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Could the Olympic Games become fair sport?

By Valerie Yule - posted Wednesday, 27 August 2008

It is not fair if Olympic athletes cheat by taking drugs to improve their performance. However, testing competitors is becoming so increasingly costly and difficult that it has even be suggested that the whole lot of them be allowed to dope up, to retain a semblance of an even playing field.

But the Olympic Games are not an even playing field. They are not fair sport.

The table of medals won at the Beijing Games correlates roughly with the money nations have spent to obtain them. Gold is paid for with gold. It has been estimated that each gold medal won by Australians at games over the past 20 years has cost taxpayers an average of $40 million each. A swimsuit designed to give a speed advantage over everybody else costs $4 million to produce.


Eighty-one countries won medals at the Beijing Olympics. Looked at another way, 128 countries won no medals at all; that is, 62 per cent of the 205 countries competing. Three quarters of these unrewarded countries are so wracked by economic and social problems, or even war, that it must have been difficult to send any athletes at all, let alone pay for training.

It is a tremendous boost to national morale when someone wins a medal for their country. No boost to morale for those countries.

Winning medals has of course been a tremendous boost to morale for the poor or troubled countries of Jamaica, Romania, Kenya, North Korea, Ethiopia, Cuba, Indonesia, Algeria, Colombia, Croatia, Serbia, Egypt and Afghanistan. How much did their medals cost them?

India and Israel were low in the medal count. Were they spending on other things, and less on training Olympics sports stars?

Is there any way for future games to ensure that all athletes of all countries have more of a level playing field in the amount of financial support they are given?

Taxpayers of countries high in the medals tables do not appear to begrudge the enormous sums they pay to groom potential athletes and for the costly entourages at their Institutes of Sport. Forty million dollars? No worries. Part of this problem is that adult arithmetic is not good for any sum over $999. We simply cannot comprehend what $40 million is, as Northcote Parkinson pointed out in his Law of Triviality. We may be keen to save 5 cents at the supermarket, but cannot imagine the difference between $40,000, $40 million or $400 million or even the size of our foreign debt.


Yet the cost of the Olympic Games and all their human organising paraphernalia now makes significant impacts on economies, at a time when as much as possible should be invested instead in defences against a future of possible environmental calamities.

Most of Beijing’s Olympic estimated expenditure of up to US$44 billion has in fact been for a radical restructuring of the city: Delhi plans to do the same for the Commonwealth Games in 2010.

But will London’s projected expenditure of over £9 billion for the 2012 Games be for a similar city transformation, or be more directly spent on a “better Games” than ever before?

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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