The Olympic Teflon Brand


I sat there reading the news this past week and couldn’t help but wonder: what would Roger Jenkins think? Would he care? Or is he still a believer in the Olympic movement?

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was in the news yet again for making a controversial decision. After an investigation found the Russians made some 29 positive athlete drug tests magically disappear — the IOC decided Russia could still compete in the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio despite this dubious and questionable record.

The story was met with global outrage from fans, the media and athletes. The World Anti-Doping Agency and more than a dozen other national anti-doping agencies called for an outright ban of Russian athletes.

But, the IOC didn’t seem to care about all that.

The Olympics is now a multi-billion dollar business and the Russians are a major player in the “movement”. It’s their Games. They host it. They make the rules. They decide who’s in and who’s out. You don’t like it? Don’t participate. Don’t watch. You have that choice. And they don’t seem to care about any potential PR backlash from that.

And, the fact is — other than a small minority — the public won’t care either.

You see, the Olympic dream is alive and well — and very strong.

Their brand is Teflon. Nothing seems to stick regardless how messy.

For people like me — people who covered the IOC as journalists, none of this is surprising in any way. We’ve seen corruption first hand.

Heck, I only covered them for two years so don’t take my word for it.

Before he was breaking the FIFA corruption story wide open, British journalist Andrew Jennings tore into the IOC for years — and his writings on the subject are legendary.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the International Olympic Committe (IOC), listens to questions ..The one bright spot of my covering the Olympic beat was meeting Roger Jenkins.

You’ve likely never heard of him. But, he changed the way I look at the Olympics. He gave me a lens I can never forget — and that most of you will never know.

Jenkins was a Greco-Roman wrestler living in Guelph, Ontario, trying to make the Canadian Olympic team going to the 2000 Games in Sydney. He was the first Olympic level athlete I had ever interviewed.

I was a huge sports fan. I had watched every Olympic Games since Montreal. And, I was meeting a bonafide Olympic level athlete. I looked forward to meeting his team, his entourage, his trainers, his manager. This was exciting stuff for me.

Instead, I met a determined man fighting for a dream harder than anyone I had seen before. Jenkins had no money, no real team or sponsors to speak of. He told me how he trained in the morning, then went knocking on doors asking for people to support his dream. Then he trained some more and then ate and went to bed.

His diet was relatively spartan for an international level athlete. And, he told me how he saved money by turning the heat down in the winter in his tiny apartment and sleeping with his clothes and boots on.

I genuinely felt bad for him. Upon getting home, I felt so strongly that I wrote him a letter and sent him a cheque to help in some small way toward fulfilling his Olympic dream. When you’re a reporter, you try not to get emotionally connected to a story. But, the fact is we’re human — and sometimes it’s impossible to be dispassionate.

That was Roger and his Olympic struggle.

Within months, I saw a completely different side of the Olympics.

Mutko_PutinWe were in Moscow for the Olympic summit where they’d decide who would host the 2008 Summer Games (which eventually went to China).

I slipped a burly Russian security guard $20 US to let me inside a swanky Olympic party for VIP’s. There was lobster, caviar, champagne. When the night ended, there was so much excess, the servers were dumping full bottles down the drain and scraping caviar into the garbage cans — all the while elite athletes like Roger Jenkins ate canned tuna and slept in their winter boots and coats to stay warm.

At the Sydney Games, I watched as homeless people were lured to the outskirts of the city where they had set up homeless shelters with abundant food and beds. The downtown never looked so clean. I spent an evening with a homeless woman named Rosey, drunk and disoriented. Hungry and poor — while three blocks away the Government of New South Wales held a lavish party for the media on the taxpayers’ dime. When the games ended, the well-stocked shelters were shuttered. Everyone returned downtown.

In Salt Lake City, I watched and covered a bribery scandal that — if you asked most people today — they’d have no idea what you were talking about. They just don’t care. All of this legal mumbo-jumbo and scandal takes away from the celebration, the fun, the opening ceremonies, the celebrities. People simply don’t want to know it seems.

44567249.cachedSo, this week, with the doping scandal — it, too, shall pass…if it hasn’t already. It’s a big story for the media — but the public simply can’t wait for the Games to begin. They’ll look past the fact the athletes are already showing up in Rio to deplorable conditions. People just want to be entertained — and want no insight behind the scenes.

The IOC appears to be above any level of scrutiny — and I think it knows it. When I covered the Olympics, the IOC members waltzed around like royalty. They were treated like royalty. When, the whole time, I couldn’t help think that it’s the athletes who should be receiving the best treatment. After all, they’re the ones we want to watch, right?

You see, the Olympic brand is impermeable. It’s Teflon. And, we really have nobody to blame but ourselves. Yes, we’re to blame. Why? Because regardless of how bad the scandal, we still watch. The more we watch, the more money they make. The more money they make, the more powerful they become. All the while, the athletes get nothing.

Yup. in a little over a week, most of us will be there, glued to our televisions because we love our countries and we want to cheer on our athletes. Scandal after scandal, viewership numbers increase. The IOC makes more money off hard working unpaid athletes.

It’s a vicious cycle and I don’t purport to have the answer.

Personally — I don’t watch the Olympics anymore. That’s my choice.

There’s an expression that says everyone likes hot dogs but nobody would if they knew how they were made. Well, I have seen inside the Olympic ‘hot dog factory’ and it personally turned my stomach — especially seeing the athletes becoming a secondary focus. In my opinion, the gap between the athletes and the executives is too vast.

Coach Roger Jenkins – (source: Peterborough Examiner)

I bet Rogers Jenkins still watches though. You know why? Because he truly loves sport and he has dedicated his life to it. He’s not a jaded former journalist like me. Through all the scandals, doping, bribery, etc — Roger still likely sees the beauty in the actual Games.

To me, Roger embodies a true Olympian. Like most Olympians, he was hard working, genuine and humble. He wasn’t in it for fame or fortune. He had a dream and he chased it. He sacrificed everything. That’s what the Olympics should be about.

Unfortunately, Jenkins never got to the Games as an athlete — but there’s still hope for him. He’s a high school teacher and a wrestling coach these days — now helping others chase the dream by imparting on them his skill, passion and work ethic.

And, if he helps one of his wrestlers get there, billions of people will be sitting on the edge of their couches watching.

I just don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing for the athletes in the long run.