Rhythms out of sync with Olympic spirit

Ribbons and pretty lights cannot mask the absurdity of some of the latest sports to win medal status, laments Ken Jones
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The Independent Online
To quote from David Wallechininsky's History of the Olympic Games, the idea behind the modern pentathlon is that a soldier is ordered to deliver a message. He starts out on an unfamiliar horse, but is forced to dismount and fight a duel with swords. He escapes, but is trapped and has to shoot his way out with a pistol. Then he swims across a river, and finally finishes his assignment by running 4,000 metres through woods.

If conceived as an officer-class event, nothing probably was seen to better represent the Olympic ideal put forth 100 years ago by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Games.

That the pentathlon is now threatened with extinction, one of the sports coming under close scrutiny by the International Olympic Committee, signifies an attitude born of rampant commercial exploitation and the escalating demands of television.

For the pentathlon, boxing and related events that echo trials of combat on which the ancient Games were founded, Atlanta 1996 is a year of Olympic foreboding.

Part of the IOC's policy seems to be that if you can't slap a logo on it get rid of it. Instead the ludicrous beauty-shop trivia of synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics; the absurdity of beach volleyball.

Can you imagine this? During training at Emory University this week, rhythmic gymnasts expressed concern that cool blasts of air would mess up their ribbons. Lights sighted on the arena's dark ceiling were also considered to be a problem. "The equipment gets lost in those lights," the Russian ribbon champion, Amina Zaripova, said. "I have a black ball and black clubs, so I may need to put white tape or something on them."

Poor girls. Such problems.

"I just hope they get the air conditioning right,' the US national champion, Jessica Davis, said, recalling that her ribbon got so tangled during an event here last May that several seconds were lost while she unknotted it.

Apparently, coping with such difficulties separates the best from the rest.

"I haven't done anything special to prepare for the air conditioning," Elena Vitrichenko, the Ukraine's 1996 world ribbon champion, said. "At this level, you should deal with anything."

Spangles and splashes at the pool. Pretty as peacocks, hair held in sequinned caps, the synchronised swimmers drew rapturous applause for routines some of us older guys remember from Esther Williams movies. Japan were a dazzle of lime green suits, cartwheeling and karate-kicking their way into the pool to Ninja music.

For Canada it was crosses on the chest and Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", while the Americans modestly took the plunge to strains of the "Hallelujah Chorus".

Some admiration can be held out for the lung power of these pulchritudinous performers, but what synchronised swimming means in traditional Olympic terms is beyond this reporter. As there was a large and enthusiastic crowd the obvious conclusion is that any event at Atlanta will attract a capacity audience if there is the possibility of an American medal.

The debate over what constitutes a sport is endless. The ancient games began with foot races, to which events of a combative nature - boxing, wrestling and the hurling of missiles -were later added. Foot races and field events remain the pinnacle of Olympic achievement but are now surrounded by froth, and to this observer, there is something quite ridiculous about the lip-smacking enthusiasm with which the IOC addresses further intrusions on the Olympic ethos.

Maybe it is simply a case of administrators endeavouring to swim with the recreational tide, but the job is done with the gusto of corporate entrepreneurs seizing on chances to make deals.

Unquestionably, to my mind, the Olympics have ballooned to absurd limits, made unwieldy by events that normally struggle to draw flies.

However, it is not just the frippery to which the IOC should be paying attention. For example, professionalism has made a nonsense of the basketball tournament, now a walkover for American multi-millionaires, the "Dream Team", a grotesque insult to the concept of democratic competition.

The IOC would happily drop boxing for the reasons that it cannot be marketed and is a turn-off for the distaff television audience. Shortly after bidding successfully for these the Games, the Atlanta organising committee approached Augusta National, home of the Masters, with a view to staging an Olympic golf tournament. It almost reached fruition, but no more of a case can be held out for golf here than can be made for tennis and football.

You can go on and like this, standing up one Olympic event, knocking down another, vulnerable to disparate conclusions.

What cannot be avoided is that the Olympics are now held in the grip of intense corporate activity. Earlier this week a member of the US softball team was reprimanded for appearing in a training suit provided by a rival kit sponsor. The influence of the main sports shoe manufacturers, Nike and Reebok, is overwhelming.

A golf tournament would have been swooped on by the makers of golf equipment and clothing. A similar philosophy applied to the introduction of tennis at the 1988 Seoul Games, and baseball in Barcelona four years ago.

What next? There is talk that ballroom dancing and snooker will play a part, if first as exhibition sports, at the next Olympics in Sydney. "Why not?" asked a man of romantic mind this week. Daft as it may sound, there are even people out there pressing a case for bodybuilding.