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Gaming The Games: The Rules That Got Bent In London

Aug 10, 2012
Originally published on August 10, 2012 8:06 pm

The London Summer Olympics are winding down, and by most accounts, the games have been a success. There were plenty of "thrill of victory, agony of defeat" moments; big, enthusiastic crowds — although there were too many blocks of empty seats; and for those who like a helping of scandal served up at their Olympics, there was that, too.

It wasn't the usual scourge of doping. Instead, the London Olympics had incidents of bending the rules and ethics of sport.

Several times during these Olympics, there have been moments when the Olympic oath seemed all but forgotten — you know, the one at the opening ceremony where athletes pledged to abide by the rules and spirit of fair play.

That wasn't what spectators thought when they saw competitors trying to lose — which is what eight badminton players were disqualified for doing in doubles matches.

And at the Aquatics Center, there was cheering for the start of the men's 100-meter breaststroke. When it was over, South African Cameron van der Burgh set a world record and won the gold medal. But then he admitted, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, that he took more dolphin kicks than are allowed.

Said Van der Burgh: If you're not doing it, you're falling behind.

And in soccer, the U.S. was behind in its epic women's soccer semifinal game against Canada, when American star Abby Wambach started reminding the referee that the Canadian goalkeeper was holding the ball longer than the allotted 6 seconds.

"Well, I mean there was a few other times throughout the game that she held it for 18 seconds ... for 10 seconds," she said after the match.

The ref made a rare call on the rule. It led to a tying goal by the U.S., and left Canadian coach John Herdman livid.

"It wasn't like she purposefully tried to slow the game down, where you see goalkeepers really cheating," he said. "She wasn't doing that."

Maybe she wasn't — but Olympians have been gaming the games as long as the Games have existed.

In 1976, American swimmer John Naber won five medals, including four gold. He remembers how the rules were different then, for swimmers who jumped the gun at the beginning of a race. A false start by one athlete would be charged to all. Swimmers were disqualified after a third false start.

"My opponent, knowing I had a very good start, intentionally false-started twice, to hold me back at the start of the race," he says. "In retrospect, I would say that might be gaming the system a little bit. But that was within the confines of the rules."

Despite the stories of rules-bending from London, Naber and other Olympic watchers believe most athletes at the games adhere to the rules and the oath. They base that as much on realism as idealism.

Some 80 percent of the athletes here, Naber says, don't have a realistic shot at a medal — so there's no real incentive to cheat. For those who do, Naber recommends a simple litmus test.

"If there is a question," he says, "come down on the side of, will this embarrass you when your grandmother finds out?"

All the talk about rules and ethics are playing against an Olympic soundtrack of "Chariots of Fire." It's everywhere at these games. And despite chronicled factual distortions, the movie is an ode to all that's right and sportsmanlike about the games.

It is a different world now, with more bounty for successful Olympic athletes, and more incentive for them to break the Olympic oath — which, tellingly, has expanded to include athlete entourages.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. The London Summer Olympics are nearly over and, by most accounts, they've been a success. There were plenty of thrill of victory, agony of defeat moments. Despite the blocks of empty seats, we also saw huge, enthusiastic crowds. And, for those who enjoy a bit of scandal at their Olympics, there was that, too. I'm not talking about the usual plague of doping. No, something else.

Instead of breaking the rules, some athletes attempted to bend them, stirring debate about the ethics of sport. From London, NPR's Tom Goldman reports on gaming the games.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Several times during these Olympics, there have been moments when the Olympic oath seemed all but forgotten. You know the one at the opening ceremony where athletes pledged to abide by the rules in the spirit of fair play?

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE BOOING)

GOLDMAN: You pay Olympian prices for tickets. You're not happy when the competitors try to lose, which is what eight badminton players, four doubles teams, were disqualified for doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: There was cheering at the aquatic center for the start of the Men's 100 Meter Breast Stroke. When it was over, South African Cameron van der Burgh had set a world record and won the gold medal. Then, he admitted in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald that he took more dolphin kicks than are allowed. Said van der Burgh, if you're not doing it, you're falling behind.

The U.S. was behind in its epic Women's Soccer Semifinal game against Canada when American star, Abby Wambach, started reminding the referee that the Canadian goalkeeper was holding the ball longer than the allotted six seconds.

ABBY WAMBACH: Well, I mean, there was a few other times throughout the game that she held it for 18 seconds, for 10 seconds.

GOLDMAN: The ref made a rare call on the rule. It led to a tying goal by the U.S. and left Canadian coach John Herdman livid.

JOHN HERDMAN: It wasn't like she purposely tried to slow the game down where you see goalkeepers really cheating. She wasn't doing that.

GOLDMAN: Maybe not, but Olympians have been gaming the games as long as the games. In 1976, American swimmer John Naber won five medals, including four gold. He remembers how the rules were different then for swimmers who jumped the gun at the beginning of a race. A false start by one athlete would be charged to all. Swimmers were disqualified after a third false start.

JOHN NABER: My opponent, knowing I had a very good start, intentionally false started twice to hold me back at the start of the race. In retrospect, I would say that might be gaming the system a little bit, but that was within the confines of the rules.

GOLDMAN: Despite the stories of rules bending from London, Naber and other Olympic watchers believe most athletes at the games adhere to the rules and the oath. They base that as much on realism as idealism. Eighty percent of the athletes here, Naber says, don't have a realistic shot at a medal. There's no real incentive to cheat. For those who do, Naber recommends this litmus test.

NABER: If there is a question, come down on the side of - will this embarrass you when your grandmother finds out?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOLDMAN: All the talk about rules and ethics are playing against an Olympic soundtrack of "Chariots of Fire." It's everywhere at these games and, despite chronicled factual distortions, the movie is an ode to all that's right and sportsmanlike about the games. It is a different world now, more bounty for successful Olympic athletes, more incentive for them to break the Olympic oath, which tellingly has expanded to include athlete entourages.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.