London 2012: an Olympics without controversy … almost

The Olympics are at their best they bring people together. EPA/Denis Sabangan

And so the London Olympics are over and we can all sit back and reflect on the past few weeks with some kind of clarity.

Compared with the events of previous Games – such as the Munich Massacre of 1972, the Centennial Olympic Park bombing of 1996, or the use of performance-enhancing drugs in 1988 and 2000 that resulted in athletes being stripped of gold medals – London has been a mostly controversy-free Olympics.

Mostly.

Perhaps the most controversial incident in the Games was the disqualification of four women’s pairs badminton teams on the basis they were trying to lose their final pool matches, to save energy and get a more favourable draw in their quarter finals.

Thomas Lund, secretary general for the Badminton World Federation, explained the decision to suspend the players in the following way:

“The rules say you have to win every match, and that doesn’t mean you throw some matches and win other matches.”

This was a horrible decision by the Badminton World Federation. The disqualified badminton teams used a strategic awareness of the competition structure to produce the most effective and efficient means available to ensure they, and their country, would win a medal.

This is now, fortunately or unfortunately, the Olympic spirit and one that is embodied in many Olympic sports. It’s evident in the willingness of domestiques in road cycling to sacrifice their own chances of medalling for the sake of a team leader; in resting the best performers from heats in relay swimming and running; and in the resting or conservative use of star players in pool games in basketball, soccer and water polo.

Yu Yang (right) and Wang Xiaoli (left) of China, two of the eight players disqualified for match fixing at the London Olympics. EPA/Bagus Indahono

In the case of the offending badminton players, there seems no doubt they were deliberately playing badly in order to lose a game. But all teams had not played badly in their earlier games. They had already done their jobs to the degree that was necessary to get to the next round.

The response by the badminton federation appeared to be a knee-jerk reaction to unrest from the fans and media, coupled with unfounded suggestions that such actions by badminton teams could interfere with the integrity of Olympic gambling.

Anyone that gambles on pool matches in badminton, where there is a strong possibility that teams who had already qualified for the quarter-finals would not play their hardest prior to the game starting, is a person that should not gamble on sport.

The issue of the men’s pole vault provides an interesting contrast with the badminton.

In the heats, vaulters from different countries – including Australia’s Steve Hooker – apparently colluded by not attempting to win the heat, ensuring all of them made it to the final. In contrast with the badminton, there was no suggestion that these pole vaulters should be disqualified.

But it’s perhaps the fans that lose the most when athletes don’t give their all in the opening rounds of competition. Spare a thought for the fans that paid good money to watch Team USA play Nigeria in the men’s basketball, only to see superstars Lebron James and Kobe Bryant play for just over ten minutes of the match.

Ye Shiwen raised eyebrows with her impressive performance, but fellow athletes supported the Chinese swimmer. EPA/Barbara Walton

The second major controversy of the Games was an allegation of doping against Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, courtesy of some impressive improvements in her 200m and 400m individual medley times.

As further substance to this claim, the Chinese swimmer had swum the final 50m of the freestyle leg of the 400m medley faster than the winner of the men’s race, American Ryan Lochte.

Reports from a small segment of the media, supported by some coaches, suggested that, given the history of drug use by many members of the Chinese swimming teams in the 1990s and the use of EPO by a teammate of Ye’s recently, Ye’s swimming performance should be viewed with suspicion.

This allegation was a beat-up and should have been ignored by the media. The only uplifting aspect of this story was that other reporters were not just quick to refute it, but also to question the underlying racism and sexism that informed it.

We in the Western media would not question the current American track and field sprinters on the basis of the many athletes of previous eras that were found guilty of drug use before and during the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) trials of the early 2000s.

Furthermore, it was explained by some reporters that the Chinese government, and Chinese sporting organisations, embarrassed by that legacy of swimming in the 1990s, had implemented a rigorous drug testing and control program that was at least the equal of any other in the world.

Many of Ye’s competitors, and many former swimmers, explained that the improvement in the swimmer’s freestyle leg was expected, and celebrated her achievement as a positive for women’s swimming.

Britain’s Victoria Pendleton (right) grabs the hand of Australian gold medal winner Anna Meares after the women’s sprint final. EPA/Christophe Karaba

While there were other controversies throughout the Olympics, including a couple of positive drug tests (most recently to women’s shot put gold medallist Nadzeya Ostapchuk), and some off the field regarding ticket prices, ticket allocations, economic benefits for London, and future allocation of funding to Olympic programs, the ethical legacy of these Games is overwhelmingly positive.

These Games should be viewed as an example of the ways friendships can occur between individuals of different nations who forget self-interest and unrestrained patriotism.

The competitors who finished second and third in the 100m hurdles race won by Sally Pearson appeared genuinely happy for the person who had just defeated them in a photo-finish. And as mentioned previously, female medley swimmers celebrated the performance of Ye Shiwen in the face of criticism.

Even the great cycling rivals, Australia’s Anna Meares and Britain’s Victoria Pendleton, appeared to finally understand the friendship that often results from intense and close competition, after facing off in the women’s sprint final.

It is images such as the above that should remain as ethical beacons for future Olympics because they support the vision of International Olympic Committee founder Pierre de Coubertin’s of using sport to promote international peace and understanding.

Did these positive images sell as many newspapers and pay-TV subscriptions as the wildly ethnocentric celebrations of moving upwards on the Olympic medal tally?

Well, we’ll know this eventually, too.