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Celebrity rules as the Olympics strays far from its ideal

by Philip Brasor

The big story this year in competitive swimming is the LZR Racer swimsuit, which was developed by the British sportswear manufacturer Speedo. At least six world records have been set by swimmers wearing the suit. Studies have shown that its drag-diminishing properties lower racing times by 1.9 to 2.2 percent, which is significant in a sport where victory is measured by hundredths of a second.

There is no doubt that the suits are helping swimmers. The real question is: Do they provide their wearers with an unfair advantage over swimmers who don’t wear them? The answer seems to be “yes,” with even the official blog of the National Collegiate Athletics Association wondering if the LZR Racer constitutes “technology doping.” What’s the difference between gaining an advantage with a swimsuit and gaining an advantage by taking performance-enhancing drugs?

The debate will not make any difference. It appears that almost every swimmer competing at the Beijing Olympics will be wearing the suit, despite the fact that they cost upwards of ¥70,000 a piece and are so tight that it reportedly takes 30 minutes to put one on. Several months ago, Japan’s swimming world was thrown into turmoil because its top competitors had deals with Japanese swimsuit manufacturers. The companies didn’t enforce the deals because if they did and the swimmers lost in Beijing, then they know who would be blamed. Winning is the only thing that matters, even more than money.

That may sound like a good thing, but not everyone is comfortable with the winning-is-everything ethos. According to the original charter of the modern games, participation is the ultimate good thing. However, the rise of global media and the resulting involvement of a worldwide audience has turned the Olympics from a “festival for peace” into a showcase for superhuman abilities. One of the most common complaints about the games is that it encourages nationalism, and while that is true to a certain extent, especially when it comes to team sports, what the Olympics really fosters is individual superstars. That’s why breaststroke champion Kosuke Kitajima will be wearing the LZR Racer. Everyone in Japan expects him to win a gold medal. We’ve been conditioned to believe it’s his destiny.

In such an environment, stardom overshadows whatever skills one brings to the pool or the track or the gym. This became clear when judo star Ryoko Tani was selected for the Olympic team even after she lost a qualifying match to 21-year-old Emi Yamagishi in Fukuoka last April. The All Japan Judo Federation sidestepped the issue at first, refusing to take questions about the Tani selection at a subsequent press conference, but later the federation said that Tani has demonstrated she is especially strong against international opponents. After all, she also lost her qualifying match to a different Japanese judo-ka last year but went on to capture the gold medal in her weight class at the world championships in Rio de Janeiro. If the “winning at all costs” criterion holds, maybe Tani is the better choice, but then why have qualifying bouts in the first place? It was obvious to everyone that she had been pre-selected to go to Beijing.

Tani represents so much more than just athletics. As she relentlessly told everyone before the games started, she planned to be the first mother to win a gold medal in judo. She won one when she was Ryoko Tamura, another after she got married and changed her name to Tani, and now she’s determined to do the same as a mom. What’s next? Getting divorced and becoming the first single mother gold medalist?

The rallying cry for Olympic veterans is renpa, meaning “successive wins.” In this category you have Tani, Kitajima, marathon runner Mizuki Noguchi, and a few others who’ve won medals at past games. Nine Olympic hopefuls, including Tani and Kitajima, have also been designated “symbol athletes” by the Japan Olympic Committee, which controls their portrait rights. Their sponsorship deals and media relations are handled by the giant advertising firm Dentsu, which makes sure they get the lion’s share of coverage. Noguchi doesn’t belong to this select group, probably because she doesn’t show much interest in selling herself as a brand. Tani, however, is famous for being press-friendly, which may explain why no media except a few weekly magazines questioned her selection to the Olympic team over Yamagishi.

Some sports pundits, however, have remarked that the renpa obsession hinders the development of future Olympic athletes. Yamagishi has to wait four more years for her chance, during which time she may lose her competitive edge. But even this notion buys into the “winning at all cost” line, which, according to an article by economics professor Masanori Otsubo in Kinyobi magazine, has only been dominant since the 1984 Olympics.

Los Angeles was the first city to ever make money from hosting the games, thanks mainly to the local organizers’ canny manipulation of broadcast rights and exclusive sponsorship deals, methods that the International Olympic Committee has since adopted as its own. Sponsors insist on backing winners, and as corporate money came to dominate the games, winning at all cost and the ascendance of what could be called full-time professional Olympic athletes have been rationalized. The whole doping issue is a direct result of these two developments.

Maybe the only way to get the Olympics back to its original ideal is to limit every athlete to just one lifetime appearance. Surely, the glory of competing at the Olympics is great enough to make that one appearance special, even if the athlete doesn’t win a medal. But maybe it’s too late. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, nobody expects people to pay attention to something if there aren’t any stars involved.