Putin and Rio

The Olympics are tainted by money, politics and moral pressure.

Rabbi Berel Wein

OpEds   Israeli delegation to Rio Olympics with President Rivlin & Minister Regev
Israeli delegation to Rio Olympics with President Rivlin & Minister Regev

The Olympic games currently taking place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are allegedly supposed to be all about sports, fair play and world camaraderie. However, underlying all of the hoopla, spin and fanfare, is the knowledge deep within all of us, that the games are all about money – lots of money for the athletes, promoters, cities involved and the pompous officials who rule the sporting games.

This may appear to be too cynical an assessment of such a grand event, one which captivates millions of people around the globe. But the sordid history of the Olympic Games and of its organizers over the past century, pretty much vindicates this harsh assessment of their motives and goals.

Like its counterpart in soccer/football, the World Cup, the Olympics is also awash in scandal, corruption, pay-offs, illegal trafficking and other non-sportsmanlike but hugely lucrative activities. The Olympics is an enormous business generating hundreds of millions if not even billions of dollars. Because of this financial factor, there can be no doubt that human venality and corruption will also be present at many stages regarding rulings on the myriad details that go in to the actual production of the games.

The athletes receive gold, silver and bronze medals, which are really only of symbolic value. However, they certainly have the ability to convert their fame into fortune and most of them have commercial agents anxious and willing to help them do so. The days of pure amateur athletics are long past and the Olympics itself allows for competition by athletes who are professional and earn money on a grand scale.

The ancient Olympic Games in Greece never ranked high in the eyes of our religious leaders.
The Olympics are not only tainted by money, something which is perhaps inescapable with the human condition being what it is, it also suffers from political and moral pressures. Hitler staged the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and the team from the United States excluded Jews from actual participation in certain competitions in the fear of offending Hitler. The fact that an Afro-American, Jesse Owens, won a number of track and field medals in was doubly ironic and infuriated the Fuhrer.

Israel is always subject to problems at the Olympics. Naturally we all remember the Olympic Games held in Munich Germany a few decades ago, where Israeli athletes were murdered by Arab terrorists, aided by lax German security. This time around, the Israeli delegation was subject to verbal abuse and demonstrations from other athletes and from some spectators in the crowds.

Israel has won a few medals and is entitled to fair treatment. As usual however, it is the only country singled out for negative events and comments. It seems that the rest of the world is perfect, peaceful, law-abiding, never repressive while Israel is the sole culprit of world society. Somehow we have become accustomed to our status so that it hardly even makes the news here in Israel, let alone anywhere else in the world. But again, if the organizers of the Olympics had a shred of decency left within them, it would certainly be incumbent upon them to take steps to prevent such ugly and discriminatory behavior from occurring.

Poor Russia. After decades of systematic illegal doping of its athletes in order to achieve sports domination, the Olympic committee finally took action by banning Soviet athletes from participation in this year’s Olympics unless they undergo rigorous testing.  Thus Russia will not be a major medal winner this time around.

Putin loudly bewailed the fact that Russia was singled out for punishment. He also stoutly denied that such a program of doping ever took place in the past and presently. However his claims fell on deaf ears, with many of the Russian athletes themselves admitting that his systematic doping program exists in their training. Putin is interested in restoring the Cold War superpower status of Russia. His blunt foreign policy, his aggressions in Ukraine and Syria and his support of Iran all are symptoms of this dangerous goal that he hopes to achieve.

To him the Olympics are just another tool and front of his overall campaign for Russia’s place in the sun. I imagine that it is impossible to free the Olympics from political and diplomatic pressures just as it is unlikely that monetary corruption will be completely eliminated from the production of the games. But one can hope for better times and for a more honest competition. The ancient Olympic Games in Greece never ranked high in the eyes of our religious leaders. Perhaps they were well aware of the dark side that seems to always accompany this competition.