28 Jul 2016

Have the Olympics lost their way?

11:34 am on 28 July 2016

The biggest show on Earth kicks off in Rio shortly, with New Zealand predicted to enjoy its most successful Olympics ever.

While one international survey has gone so far as to suggest New Zealand could win 25 medals, there is also scepticism about the Games themselves.

Once a celebration of sporting values with a focus on national pride and personal achievement, critics suggest the Games have been captured by commercial imperatives and tainted by corruption - further underlined by the revelations of Russia's state sponsored doping programme.

The Olympic rings represent the five continents competing at the Games.

The Olympic rings, representing the five continents participating in the Games. Photo: Supplied

The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics have a lot to answer for in the mind of a leading Olympic academic, professor Ian Culpan, who is head of the Olympic Studies Academy at the University of Canterbury.

They were the first Olympic Games to operate under a commercial model and became the spectacle that people expect today.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum during 1984 Olympics

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum during 1984 Olympics. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

However, Professor Culpan said that did not mean the Olympics remained true to the Olympic movement.

'Where we lose the relevance is [in] the philosophy of the Games [and it is] probably the IOC's best kept secret, you know, balanced development in your life, joy of effort, athletes being role models and observing universal ethics but in the last 20 years the IOC has hardly ever talked about that," said Culpan.

"So what I am saying is that Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of the birth of Christ. The Olympic Games are supposed to be a celebration of the philosophy of Olympism but both have lost their way."

He believes the Olympics are now at a tipping point.

He said there were questions over the financial and social sustainability of the Games but also a disconnect existed between high performance sport and the public.

"The divide is really created by high performance sport being captured by the political economy. Athletes are now bought and sold as commodities. They're traded on the open market and with that comes the notion of money and reward for good performances and with that comes the temptation to gain unfair advantage."

But placing the blame for corruption, drug cheating and other social ills at the door of the Olympic Games is unfair said former New Zealand Olympic committee secretary general, now IOC member, Barry Maister.

"The problems that the Olympic Games have are problems of the world ...and the world is not exactly in great shape at the moment. I mean there are plenty of issues around the globe that are affecting people that live in this generation and so the Olympic movement is not immune from that."

Rio at night.

The Olympics in Rio will be just as important as ever, says IOC member Barry Maister. Photo: IOC

Maister maintains the Games are as relevant as ever and the level of interest in them from spectators and commercial partners is ever increasing.

"It's why the IOC is working in Israel at the moment to try and get Israeli and Palestinian youth to throw footballs at each other rather than hand grenades.

"It's why they are working in the Middle East to try and get women a fair go in sport, which they don't at the moment.

"It's why there are lots of containers for athletes that go to refugees and so on and so on. And it's why I remain thinking that the Olympic movement has a place. The Olympic Games are credible and that they are growing in strength."

The funding of high performance sport has reached an all time high in New Zealand.

Over the next year the government through Sport New Zealand will pour $64 million of government funding into high level sport.

Professor Culpan said there should be a debate over whether that level of funding was appropriate.

"There comes a tipping point. In New Zealand we have child poverty for goodness sake. We have homelessness. We need to think about what is the benefit of 14 medals versus the child poverty issue or the homelessness ...but I don't think we should get to the tipping point, I think we should be talking about it now."

Alex Bauaman chief executive of HPSNZ.

HPSNZ chief executive Alex Baumann. Photo: Photosport

The theory is that winning Olympic medals is good for national identity and inspires people to become active although the head of High Performance Sport New Zealand, Alex Baumann, concedes there is no evidence of that being the case.

"How much is enough I'm not sure, but I don't think we've reached the potential of the system at this point in time and our goal for Tokyo is 16 [medals] plus," said Baumann.

"Then you take a look at some of the athletes in the system like Lisa [Carrington] and Val [Adams] ...they are role models and there is evidence of that...or if the All Blacks win the World Cup or when the Cricket World Cup was hosted here, the nation feels good - I don't think you can get away from that."

Rebuilding the Olympics' tarnished image will be a major exercise for the IOC in Rio and while Rio will undoubtedly put on a spectacular show the true test for these Games will be whether the label of the greatest sporting show on Earth is still valid or whether they have simply become a five ring circus.

Read more of RNZ's Olympic coverage here.

  • Russia escapes IOC blanket ban for Rio
  • The rocky road to Rio
  • Olympic village: 'Water came down walls, there was a strong smell of gas'
  • .radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/afternoons/audio/201809536/why-hosting-the-olympics-is-a-bad-idea Hosting the Olympics - is it a bad idea?