The Olympic Ideal: Is It Half Empty or Half Full?

February 09, 1992|By MICHAEL HILL

When John Hoberman looks at the Olympics, he sees hypocrisy, a totally commercial endeavor that's slickly packaged and sold to the highest bidder at a cost that sacrifices the health of its athletes and the basic morality of its heritage.

When Bud Greenspan looks at the Olympics, he sees the ultimate in human performance, a spectacle of stories of risk and achievement, of triumph and tragedy.

Whose view is right? Well, that all depends on your viewpoint.

Dr. Hoberman, an Olympics scholar who has has written books on the subject, will spend the next two weeks at home in Texas. But he has no plans to be glued to his television set for CBS' coverage of the the Winter Olympics, opening this weekend in Albertville, France.

"The more you learn about the Olympics, the less appealing it becomes," Dr. Hoberman contends.

A professor in the Germanic Studies department at the University of Texas and author of the 1986 book "The Olympic Crisis: Sport, Politics and the Moral Order," Dr. Hoberman says ,, that the state of the current Olympics betrays the heritage the games are supposed to be nurturing.

"They've already killed the sport as we once knew it, certainly the track and field that I came to love as a boy," he said over the phone from his office in Austin, claiming that the Olympic ideals of international participation and competition have been replaced by a nationalist-driven fervor for medals that is bereft of morals and full of illegal chemicals.

"It's hard to make people believe that because of the strong public relations efforts to convince them that this is not the case. You can see how the Olympics are sold to the American people. You know how CBS will sell it. We'll learn about little Debbie who's been skating or skiing since she was three years old and is just a bundle of self-sacrifice and hard work and dedication to her sport.

"It's such a bunch of malarkey I don't see how they can get away with it. But they need these little myths, the little ideological contests and other stories, to mediate between the fans who nTC want and need an Olympic mystique to consume and the commercialized spectacle they are offered."

There is probably no more esteemed or skilled purveyor of that Olympic mystique than Mr. Greenspan, whose television series and films on the games have been widely praised and honored with awards.

But Mr. Greenspan, reached in Rochester, N.Y. as he was about to head for Albertville, had no apologies for what he does.

"I think it's just a question of what you focus on," he said. "It's axiomatic with the Olympics and of many sports that 100 percent of the time they will be 90 percent good. And 100 percent of the time they will be 10 percent no good.

"So it's more a matter of how you look at life. Is the glass half empty or half full? You'll have 10,000 athletes at an Olympic games. So maybe five, 10 or 20 are on steroids, five or six percent. Why talk about them?"

But Dr. Hoberman contends that the drug problem is much more widespread than that. He is just finishing up a book on the problem, "Mortal Engines: Olympic Sport and the Great Experiment on the Human Organism," which will be published this summer.

"There's a doping plague in the Olympics," Dr. Hoberman said. "I pay very close attention to the situation in Germany, which is the most interesting place in the world to follow these kinds of sports."

As revelations about the extent of steroid use in East Germany come out, Dr. Hoberman has found that instead of shunning the members of the East German medical sports establishment, the West Germans and other European countries have been recruiting these doctors and scientists.

"They've been treated like the Nazi rocket experts after World War II," he said. "It's 1945 all over again. The use of steroids actually doesn't bother me as much as the hypocrisy."

Dr. Hoberman said that the doping comes directly from the corruption of the original Olympic movement.

"The Olympics were one of a number of international movements that began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts, Esperanto, Wagnerism, even Zionism," he said.

These soon divided into two types -- those that retained their international orientation and others, like the Olympics, that became battlegrounds for nationalism, he said.

"Nationalism is the engine that drives the whole thing," he said. "There is intense political pressure in many of these countries to bring back a harvest of medals. So the performance principle becomes the ultimate value, not the original Olympic ideals."

It is this drive for performance, this pressure to win, that drives athletes and national federations to illegal doping, Dr. Hoberman argues.

"When the U.S. Olympic Committee, who is the custodian of the Olympic ideals in this country, sends out its appeal for donations, the only thing it talks about is how many medals the U.S. is going to win," he pointed out. "There is nothing about the joys of international participation."

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