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USA: Why I'm Skipping the Olympics

by Kaliya YoungSan Francisco Chronicle (Opinion)
September 17th, 2000

I was a three-time all-American at Cal in women's water polo and left college for a year to prepare for the Olympic Games with the Canadian National Team. In July, after the Pan-American Games, I had a change of heart about this decision. I walked away from the opportunity to go to the Olympics and returned to my studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

Everyone who knew me asked the same question: ''Why?'' After all, I had played for 13 years, and been part of the national team program for six years.

During my last year on the team, I looked deeper into the Olympic movement. I was deeply troubled by the corporate sellout of the event, by the hollowness of Olympic environmental claims and by the blatant lie that the competition served to ''bring the world together.''

Like all other hopefuls, I gave up a great deal to make the Olympic team. I moved away from friends and family, lived well below the poverty line for years and put my education on hold in order to hone my athletic skills. I made these sacrifices because I loved playing water polo and because I wanted to compete with the best.

My perspective on the Games gradually shifted. I began to see that my sacrifices were going to be used by the Olympic Games and their sponsors for ends that conflicted with my fundamental values. My competitive performance would not just be a part of a world community gathering to compete in the spirit of fair play, good will and global unity, but rather it would be sold to the highest corporate bidder for their own commercial gain. The profits of this sale would go not go to the performing athletes, but rather to International Olympic Committee, national Olympic committees and sponsors.

The spirit of the Games has been diminished by becoming a platform for multinational companies to promote their unhealthy products to the world, with the Olympians as their unwitting promoters. Coke is not what athletes drink, and McDonald's hamburgers are not what they eat. They are not part of an athlete's healthy diet. I began to question whether I could commit myself to promoting these kinds of products by per forming under their logos since, by doing so, I was suggesting that they were ''healthy'' and commendable.

The environment became the third pillar of the Olympic movement in 1994, along with culture and athletics. The IOC also signed an ''Earth Pact'' with the U.N. Environmental Program and changed its charter to include sustainable development as a goal. The goal was to have the Olympic movement play an active role in helping sustainable development occur throughout the world. I question the ability of ''the movement'' to do this when it does not question the consumption patterns that they are ultimately promoting via their corporate sponsors.

This pact, called Agenda 21, is rhetorical nature and reflects more generally the rhetorical shift of the corporate world, which pays for the staging of the Games to ''Green-wash'' their images. A deeper look at the games and the corporate system that supports them is needed. The Olympic movement is a ''light'' green movement that has raised some public awareness of environmental issues and environmentally friendly alternatives. The Olympic villages use solar water-heating, do water remediation and recycling. While these initiatives address the technical problems of being environmentally friendly, they do not address the truly fundamental value system changes that are needed to prevent global environmental disaster.

The 2000 Games were awarded to Sydney, in part, because of its environmental platform. Part of the platform was that an independent monitoring body, Green Games Watch Inc., ensure that they fulfilled the promises that earned them the Olympic bid. Report cards were issued during the lead-up to the Games, and it became clear that their own ecological criteria might not be met. In the fall of 1999, the government funding of Green Games Watch Inc. was cut off. The detailed environmental platforms of Sydney's Olympic Games and the criteria set out for all games in the IOC's Agenda 21 are completely meaningless without independent monitoring.

The Games themselves create villages that are supposed to reflect the real world. However, only those with credentials (elite athletes, coaches, managers, officials and volunteers who serve the aforementioned) are allowed in, and then only after a security search. Enormous resources are required to feed and care for the athletes, officials and media. The underlying culture is elitist. The Games ironically reinforce nationalist, ethnocentric feelings, imperialistic attitudes and promulgate a culture of consumption.

What this world needs is a festival of true cooperation that brings a diverse mix of rich and poor together -- not to compete against each other --but to find common ground and to work together to imagine a brighter, fuller future. If this celebration of all that is best in humanity emerges, I will then seek to be a participant.

Kaliya Young, of Vancouver, will graduate from UC Berkeley next May.





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