Aside from doing grumpy postings like this one about them here, I am pretty much ignoring the Olympics. But today, while waiting for a BBC Radio 3 piano recital, I heard the BBC Radio 3 version of the news. And one of the big stories was that Lord Moynihan (he is some kind of British Olympic big cheese) was defending a gold medal winning Chinese swimmer against accusations of having been drugged. The margin of her victory in a swimming race was, according to a defeated American coach (so said Radio 3), “troubling”.
And there you have what is surely the fundamental problem of the Olympics.
I loath the Olympics for all sorts of reasons. The invading army of officious and corrupt imperialists telling me and my fellow Londoners how to run our own city, the costs that will be spread over lifetimes (including to those who have even less interest in the games than I do), the cock-ups caused by corruption, and by it being organised by a different bunch of organisers each time, the shameless statist propaganda in the opening ceremony (the entirety of which I have recording (sensing political rucki) but I have yet to watch the damn things and probably never will), etc. etc. etc.
But this drugs accusation, whether in this particular case true or baseless, gets to the heart of the problem with the Olympics.
I, and millions of others, just do not trust Olympic athletic victories any more. The wider the margin of them, the more we all distrust them.
After all, science and technology have progressed at a dizzying rate in recent decades, in all other areas where it has profited anybody to make such progress. Why not in athlete doping, in ways that doping detection cannot detect?
In Formula 1 car racing, everyone who pays attention knows that being and having the best driver is only half of the battle, if that. F1 is a struggle between engineers and designers, not just drivers. If your engineers fall behind, having the two best drivers on the planet driving your loser cars won’t win you the championship. Which is fine, because all of this is right out there in the open. No secret is made of any of this. One of the purposes of Formula 1 is to enable car makers to boast about their enthusiasm and excellence at technology, and maybe F1 even encourages regular car-making technology to get better.
In athletics, however, the collision between the idea of individuals racing, or throwing or jumping or whatever it is, and individuals being treated more like racing cars by teams of medical experts, is not nearly so happy. In fact it pretty much destroys the entire purpose of the exercise. I mean, what the hell is the point of winning a gold medal, or for that matter winning a bronze or coming seventh, if every second person you subsequently meet (even if too polite to say so to your face) reckons you probably cheated?
The problem is that whereas last year’s F1 cars are just scrap metal, or perhaps revered but still inanimate museum pieces, Olympic athletes have to spend several more decades actually living inside the bodies that were once mucked about with by Olympic doctors, so you probably can’t just allow the doctors to let rip, with any kind of biotechnology they can devise. Remember all those miserable ex-Soviet swimmers and gymnasts. But if you don’t allow this, or if you allow some biotechnology but not other kinds, you have to find some convincing way of policing it all. As of now, they are nowhere near to doing that convincingly.
And one thing’s for sure. None of these problems are going in any way to diminish, in the decades to come.
At present, my sport of choice, cricket, has no such doping problems, or if so they keep them very firmly under wraps. Not long ago, as I wrote about here, South Africa beat England at cricket. England didn’t just lose, they were humiliated, at home, in what everyone expected to be a very closely fought game. Yet nobody in cricket believes that this extraordinary South African triumph was caused by anything more complicated than the South African team playing much, much better than the England team did. Nobody called this result “troubling”, in the way that American coach meant it. Nobody is now suggesting that the South African team had been using illegal substances. They just batted far better and bowled far better, because … well, because they just did.
Cricket certainly has its cheating problems, but they are to do with people cheating by not trying hard enough, not by off-the-field medical wizards trying too hard.