Sponsors grab the Olympic gold

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The Independent Online
What some of us have come to regard as normal Olympic service was resumed earlier this week with the simultaneous arrival at Atlanta airport of an extremely large American security force and the French team.

A subsequent log-jam in accreditation procedure that delayed the French for more than two hours and caused a temporary breakdown in international relations, could have been eased unquestionably by utilising an unoccupied section of the Welcome Centre set aside for the guests of sponsors.

That the facility stood idle - "we can't run the risk of not getting the sponsors' people through quickly" was the explanation put forward by a stressed official - merely confirmed the extent of corporate power in the Olympic movement. Symbolic, too, that athletes from the country of Baron Pierre de Coubertin who founded the modern games with a view to encouraging the harmonious development of man, should straggle through behind the army sent to protect them.

Defenders of the International Olympic Committee's commercial activities point out the huge cost of security in Atlanta and other Olympic venues, subsidies that ensure the participation of small countries and funding of a media centre so well equipped that in the words of one veteran reporter "it would be possible to cover every event in these games without getting off your arse."

Maybe so, but the further you go in this sporting life the tougher it becomes to cope with the pace of commercial development. It is a common complaint among most of us older guys but we are right, I think, to believe, even allowing for Avery Brundage's pious amateurism that there were better times in Olympic history.

In the circumstances it is hardly a stunning surprise when citizens complain that Atlanta 1996 has provided opportunities for profiteering. In a letter to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week, William R Grimes writes: "The city of Atlanta, the state of Georgia (including the Atlanta Committee for Olympic Games) should hang the Olympic banner at half-mast, for the outrageous exploitation of the people, participants, visitors, local and international, in making this wondrous occasion one to be remembered for allowable commercial looting... The five Olympic rings should show the letters 'GREED'."

A man who came to fix the lock on my door in student billets barely completed in time to receive an intake of sporting correspondents, prays that energy generated by the Olympics will have a positive effect on the future of Atlanta. "There is no guarantee of it," he said. "If we take on the wrong values, forget that there is more to life than profit margins the Games will have left us with nothing."

Having poked around sport long enough to remember when races were run on cinders, I find a measure of cynicism unavoidable. This is especially true of issues that directly involve the Olympic authorities who quite ludicrously imagine unequalled power for social good and improvement.

In meeting old friends you are inevitably drawn into debates about the future of the Olympics and how they will come to look in the next millennium.

There are performers here, members of the American basketball team for example, who do not have to worry over where the next multi-million dollar contract is coming from. Others will be lucky to have a job still waiting for them.

The true spirit of the Olympics has long since been surrendered; no longer the roar of the crowd but the meshing of corporate gears. "They [athletes who use performance enhancing drugs] destroy their health which is the most precious thing they possess," the IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, said a few days ago.

The fear is that more sophisticated testing methods that can detect steroid use going back three months will net enough athletes to question the merit of Olympic achievement.

A short while ago this vexed issue came up in conversation with an old friend, the freelance sports journalist, Ted Hart, who sprinted for Cambridge against Oxford and turned out in the colours of Leicester, Rosslyn Park and the Royal Navy as a wing threequarter; a fitness problem caused him to decline provisional selection for the 1948 Olympics. Before leaving for Atlanta I promised to call Ted with news of developments. He died soon afterwards. His values, however, are something the modern Olympian could learn from.