May 26 • 12:40 PM

Going for the Gold?

Principle versus Olympic medals

August 06, 2008
Among the myths I grew up with that seemed sacrosanct at the time were two. The first said college football was all about tradition and had nothing to do with professional sports. The second was that the Olympics were concerned with the purity of athletic competition, where the number of medals won was far less important than the spirit of the event.

I'm not sure just when it happened but today college football is nothing but a farm system for the NFL and the Olympics have become the equivalent of American Idol in international relations. Going for the gold, how many medals a country wins, is somehow more important than the original spirit of the games.

This week the Olympics will open in Beijing, China. They represent a kind of coming out party for China where their legitimacy as a nation, on a par with the West, will be demonstrated. Already the odds makers have suggested that China will win one medal more than the United States.

The drum beat of the publicity machine, which has been going on for the past year, has gone into overload. NBC has hyped its reporting of the Olympics both on television and the Internet and you can bet gymnastics and swimming will get the lion's share of coverage. There will be a lot of talk about the spirit of the Olympics among the sports announcers but let's face it, for many the real story of the games will be who will end up on the Wheaties' box, and going for the gold is less about medals than money.

Not all of the athletes will be tainted of course, but enough will so as to make one wonder if the games have not become an extension of pro sports—especially when you have professional athletes participating in what used to be a venue for amateurs.

Personally I think we should have boycotted the games as a matter of principle. After all if we as a nation stand for human rights and China's record in this area is somewhat less than honest, perhaps we should have made the Olympics a teaching moment for China as we did for Russia in 1980. Then, as protest to the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, President Carter ordered a boycott of the games.

Now there will be those who argue the Olympics should not be politicized but the truth of the matter is they have been for some time. As Carter said to the 150 participants and their coaches, "I understand how you feel…What we are doing is preserving the principles and the quality of the Olympics, not destroying it."

The decision had no impact on Soviet policy however, but it did serve to tarnish the prestige of the games in Moscow.

No doubt a boycott is strong medicine and the brunt of it taken by the participants and we can sympathize with one, in 1980, who declared "As citizens, it is an easy decision to make—support the President. As athletes it is a difficult decision."

Yet at some point a matter of principle ought to be made if in fact we want to challenge China's human rights record and make it clear the United States is willing to stand up for its founding principles instead of what is only politically expedient.

In recent years our record in this area has not been very good, so perhaps it's time for an ethical course correction. It may well be only a symbolic gesture but such signals are important in helping to rebuild our reputation overseas.

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