The Olympics’ Lost Glory (Wall Street Journal)

| Publications+Commentary

Wall Street Journal | February 2, 1999

The Olympics’ Lost Glory

By Betsy Mitchell

In 1984, after 12 years of intense training that required me to rearrange much of my school and family life, I made the U.S. Olympic swimming team. In 1986, I set a world record in the 200 meter backstroke. In 1988 I returned to the Olympics and won another medal. Achieving these goals means more to me than words can describe. I was most proud of earning my USA sweat suit, mounting the awards podium, and realizing that the medals won and the records set were not just mine but my country’s.

Sadly, those memories are of a drastically different era in American and international sports. By the late 1980s the Olympic movement had been scarred by widespread findings that medal-winning athletes used performance-enhancing substances. Additional stories of “recreational” drug abuse by high-profile athletes also cast a pall over one of the most wonderful images of sports: the healthy shrine of an athletic body.

The ’80s also saw a drastic increase in “money for medals” programs — cash incentives awarded at the discretion of our Olympic committee and national governing bodies. The competitive creed and the value of amateur sportsmanship were replaced by the demand for national domination at any price. Witness the spectacle of the “Dream Team” — America’s most highly paid basketball pros-turning what ought to have been an exciting athletic contest into a meaningless victory parade. Another brick from the wall of honor, painstakingly built by previous Olympians, was torn down.

The recent bribery scandal, escalating from decades of rumors to tangible evidence of wrongdoing by International Olympic Committee members, completes my disillusionment. Isn’t exchanging money for votes every bit as anathema to the spirit of the Games as taking steroids to get stronger? Why is it too difficult for leaders to behave consistently with the policies they establish and espouse? My status as an Olympian does not put me on a pedestal, but it is part of a history and tradition that do entail certain expectations on my part. Fairness, honesty and respect are among those expectations; drugs, money and power are not.

We must not let go of the thought that values and standards mean something and that we need them to endure over time. We may neither want nor be able to return to the values and standards of the last century, when the modern Olympics were established. But if we are to right the wrongs of recent Olympic history, we must return to an ethic in which love of the sport, and not of the reward, is the name of the game.

Ms. Mitchell won one gold and two silver medals as a member of the U.S. Olympic swimming team in 1984 and 1988.

Comments are closed.