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SBJ/March 4 - 10, 2002/Opinion
Recycle those Olympic memories
Published March 4, 2002
The man who said that those who can't remember the past are doomed to repeat it was only partially right. People with good memories can't forestall reruns.
Such was the case in the just-concluded Winter Olympics. That fest's main lessons stirred feelings of déjà vu among observers having even cursory knowledge of previous Games.
Certainly, anyone professing to be shocked by the charges of judges' vote-swapping and bias that ricocheted around the rinks and slopes of Salt Lake City hasn't been paying attention to Olympic history. Cheating in various forms is as much an Olympic tradition as the athletes' oath, and maybe more so.
Officials' manipulation of boxing outcomes, culminating at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, Korea, got to be so bad that the sport jettisoned qualitative judging in favor of a punch-counting system (which turned out to be goofier and equally flawed). East Germany thumbed its nose at anti-doping rules and was rewarded with medals by the lastwagen load. Complaints about a Soviet Bloc judges' "mafia" in gymnastics long went unheeded, even though the complainers included such ex-Bloc figures as the noted coach Bela Karolyi.
Salt Lake City got the 2002 Winter Games in part because its functionaries bought the votes of some International Olympic Committee members. The same sort of thing contributed to the awarding of the Games to Atlanta, Nagano, Japan, and Sydney, Australia, and — for all we know — previous host cities. The inescapable fact is that the Olympics' mix of sports, nationalism and money produces a potent brew that can bring out the worst in people as well as the best. Anyone who hitches his wagon to the five-ring-circus's star should be aware of that.
Lesson Two had to do with hockey and the Olympic and National Hockey League versions thereof. Hoping to lift its sport from its perennially laggard standing in this country, the NHL declared a pause in its regular schedule to allow its players to tread the Olympic stage as members of their national teams, as it had for the two Winter Games before. As in the past, it got the attention it sought and then some, drawing television audiences that far exceeded those of its usual offerings.
The rub comes because the game Olympic viewers saw wasn't the one the NHL presents nightly in season. The main difference is that Olympic hockey doesn't countenance fighting, while the NHL's brand does. Olympic-team members growled at one another, and pushed, shoved, elbowed and generally banged around, but their contests managed to run their course without the gloves-on-the-ice melees that are an NHL staple.
Extracurricular fisticuffs occur in sports other than hockey, but it's condemned by the words and deeds of the people who oversee those activities. The NHL's powers-that-be smile and shrug when the subject comes up, ofttimes volunteering that such stuff is inevitable because "boys will be boys" and fighting is "part of the game." It is, but only because they've made it so in a bid to appeal to the demolition-derby-loving element in their fandom. Because the league's stance shows disrespect for its sport, it's not surprising that others can't muster much regard for it.
Olympic hockey scored big on the U.S. home screen not because of its relatively pacific tone, but because it was a crackling-good tournament with a strong American entry. Nonetheless, the showing did illustrate that a broad public can take the game straight, sans sideshow scraps. History is discouraging in such matters, but the men who run the NHL might take note of that in charting their enterprise's future course.
Frederick C. Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.