Media more worried than athletes about Athens readiness

Viewpoint by CLARA HUGHES*

(12 May 2004) CBC Sports Online – A SURE SIGN the Olympics are approaching is when the media begin their usual reports of unfinished facilities and missed deadlines. The host city of the Games is far more prevalent in the news than athletes hoping to compete there.

It’s always the same story. As an athlete, I’ve had more queries into the status of host-country construction than about my preparation all three times I’ve competed. With a few exceptions, the media seeks controversy and negativity instead of embracing the spirit of the Games and the fascinating stories of the competitors.

The facility is important is important to the athletes, but it is certainly not of primary importance leading up to the Games. Training, fitness, fatigue, nutrition, qualification, competition and many more elements are the athlete’s focus. Athletes learn to distinguish between what’s in their control and what’s not, focusing exclusively on the former and not wasting an ounce of precious energy on the latter.

As the Olympics return to their place of origin this summer, to mythical Athens, Greece, and athletes prepare for competition, so does the host country, step by step, brick by brick. But in the current climate of the Olympics, the feeling seems to be that only countries wealthy enough to build state of the art facilities and as close to the western ideal of efficient transportation should be allowed to host an event of this magnitude.

Higher, wealthier, more efficient

Same goes for the athletes allowed to compete. Each quadrennial it grows more difficult for athletes to meet the standards set by the International Olympic Committee. In countries like Canada the national standards are often more difficult than those set by the IOC.

The Olympics are, as a result, becoming more elitist. Countries that cannot support the growing needs of technology in training venues and equipment are swiftly left behind. Athletes are forced to leave their native countries to seek better training environs for the possible edge, not only for the elusive possibility of winning; it is sometimes only to qualify.

Before the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympic Games, the media was full of talk of an “Olympic backlash.” There were stories that Australians in the coastal city were not supporting the Games, and that many residents would take their yearly vacations at this time and vacate the city.

Quite to the contrary, the warm welcome and hospitality Sydneysiders offered to the world became the highlight of the Games. I remember trying to get to the beach after my last race, unable to find a bus or a taxi, a young couple stopped and asked where my teammate and I were trying to go, offering us a ride even though it made an hour detour from their home, which was just around the corner.

At the Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic, athletes prepared for the worst after warnings that incomplete venues would not be ready, sketchy food and uncomfortable lodging.

But those staff and athletes with prior Games experience agreed it was one of the better villages: comfortable and safe. The food was fine and fewer illnesses were diagnosed than in other Games. In the cycling races, although they were cleaning garbage off the streets the morning of the events, much of which remained on the course for the duration of the races, the races came and went with new champions crowned.

Stop focusing on controversy

Whatever the situation, it is usually the same for everyone. As an athlete one becomes capable of dealing with pretty much anything, even at something like the Olympics.

The year before the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, part of the roof collapsed on the speed skating oval. A new roof was necessary and competitions cancelled the year prior to the Games. Rumours spread that long track events would be relocated to Calgary, and the entire US Olympic speed skating team had to relocate to Wisconsin in order to train.

In Italy, construction has yet to commence on the oval, and contrary to tradition, there will be no competitions the year before the Games in the new venue.

When criticizing Greece, one forgets stories of athletes missing their races because of misguided transportation in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the same year the Centennial Games were denied the country where they began a hundred years before: Greece. I went into those Games with a silver medal from the prior year’s cycling world championships, and was deemed a “surprise” after earning the first of two bronze medals.

Athletes preparing for the Games, shouldn’t worry about the politics and, quite often, misleading information, by the media.

If more time was spent covering sport leading up to the Games than sensationalizing all that is going wrong in the build up, perhaps the public would be better informed, more motivated and more genuinely interested in the multitude of world-class athletes and fine individuals that were preparing with passion and desire to represent them, the public, on the playing field of sport at their ultimate event, the Olympic Games.

* CBC Sports Online Clara Hughes is an athlete for all seasons: an Olympic medallist in both the Summer and Winter Games. She won two cycling bronze medals in road racing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and followed that up with a bronze medal in speed skating at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics — little more than a year after she took up competing at elite levels in speed skating.

Since then, she’s become one of the world’s premier distance skaters, culminating in a gold medal in the 5,000m at the world championships last March. She also holds the Canadian record in the 5,000m.

The CBC website notes that “Clara will be writing a series of columns for CBC Sports Online as the Olympics approach, weighing in with her insights into the meaning of sport and the Olympics in the lives of Canadians.”

Following this column criticizing the media, no additional columns were posted.

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