last night's opening of the Centennial Games.

A press conference held by the millionaires of the US basketball team and attended by hundreds of reporters who crammed into the Olympic press centre coincided with the announcement that the team's star, Shaquille O'Neal, had signed a seven-year contract worth more than $115m (pounds 75m) to play for the Los Angeles Lakers.

A diamond stud gleaming in the right ear-lobe of another team member, Reggie Miller, epitomised the difference between his world and that of the five athletes representing Burkina Faso who have had to rely on the generosity of local communities here and hand-outs from kit manufacturers. Attempts to track down the team from the landlocked West African country proved fruitless until they showed up in the athletes' village only 48 hours before the opening ceremony.

Theirs is a different Olympics. More than half the population of Burkina Faso are under the age of 15. Poor conditions account for a high infant mortality rate. Life expectancy is only 48 for men and 51 for women.

Unable to afford the fees for early arrival in the village, the Burkina Faso team were put up free at the Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. A barbecue was thrown for them last week-end by residents of DeKalb County. A local community activist, Pat Jones, said: "We're hoping athletes from other countries will invite them to receptions and communicate with them."

The plight of the Burkina Faso athletes could not be further from the multi-million dollar world of the corporate forces that have shaped this Olympics.

Charges of over-commercialisation have brought no denial from the organisers. Given to the city of Coca Cola and CNN, hostage to television and sponsors, the Olympics are almost unrecognisable from the ideal of sporting brotherhood upon which Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern games 100 years ago.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), can claim to have stabilised the economy of an event that almost bankrupted Montreal in 1976. But complaints remain.

Not that you would hear any from the men and women representing Burkina Faso. Back at the Olympic village, Frank Zio chuckled at the mention of O'Neal's $115m contract and at the vast salaries of the US basketball team. "We cannot think about such things,' he said. "It was very difficult for us to get here - almost impossible."

Burkina Faso is represented in the men's high jump by Olivier Sanou and in the women's event by Irene Gienerebeogo. Chantal Ouoba competes in the women's triple jump and Irissa Kabore in the boxing.

Then there is Zio himself. Doubling up as the team's interpreter, he competes in the long jump: "It is a great experience but ... we have very little money."

When the Republic of Georgia competed in the World Judo Championships last year in Macon, there were not enough track suits to go around. After each bout, one team member would hand his gear to the next. "It was a very humbling thing to see," said the Olympic team's attache, Calvin Hill.

When the Ugandan team arrived on 26 June they had very little money and no uniforms. The table-tennis players had worn out bats. The track team did not have a starting pistol.

A short distance from the hotel where IOC members are housed in $250- a-day luxury,Georgia has established a hospitality house that amounts to just two small rooms.

There on Thursday night I spoke with Niko Lekishvili, who ranks second in Georgia's political hierarchy to the President, Eduard Shevardnadze. "We could afford to take up only 36 of the 62 places available to our athletes," he said. "But any of our people who ... win medals here will have more in their hearts than those rich young men who play basketball for the United States."

As Lekishvili spoke, police sirens announced the passage through Atlanta of the "Dream Team" on their way to opulent, heavily secured quarters.

Earlier, the team's one white member, John Stockton, was asked whether he felt a sense of loss through isolation from the Olympic brotherhood. "Means nothing to me," he said. "The Olympics is just a chance to win for my country."