A Games of the modern era

The Olympic dream is still surviving the marketing men - just, says Mike Rowbottom in Atlanta
Click to follow
The Independent Online
About the size of the centennial modern Olympics, at any rate, there can be no doubt. The Games which open in this heaving, humid city on Friday night will be the largest ever, involving a record number of 197 nations, more than 10,000 competitors, 2 million spectators and a projected global television audience of 4 billion.

But the nature of these Games - slogan: "Atlanta - Come Celebrate Our Dream" - is less certain. What is the dream? What should it be?

Al Oerter has a very clear idea of what the modern Olympics should be about. Recalling his historic feat of winning four successive discus titles between 1956 and 1968, the American who was known as the Man With The Golden Arm says: "I can remember every second of every competitive day while I was in the Olympic Games. The Games are not competition against people. It's not a medal count. It's truly a test of self."

That is a kernel of idealism which the modern Games' founding father, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, would have recognised and applauded.

On the streets and boulevards of Atlanta, however, a poster campaign by the shoe manufacturers Nike offers graphic evidence of a different operating philosophy.

"You don't win silver. You lose gold," reads one poster. "If you are not here to win you're a tourist," goes another. And, superimposed on a picture of a Chinese competitor, a third message proclaims: "If I'm saying I'm just here to compete, blame my interpreter."

For the modern athlete, we are given to understand, the only consideration is victory, and its commercial consequences.

The attitude has its quintessential expression in the Dream Team - US basketball players drawn from the professional ranks of the NBA. In Barcelona four years ago, they won all their games by an average of more than 40 points. More of the same on home ground is confidently predicted.

The Dream Team are an advertiser's dream. A certain pull. Just like the Olympics themselves, in fact.

It is television money which underpins the financial structure of the Olympics, and so confident are NBC, the American broadcasters who have secured network coverage of the 1996 Games, that they have agreed similar deals through to the 2008 Olympics at a total cost of $3.55bn.

The financial attraction of the Olympics has been vividly described by the NBC president, Dick Ebersol. Advertisers, he believes, love the Games because it guarantees all members of the family gathered around the television - just like they did in the old days.

"They're getting everybody," Ebersol said. "I look on the Olympics as the last family event. It is like this magnificent super-series that renews itself every two years with a totally different cast of characters and some of the best unscripted drama ever written in history."

Global television rights for the 1996 Games have contributed $900m towards a total cost of $1.7bn. In order to make up the balance, according to the official newsletter, the Games organisers have set "new records and standards" in the most rapidly expanding Olympic event - marketing.

Their efforts have yielded $800m as the Olympic connection has been made with everything from candy bars to television game shows.

Atlanta's organisers have been criticised for what has been seen as rampant commercialism. The ethos is embodied in the Centennial Olympic Park at the city centre, a gathering place where all the major sponsors of the Games display their wares.

Budweiser, General Motors, Swatch, and of course Coca-Cola, for whom Atlanta is home base, are among a gaudy panoply of corporate tents and pavilions which caused even the president of the US Olympic Committee, LeRoy Walker, to comment this week: "Frankly, I think it's an overkill."

But that is perhaps unfair to a host city whose Olympic bid has been based upon brash but energetic self-promotion. The local term for the whole process is "boosterism". Atlanta does not have natural resources, it does not have industrial resources. What it does have is the world's largest selling soft drink, a television company in CNN which has reached throughout the world, and apparently inexhaustible belief in its own ability to do business.

That energy, and the implicit financial underwriting that Coca-Cola could provide, are the reason the Games came to swelter in Georgia in its centennial year rather than returning to the city where it came into being in 1896, Athens.

Despite all the expressions of confidence, however, there is an underlying tension about these Games. Five minutes' drive away from the skyscrapered city centre, one can pass through streets where the poverty is obvious. The last census of the city, in 1990, indicated that 43 per cent of the child population was living below the poverty line, and there have been protests about the huge amounts of money being spent on housing a global sporting event rather than housing the local population.

This anger was probably behind the incident on 12 May when unknown arsonists burned down the home of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With The Wind, the novel which chronicles the burning of Atlanta in the Civil War and which many black people regard as a celebration of the era of slavery. The house had been restored in the hope of raising revenue from visitors to the Games.

Against this uneasy background, the IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch opened his organisation's 105th session at the weekend.

But the keynote to his speech was the importance of continuing the battle against doping abuse by competitors. "Doping," he said, "leads to physical and moral death." If that battle has been fought with less than 100 per cent commitment by the IOC - which shied away from investing any of its vast funds in an international programme of out-of-competition testing, passing the responsibility instead to national federations - it is nevertheless the crucial issue for the future of the Games.

Arguments about the purity of motive among competitors - whether they take part for the love of it, or as a calculated means of enhancing their personal wealth - will continue. It is sometimes forgotten that, despite de Coubertin's idealistic revival programme of the late 19th century, the Ancient Games were banned by Theodocius the Great in AD393 after a long sequence of boycotts between rival states, and cases of bribery. Competitors at the Ancient Games spent the Olympic year in training camps, and winners were rewarded with life pensions and, for all we know, a new chariot every year from their local dealer.

But even the voice of today's commercial realpolitik, Mr Ebersol, recognises that there is something intangibly precious about the Olympics, albeit that he refers to it as a commodity: "There is an idealism attached to the Olympics that is just not available anywhere else."

If the goose that lays the golden eggs is not to expire, that idealism has to remain as a possibility. And where individual cheating with drugs prevents fair competition, idealism cannot survive.

The latest spectrometer technology enables the testing laboratories to gain a more detailed picture of those who have cheated by taking performance- enhancing steroids. But there are still no reliable tests to catch out those who take the more sophisticated substances which have the same effect, naturally occurring substances such as human growth hormone, or who increase aerobic capacity by replenishing themselves with a late boost of their own, stored, oxygen-rich blood.

Rather than fretting over whether beach volleyball should be considered an Olympic sport, the sporting world needs to concentrate its energies on the issue of doping. In the meantime the world waits and hopes that there is enough of the oxygen of true sporting idealism to keep the Olympic body alive.