The dark side of Olympic opportunity

As a kid, watching the Olympics was an extremely happy event. To go from cheering for the dismal and dully colored home teams to watching this bright spectacle, along with a very successful team to call my own, was a lot of fun, and a lot of the competitors are kids too, which makes it pretty neat. They were competing in some sports and events we didn’t get to watch regularly, and there was a fun simplicity that flowed from the amateurism and unity of the whole thing.

The Olympics, as an event, really aren’t that simple, though. Munich happened. Boycotts of one kind and another happened. Protests were staged. Athletes were deemed unclassifiable. And that’s all before we get to the sports-related controversies of the familiar and unfamiliar variety. Most of these complicating events and issues are sociopolitical matters having little to do with sport as such, yet they still play out in meaningful ways at the Games.

This summer in London was no exception, of course. I’d like to highlight two items, one of which has not been the subject of substantial media coverage, and one of which has. 

1. Cameroon

In America, we think of the opportunities the Olympics afford as things like recognition for athletic achievement at the highest levels and monetizing that achievement in the form of sponsorships upon return home after the games are done. (More on Subway in a later post.) This, apparently, is not a globally shared vision, however.

All I know about Cameroon is that their team is your first and easiest opponent in Nintendo “World Cup Soccer,” and that I think it’s in Africa. My educated guess, based on how a number of members of the Cameroonian delegation treated their Olympic opportunity, is that it isn’t the sweetest place to live.

Seven Cameroon athletes have disappeared while in Britain for the London Olympics, according to the Ministry of Sports and Physical Education.

The seven – five boxers, a swimmer and a footballer – are suspected of having left to stay in Europe for economic reasons.

It is not the first time Cameroonian athletes have disappeared during international sports competitions.

At past Francophonie and Commonwealth games as well as junior soccer competitions, several Cameroonians have quit their delegation without official consent.

I find the inverted paradigm– that in some countries, athletes strive to make the Olympic team so that they can escape their country– pretty intriguing.

2. Saudi Arabia

One of the broader themes of the 2012 Games was the role of female athletes. The American team, for example, sent more women than men for the first time ever. That’s an important historical moment because of the drivers behind it, which include the women’s own athletic achievement and the presence of a support infrastructure allowing our female athletes to reach their highest potential.

This is in contrast to the situation with the Saudi Arabian team, which frequently was grouped into the “female Games” motif. I take exception to the often-expressed notion that Sarah Attar and Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani were “making Olympic history,” because it implies that these two are the first Saudi women who were athletically capable of representing their country, an implication that at least masks reality: they are the first women the Saudi government permitted to represent their country. The only historical note in this case is the reversal of an oppressive political policy. Taking this view does nothing to undermine the achievements of Attar and Shahrkhani, deserving Olympians both. It’s ridiculous to think that there weren’t Saudi women capable of reaching the Games in the past, though, who would have been Olympians but for repressive government policies.

It isn’t fun to engage in comparative atrociousness analysis, and this isn’t the forum for it, but as some commentators have argued, Saudi Arabia and Syria are at least as deserving of the long sporting sanctions enforced against South Africa during apartheid. To say, as most media outlets did, that Attar and Shahrkhani “made history” is, at best, to obscure the deeper reality of their situation in the history of their nation.

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