Controversy won't slow Olympics

Ron Borges

Feb. 25 - The Winter Olympics are over, but is the Olympic Movement finished too? That seemed a legitimate question to ponder as the Olympic Flag was being taken down Sunday night at the Closing Ceremony of the 19th Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Certainly that flag will go up again in two years to open the Summer Games in Athens, Greece, and in four years in Turin, Italy, but will the Games ever recover from the SLOC bribery scandal, biased judging and refereeing, doping test foul-ups and walkout threats by Russia and South Korea?

THE ANSWER IS "yes" for a simple reason: What else is new?

This is not the first time countries have threatened to boycott the Games. In fact, the United States did it in 1980 and the Russians and Cubans did it in 1984. The Games not only survived but became bigger and bigger business.

Certainly the Salt Lake Games were riddled with charges of rampant nationalism and even hemispheric nationalism, if such a thing can be said to exist. The Russians, embarrassed by their poorest medal performance ever at the Winter Games, accused NHL referee Bill McCreary of setting up a Canada-United States hockey final because of a desire to make the gold-medal game an all-North America event. Funny, the Russians didn't have any complaints about his refereeing four years ago when he worked the Russia-Czech gold-medal game, but when he waved off an apparent tying goal in the third period of the U.S.-Russia semifinal last week, McCreary was suddenly declared biased.

"It's a human reaction that they won't call penalties in crucial situations," Russian coach Slava Fetisov said after the USA had beaten Russia 3-2 to reach the gold-medal round. "It was designed to be a U.S.-Canada final and now they have it."

That statement so irritated the head of the International Ice Hockey Federation, who said he was "angry and disappointed" with the Russian accusations. Of course, if that guy had to face making license plates in Siberia for losing to the U.S., he might be popping off too.

The Russians were angry when the IOC set a precedent that will surely come back to haunt them, awarding gold medals to both the Russian and Canadian pairs figure skating teams after a French judge said she was pressured into voting for the Russians as part of a deal the French federation made to garner votes for the French ice dancing team.

She later recanted and began blaming everyone she could think of outside herself, including the Canadian federation, after she was suspended and the two teams both received golds. Reviews will go on into the spring, but the IOC forced the figure skating union to make a quick decision and award double gold, a move that irked the Russians and appeared to open a Pandora's box of countries disputing judging, rulings, calls and doping tests.

That's not a first, either. Remember when the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team was badly hosed by a referee's call at the end of a game with the Russians that cost the U.S. the gold medal? The Americans refused to accept the silver and left the podium empty during the awards ceremony. Life, and the Olympics, went on, bad sportsmanship be damned.

The same will be true this time. The Russians won none of their arguments over judging and failed drug tests that cost several of their medal winners in cross-country skiing. Spain also lost a gold medal on a blood doping charge when a test of Johann Muehlegg showed he was using a drug so new it was not yet on the banned list to increase the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen to the muscles.

Such scandal is nothing new to the Olympics (anybody seen Ben Johnson lately?) and for all the threatening words in Salt Lake City, it will not mean an end to the Games, which have become a high-stakes gamble for countries and television networks every four years.

There is simply too much national pride and too much money involved for anyone to pull out anymore, especially at a time when the Cold War is over and war against terrorism seems to be floundering.

Certainly, the United States started the problems by introducing politics into the Games at the Opening Ceremony when we paraded in the tattered American flag that flew over the World Trade Center, which was destroyed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York. President Bush made it worse by deviating slightly from the traditional opening statement by the leader of the host country to add a brief but emotionally charged reference to the United States that irritated some of the 77 other nations in attendance and probably opened the door to leaders of other host countries turning that traditional ceremony into a filibuster for their government and way of life.

This was quickly followed by the pairs skating controversy that the Russians felt - quite rightly - was fueled by the power of the American media's ability to keep the questionable scoring in the news until the pressure became so great it threatened to overshadow the Games themselves.

As the Russians accurately pointed out, this was far from the first time a controversy took place in the sordid world of figure skating. It was just one of the few times an effort was made to correct it and that may have so shocked them they began to see conspiracies in every decision.

When their athletes continued to underperform and some of their best alpine skiers were the victim of failed drug tests, accusations began to fly. When a South Korean speedskater, Kim Dong-Sung, was disqualified for cutting off American skating sensation Apolo Ohno after apparently winning a gold medal, they too claimed favoritism and threatened to walk out of the Games.

Those were significant threats but in the end neither delegation left and they'll both be back at the Summer Games in two years and the Winter Games in four. With no more Olympic competition in the United States for at least a decade, many of the concerns raised in Salt Lake City will disappear but others - some surely from angry U.S. athletes and coaches - will resurface in Athens and Turin because that is the nature of international competition.

It is a venue that occasionally breeds mistrust and a jaundiced eye toward what has actually just happened. But what is significant is not that controversy arose in Salt Lake City.

What is significant is that, in the end, no one left early. As one USOC official commented, "I've never seen an Olympics with so many angry people but I don't think anybody would be mad if we hadn't won 30 (actually a U.S. record 34) medals."

Newly installed IOC president Jacques Rogge downplayed the controversies as well, insisting they were small when compared to the days of the Cold War when boycotts by both Russia and the United States were not enough to grind the Olympic movement to a halt. If the most powerful sporting countries in the world refusing to compete couldn't douse the Olympic flame, a few complaints from one of them certainly won't.

As Anton Sikharulidze, one of the athletes central to the biggest controversy of these Games, glibly put it, "If everything were to go quietly, nobody would watch The Games."

"There would not be enough interest with the general public," added the male half of Russia's shared gold medal pairs figure skating team after returning to Moscow. "It's cool the way it is."

Occasionally, it's also hot but by 2004 everything will have cooled down again. At least until the first winner gets DQ'd in Athens.

To view more articles, news, photo galleries of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, please visit the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympic Games' Official Website.