Peter Julian: Corporate Olympics need to return to sporting roots

By Peter Julian

As a boy, I remember being mesmerized by the Montreal Olympic Games. Undeniably, there is great meaning and power in seeing such a reunion. Thousands of amateur athletes from every corner of the world, vowing to achieve their “personal best”, working their hearts out for no other reason than experiencing the joy of sport and the challenge of competition.

That powerful force in the Olympic movement unites so many peoples in one common celebration of pride and achievement. This force is historically at the heart of the universal and growing support of these Olympic ideals.

The tragedy is that we are now experiencing an erosion of these ideals. What used to be a spontaneous and festive international popular event is becoming much more about big money and about supporting big business interests rather than paying tribute to those inspiring athletes and their values.

With the Olympics in Vancouver, we see that Canadian taxpayers seem to have been given an unlimited financial liability. Despite the fact that a budget should have been put into place many years ago, with every day passing, we are seeing additional costs thrust upon the community.

When you add it all up, I fear that these will lead to the kind of hangover we experienced with the Montreal Olympics, where the two-week festival led governments to cut back on services to pay for a massive debt taxpayers had not expected. Meanwhile, Canada’s amateur athletes remained grossly underfunded.

We are also seeing a shutdown of free speech, even when it is not particularly targeted against sponsors. Right to Play, a not-for-profit sports organization that sends some of the best athletes in the world to impoverished countries to inspire hope and spread the dream, has been barred solely because its activities are supported by sponsors not included in Vanoc’s roster.

The fact that an individual could be barred from wearing a T-shirt at an Olympic event if it exposes a corporation sponsoring the Olympics for poor labour and environmental practices is a perversion of the Olympic ideal. And there is more: the province just recently introduced legislation empowering authorities to enter homes to forcefully remove “unauthorized” signs during the Games. This is simply Orwellian.

Must we now spend a billion dollars for a colossal security display, hide the homeless in Vancouver, displace the poor, curtail free speech and civil liberties in an effort to pacify huge multinational businesses that hope to benefit from the Olympics?

The Games have simply become too far removed from what is important to amateur athletes and a public excited by the desire to share the joy of unadulterated, honest, competitive sport from athletes that are motivated by the drive to excel.

The Olympics need to go back to their roots. They need to go back to the values of fraternity, unity, and respect they embodied. A vehicle to lessen barriers and rebuild international solidarity by “sharing the flame”.

It’s time to get back to the original purpose of the Games: the creation of a window in time to provide participating nations with an opportunity to unite, forgetting conflict, and allowing their athletes to shine collectively and individually.

Perhaps it’s because the International Olympic Committee is composed of elites beholden to no one but themselves that the meaning of the Games has shifted over time. What we need is a group of ordinary people from all around the world on this committee. We can be certain that these people would at least work to bring back the Games to their original ideals: the sheer enjoyment of a pure activity, sport.

The Olympics as an ideal is something that no one can argue with. The Olympics as a corporate parade for big business gold? I think not.

Peter Julian is the NDP critic for the 2010 Olympics and the MP for Burnaby-New Westminster.