Olympic voices for reform
Lake Placid, N.Y.
If the Olympics are to survive, change seems inevitable.Conceptually they remain a beacon light of idealism -- an international conclave of friendly athletic competition and goodwill. Unfortunately, the games have grown so large as to invite a degree of unwanted nationalism, politics, and win-at- all-costs philosophy.
While some say the games are unalterably headed toward greater problems and even extinction, others believe reform can stem the tide. Dr. John Lucas of Penn State University is one such person.
In a symposium held at Skidmore College a hundred miles south of here on the eve of the Lake Placid games, this noted Olympic historian outlined his proposals for improving these quadrennial festivals. Basically, Dr. Lucas proposals are aimed at eliminating the rat-race environment surrounding the games and defusing them of their excessive nationalism.
He calls for a permanent "Olympic Games Center" for the summer spectacle and a limited rotation of venues for the more manageable and smaller winter competition. Such a center would dispense with the frantic and costly race required to get ready in a new location every four years. It would also help make the site less of an issue politically.
The United States, of course, has balked at the idea of sending its athletes to Moscow this summer in light of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, in an address to the International Olympic Committee here, indicated American support for the establishment of permanent homes for both the summer and winter gatherings.
A country's stability and neutrality, advocates agree, are the chief considerations in the choice of a permanent site. A location in central Switzerland is Dr. Lucas's first choice, followed by Helsinki. The site of the ancient games, Greece (specifically Athens), is a distant third, because of the country's frequent political upheavals.
Obviously, any country considered would have to consent to housing the games. Switzerland, therefore, might fall out of the picture almost right away. The Swiss overwhelmingly voted against bidding for the '76 games in a national referendum.
Dr. Lucas's Olympic Games Center would be along the lines of a UN of sports, a supranational operation with a permanent professional staff of 1,000 people, including coaches, trainers, and administrators.
The facilities would remain open year round and be used also for other major amateur and professional sports events. Dr. Lucas would like to see a center ready by 1996, the centennial of the games. The billions of dollars needed to construct and operate it would come from user fees, receipts from events (including the Olympics), private and public donations, and TV purses.
Some view as more realistic proposals to have both the summer and winter locales rotate. Under this plan, existing Olympic sites would be used at regular intervals.
To some degree this is already being done. Innsbruck and Lake Placid have both hosted the Winter Games twice, while Los Angeles gets back the summer festival in 1984. The 48- and 52-year untervals at these communities seems too long. A more reasonable time frame was the 12 years between Innsbruck's 1964 and 1976 Winter Games.
An item high on just about everybody's list of reforms is a de-emphasis on nationalistic displays. "The parades, the flag ceremonies, the national athem playing could be curtailed," said Sir Roger Bannister, a former British Olympian and the first man to crack the four-minute-mile barrier, speaking at the Skidmore symposium. "The emphasis should be on patriotism, not nationalism."
Dr. Lucas agrees, drawing the distinction between a healthy pride in one's country and a dangerously blind mass fervor. Award ceremonies, he contends, have become a closed shop for only a handful of athletic powers such as the US, the USSR, and East Germany.
"At Montreal I stood at attention 99 times for the anthems of just four countries," he said. "The purpose of the Olympic idea is not advanced one bit by this . . . repetition."
As an alternative, Dr. Lucas suggests a single award period at the end of each day. The winners' names and countries would appear on the scoreboard and be announced over TV as the "Olympic hymm" is played.
Of particular concern to Lord Killanin, president of the International Olympic Committee, is the focus on medal totals. "We have not been helped by those who, for instance, produce tables of results on a national basis, contrary to our rules," he stated at a meeting of the committee here. "They forget that Rule 9 of our Fundamental Principles states: 'The games are a contest between individuals and not between countries.'"
Consistent with this emphasis on individual achievement, some observers have called for the elimination of team sports.
Severing team sports and those with very limited national followings is one possible avenue for simplifying and reducing the size of the games. Others are to insist on higher qualifying standards for individual athletes and to end the policy of allowing each nation at least one automatically entry.
The summer games, of course, are most overgrown. They encompass many more sports, including indoor ones such as wrestling, basketball, and gymnastics that might logically be switched to the winter schedule.
In Munich, for example, there were nearly 14,000 athletes, compared with the 1,400 or so expected here.
The reasons for Olympic bigness are twofold, Sir Roger maintains. "First," he says, "they've become a chance for wealthy countries to show off their skills and might, and they want the biggest. Second, sportsmen themselves want the inclusion of their sports . . . and exclusion gives rise to howls of anguish in a rearguard action that's so far thwarted any significant pruning of events."
Others believe that the concentration of so many events is the real problem, and advocate increasing the number of sports while lengthening the Olympics from 15 to 20 or 25 days. Such expansion would make the games less hectic and allow more young people a chance to experience the Olympics.
Whether any of these changes occur may be decided when long-term Olympics policy is debated at next year's IOC congress.
Sir Roger calls the Olympics "one of the great leavening forces for good in the 20th century." If they are to remain so into the next century, the IOC had better put on its track shoes. For certainly the tenor of the times calls for prompt action.