Saturday, September 3, 2016

Finishing Outside the Medals

Usually, the idea of finishing outside the medals refers to a competitor who is just short of winning a coveted spot at the top of their field. While this is still a frequently used – and perhaps overused – phrase, the behaviors of several national Olympic committees during and after the Rio Olympics demonstrated that it is possible for more than just athletes to fall short of expectations.

At first, this might seem counterintuitive since one assumes that the national Olympic committees are dedicated to the success and safety of their athletes. One of the unifying themes of any Olympic games is the hard work of the athletes and the pride they bring their countries, even when circumstances within these countries are difficult. The thought that a national committee would be anything less than supportive is surprising but borne out by several publicized events which took place during and immediately after the Rio Olympic games.

Before the games began, the Nigerian men’s soccer team encountered travel delays that left it stranded for hours and nearly caused it to miss its first day of competition. When the team did arrive in Brazil it was with hours to spare. Weather issues, one might think. The answer is more distressing – the Nigerian Olympic committee had failed to pay the required amount for the team to travel to Rio. Ultimately, the issue was resolved, payment was made, and the team went on to eke out a victory in the first match. Still, this was a failure on the part of the officials charged with providing for the athletes and supporting the dreams of the country.

Athletes who compete in the marathon face physical and mental tests throughout the competition and the only respite they have from the exhaustion of the competition is from national booths that provide water and glucose to their runners. At Rio, Indian women complained when their national committee failed to provide them with water and glucose at these booths, causing them to endanger their results in the competition and their lives when dehydration inevitably set in. One female marathoner, OP Jaisha, collapsed at the marathon’s finish line and was hospitalized, causing harm to her health and training in the long and short term.  

In another incident, physical harm was inflicted by a member of a national committee. Russian female wrestler Inna Trazhukova advanced in her competition but ultimately did not win a medal. After her competition was over, she was verbally abused by the president of the Russian Wrestling Federation – part of the official Russian delegation – and then inflicted two blows to her face. When Tazhukova made this story public other female Russian wrestlers – who won silver medals in their competitions – came forward to state that they were verbally abused by the same official for failing to win gold medals.

Finally, Kenyan athletes were stranded by their delegation once the games had concluded. Although there was a set deadline for athletes to leave Olympic village housing, the Kenyan Olympic committee failed to make arrangements for its athletes to fly home at this time. Instead, the committee continued to search for inexpensive flights and ultimately hired a house for the athletes in an unsafe area of Rio. The area was so unsafe that the athletes were advised by Rio police not to leave in the evening – with good reason, as gunshots were reportedly audible. Once the athletes returned, it was announced that the Olympic committee was being dissolved and would be investigated.

These are all individual incidents in which athletes who sacrificed to represent their countries were failed by those countries. Each incident is in itself reprehensible, especially when the lives and safety of these athletes were put in jeopardy as a result. What is notable is that, while athletes come together to form communities based on sport at Olympic events they depend on national bureaucracy that does not necessarily share the same dedication to its functions. This creates two sets of communities that can function at odds with each other rather than symbiotically as is intended.

Additionally, the citizens of countries competing in the Olympics – who offer support, pride, and, in some cases, financial assistance to competitors – are detached from the athletes by a layer of bureaucracy that does not always reflect their will. In this situation, it is possible for the national committee bureaucracy to finish out of the medals in their responsibilities and in the process harm the constituencies they are meant to represent and assist.  

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