The Road to Rio: Onward to an Olympic Letdown?

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The story of the Rio Olympic Games is about those who spend years of their lives to achieve their dream and are left curiously underwhelmed when they do.

From the 2008 Atlanta Olympic Games... Credit: nghiemvo/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: nghiemvo/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

It takes a certain kind of genius to live in denial even when you subconsciously know that things are in a terrible shape. World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) President Craig Reedie, speaking at a press conference in Rio de Janeiro, had little hesitation in claiming that it’s not all as bad as it seems. Before he went on to say exactly the opposite.

“I don’t think the system is broken. Certain parts need revision. We’ve identified the bits we want to look at: cheating, bribery in laboratories, the consequences of noncompliance. … We are encouraged by the support from athletes.” What could possibly go wrong?

However, as the Olympics begin on Friday night in Rio de Janeiro, it’s not just doping that’s the concern. The Games will take place in a country that witnessed the coup of a legitimately elected government only a few months ago. Many athletes have been dissuaded to stay away from the Games due to the scare of the Zika virus. Not to mention the pessimism that colours the economic scenario in Brazil while there are those in Rio who have more or less been drawn out of existence. Official city maps for the Games exclude the favelas (slums) and signs on the road do their best to hide the poor away. The destitute do not belong to the gaudy occasion.

Yet there will be a deprived group that will be welcomed with open arms to the Games. Their glories will be told and recounted at every opportunity. Administrators in shiny banquets will seek to gain their share of credit. Of course, they might do so while negotiating the next astronomical rise in their salary.

While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) frequently reminds us that it spends 90% of its earnings on athletes and sports organisations, a Washington Post investigation revealed last week that sportspersons are very much left hanging at the end of the food chain. Instead, it’s the executives and other administrators who pocket the lion’s share of the revenue.

As revealed by the investigation, the IOC President Thomas Bach earns an annual allowance of $251,000 in addition to the organisation paying for his residential suite at the Lausanne Palace and Spa. While Bach’s salary is less in comparison to what FIFA pays its top-level administrators, the IOC makes up the gap by providing perks that would put multinational corporations to shame. For example, during the Olympics, regular members of the IOC will receive $450 cash per diem while those on the executive committee earn double.

This leads to scenes where administrators queue every morning in hotel rooms to collect their daily allowance. The unabashed nature of this dealing has little regard for the relative pittance that Olympic athletes earn. The Washington Post investigation focused on the disproportionately low earnings of US sportspersons but the situation remains much the same or is even worse in other countries.

The replaceable class

For the story of Rio Olympics is not only about gross mismanagement, a health crisis and displacement of the poor. It is also about those who spend years of their lives to achieve their dream and are left curiously underwhelmed when they realise it. For many Olympians, once they reach the stage, either they are unable to achieve their targets or even if they do, they are not always rewarded deservedly.

Many IOC members get paid more to attend the Olympics than most athletes are paid to compete. The amateur-origins of the Olympic Movement lie in the distant past; the movement now reflects the gross inequality that has become an unedifying feature of our lives. Former US rower Caroline Lind neatly summed up the situation when she told the Washington Post, “I’ve never thought it was fair. We’re all replaceable… There’s not really a concern for the individual athletes.”

Let’s make an effort to remember that the Olympics would not exist without these sportspersons.

Replaceable. A rich administrative class enjoys the gifts of its privileged existence while handing out peanuts to those below them. The disfranchised struggle to make ends meet while constantly facing the danger of exclusion if they speak out or their performance is not up to the expected mark. Sounds familiar, does it?

While we prepare to enjoy the delightful displays that will certainly be a part of the spectacle in Rio till August 21, there’s a need to look past the blinding glitz and glamour that is eager to catch our attention. Spare a thought for the athletes that channel their Sisyphus-like devotion without any material rewards in sight. As Rohit Brijnath noted with his usual perspicacity in Livemint, it really takes an unusual kind of desire to punish oneself for a place at the Olympics.

If you are Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt or someone else who is not threatened by oblivion, then it may seem an easy career choice to make. But among the 11,000-plus athletes that will make the trip to Rio, very few are caught by the spotlight. In fact, they are distanced from it. Living their mundane struggle every single day of their lives until they reach an age where their body is bored and tired out of its wits.

The magic lies in the enduring. To strive for something that makes them feel passionate and strive some more even if it is meaningless. They arrive on stage and their journey will last from seconds to minutes to hours. Then, another four years before you reach where you wanted to be. You need to have a spiteful soul to put yourself through this.

And yet, so many do. They are driven by a variety of reasons, motivations and objectives. India’s Olympic medalists know it well enough. They perennially lie on the fringe of mainstream news and attention, yet miraculously spring on board weeks before the Olympics. For we need them to perform. We spend time speculating how many medals India will win, who will be a hero. When they win, they are lavished with the utmost praise, but the Sisyphean struggle usually remains below the surface. Sushil Kumar gets more press when his name comes up in a sabotage controversy rather than when he is away training for his next medal. It’s a curiously selfish relationship.

Yet, journalists and administrators are cogs in the wheel. To accuse them of apathy would be to miss the point. The low interest is a result of the unequal structures that govern the running of sport and our societies. Systemic bias against Olympians is a result of support programmes being run on market logic. They are considered less important because they are less marketable; this logic seems to push administrators and media houses in undervaluing them. They are, in the words of Caroline Lind, replaceable.

The rewards of Rio

For disaffected and undervalued employees, Olympians demonstrate remarkable dedication to their task. But it is not a path to be romanticised. Rather it poses obstacles that an athlete would be better without. Consider the case of Heena Sidhu, who will represent India in the 10m air pistol and 25m pistol shooting events. Earlier this year, she shone light on the sports ministry’s characteristic laxity in releasing funds for sportspersons under the government’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS).

“The ministry officials think that it’s very easy to win an Olympic medal. They believe that not much preparation is needed to qualify for the Olympics, World Championships or any other major international tournament. Talking about my case, there has been a delay of four to six months in clearing the payments under TOPS. I have spent some Rs. 55 lakh on my Rio Olympic preparation, but the ministry has only disbursed Rs. 30 lakh so far. There is no news about when I’ll get the remaining Rs. 25 lakh,” Sidhu told DNA. Delay in releasing funds for sportspersons is a perennial accusation against the ministry officials but this does not seem to force a change in attitude.

Many athletes cannot afford to loan an exorbitant amount of money or pay out of their own pockets. Yet, they carry on with a tenacity seldom seen. Even if they deliver their best, the system lets them down. For they are not glamorous enough; certainly, there’s little charm in a struggle against odds that holds few promises of reward.

Yet, rewards there will be in Rio. There will be stories told and retold. But forgotten too, many of them. Only a few will remain. But what will thrive is the lavish lifestyle that the administrators enjoy. The Lausanne Palace and Spa and other hotels of its ilk will continue to host officials who will lead lives that many Olympians can only dream of. The Olympic Movement and its well-meaning rhetoric will remain but it will be further distanced from achieving the ideals. For the movement can thrive only if athletes and their interests lie at the core.

Sadly, that does not seem to be the case. So, let’s enjoy the Olympics and try to remember the athletes who give us stories worth savouring. Also, let’s learn about the choppy waters they overcame to reach Rio. Let’s remember all of that. But most importantly, let’s make an effort to remember that the Olympics would not exist without these sportspersons . Administrators and officials are crucial to the exercise but they exist to ensure that the athletes get the best facilities and services. Not to garner the biggest rewards while providing the actual stars only leftovers.

The celebration in Rio already feels discomforting for multiple reasons. It feels rather inappropriate to organise a party in a house that is in need of massive repairs. But the Games will go on and there’s no reason to believe anything will go wrong in days to come. The injustices, though, have already been done and it’s important to point them out, lest we be complacent. Olympic activism in Rio is likely to be sidelined due to the presence of a massive security apparatus but the movement towards equality shall continue. The Olympic movement lies in dire need of resuscitation.

Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.

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