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The Olympics Has A Big Problem

Sep 15, 2013
Originally published on September 18, 2013 8:50 am



Time now for sports.


MARTIN: NPR's Mike Pesca was in Buenos Aires last week for the International Olympic Committee's big announcement of who will host the 2020 Olympics. It's Tokyo, by the way. While he was there, it really set in for him that the Olympics has a problem. He thinks he knows a way to fix it. He joins us now. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: I just talked to smart, informed people. I didn't really come up with it...

MARTIN: It's more fun to just hang it all on you (unintelligible)...

PESCA: There were no PowerPoint presentations being generated in my hotel room, yeah.

MARTIN: So, outline the problem though.

PESCA: So, there are many problems at the Olympics - many great things. I mean, we all love the Olympics and they're doing very well financially and we love to watch them. But then there are problems of doping and match fixing and things that they know that they're struggling with. But there's a sort of grand overall thing. What are the Olympics? It's a collection of sports. The actual sports played in the Olympics - some of them are great and we love them and the world's fastest man in the dash and Michael Phelps in the swimming. But what about race walking, what about synchronized swimming? You have a problem with what's called the program. When you go to the opera and you look at the program, it tells you who the Valkyrie is going to stab in the third act, or whatever. In the Olympics, it's just a rundown of the sports. And the way the program is constructed is really frustrating to a lot of people - a lot of people like IOC member Dick Pound of Canada.

DICK POUND: The process to date has not been right. So, up came the idea from the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations. Of the 28 sports, 25 are core. Well, I'm sorry - we don't have 25 core sports.

MARTIN: So, is this guy, and are you, saying take out the race walkers?

PESCA: Yeah. Well, what Pound is talking about with these core sports is this idea that some sports have gotten themselves classified as you can't take us out of the Games, and that's not true. And it means it's hard for other sports to get back in. And, by the way, Pound does specifically criticize race walking because you always break into a run and it's really hard to officiate. But there's a lot of things wrong with a lot of different sports. And whenever I say, hey - to a layman - hey, should wrestling get bounced from the Olympics? They'll always so, no. What about synchronized swimming? What about dressage? Now, that's a little just discriminating against the sports you don't know and a little cultural, but it also speaks to the fact that you have these federations - like, track is a federation and swimming is a federation, and the federations kind of define what sports occur under them. So, the federations have a lot of leeway to say, yes, synchronized swimming is in. And maybe someone else, like the overall Olympic poobahs, should say, actually, we're going to take out some of your minor disciplines and put in a big sport like squash or softball or something like that.

MARTIN: So, you're saying there's a problem with how decisions are made in general.

PESCA: It is 'cause it's so very diplomatic. There's a strength to diplomacy. Things work themselves out, things don't blow up. But, you know, change is really hard to come by, when you have 103 IOC members who want to only use soft power, it's hard to sometimes make a big stand or make a big change. And not only are we seeing this in the issue of the sports, look at what's going on in Sochi, right? The Russian government passed a vehement anti-gay propaganda law they call it. And the Olympics are not standing up to this law. All the Olympics thinks that they have to do is make it so that athletes don't get arrested and maybe visitors don't get arrested. We were asking Tomas Bach, the new IOC president, what are you going to do about this Russian anti-gay propaganda law?

THOMAS BACH: We will follow our well use on the Olympic chart and to make sure that the Olympic Games and the participants in the Olympic Games can compete and participate without any kind of discrimination.

PESCA: And he goes on to say that the Russians have assured us no one will get arrested. And then he gets a call on the phone...

BACH: We have to...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We will be right back in (unintelligible). We just have to speak with you.

PESCA: And guess what? It was Vladimir Putin.

MARTIN: Really?

PESCA: Yes. And Bach made a joke: oh, but we didn't talk about the law, and maybe the reporters laughed uncomfortably. But this is an example of this not being challenged head on. I'm sure a lot of people would say it shouldn't be, because that's not the point of the Olympics. We don't get into politics. But a whole lot of other people will say, you know, it's a failure of nerve.

MARTIN: All right. You got a curveball?

PESCA: Yes. If you're a Seattle Seahawks fan, don't pick on the guy in the Niners jersey playing at your park today because he could be an undercover cop. Cops are dressing as Niners fans, so if someone pours a beer on them, they will perhaps arrest a Seahawks fan. You know, I would...

MARTIN: Entrapment, I say.

PESCA: Yeah, only if it's so tantalizing to pour a beer on a Niners fan that you can't help it. Look, I was in Argentina. You can't wear the opposing team's jersey to a stadium. These hooligans called the Barras Bravas enforce that. And people have been hurt, you know, violence visited upon them. So, the sporting scene in America is light years ahead of that, and this is a good thing that the Seattle cops are doing, even if they have to dress as a Niners fan for a weekend.

MARTIN: NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.