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Principle reasons of a fall into disrepute

EVEN those with little understanding of sport were sceptical when Russia bid to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi:

The extravagance of Sochi's Winter Olympics does distract from more serious matters surrounding the Games. Picture: Ints Kalnins/Reuters
The extravagance of Sochi's Winter Olympics does distract from more serious matters surrounding the Games. Picture: Ints Kalnins/Reuters

a Black Sea resort with next to no snowsport tradition and even less snow, where the hosts would build everything from scratch. When they said this would cost some £7bn, cue more scepticism. Rightly. Costs escalated to more than £30bn. And still there are doubts. On so many fronts.

Technology at the most extravagant Summer or Winter Games ever will almost certainly overcome the threat of poor snow, but it will take more to convince the world that the International Olympic Committee may have lost their way, and the plot.

Not for the first time, the movement stands accused of selling out on its principles. Their charter, which codifies the fundamentals, does not include any specific remarks on discrimination against homosexuals or lesbians. Yet the 'Fundamental Principles of Olympism' state, in clause 6: "Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement."

And clause 7: "Belonging to the Olympic Movement requires compliance with the Olympic Charter and recognition by the IOC."

The charter describes the practice of sport as "a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind."

So the Russian government position on gay people is incompatible with belonging to "the Olympic Movement". Why, then, are the Games being held there? If the IOC was true to its charter, Sochi would not be hosts.

Which is why many have lost faith in the IOC's ability to stand up for its stated beliefs. Yet this is not new. Fundamentalist Arab nations sent all-male teams to the Summer Olympics for years -- despite the fact that the IOC's role, expressed in their charter, is "to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women".

Given the aforementioned clauses 6 and 7, numerous Arab nations should have been excluded in the past, yet the IOC turned a blind eye in defiance of their charter.

I have huge sympathy and support for those who despise the Russian presidential diktat against homosexuals. Attitudes are unchanged since Moscow hosted the 1980 Summer Games, where I watched Armani-suited thugs viciously suppress a demonstration against article 121 of the Soviet penal code, whereby homosexuality was punishable by five years in jail.

The free world's leaders then, Thatcher and Carter, wanted British and US competitors to boycott the Olympics, in protest about Soviet troops in Afghanistan who were battling the Mujahideen insurgency. It's a supreme irony that Britain and the US are now in Afghanistan, fighting the same insurgents who uphold the very fundamental principles that threaten to bring about terror attacks on Sochi, and whose intolerance is mirrored in the anti-gay policy of the Russian government. But let's not go there.

Why should sports people be the first to make political points? Or support demands from the likes of Stephen Fry and others who wanted them to boycott these Winter Games in support of gay rights?

Had the IOC upheld its principles, sportsmen and women would not now be in an insidious position. And the acceptance of competitors' rights to demonstrate 12 miles away from the Sochi venues discredits any notion of genuine support for human rights. That's tokenism akin to saying athletes at Glasgow 2014 may demonstrate against whatever, provided they do so in Twechar.

The IOC has introduced new "street" sports for Sochi, and Britain has embraced these, with UK Sport funding performance of disciplines which most of the British public will not recognise, simply because GB medals might be won.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that it is at the expense of Olympic funding for basketball, synchronised swimming, water polo, and weightlifting, plus Paralympic wheelchair fencing, goalball, and five-a-side football. UKS withdrew support from all of them this week.

So much for 2012 legacy. How are sports supposed to plan long-term development with such knee-jerk reactions to downturn in performance? We are entitled to question what sport now means, and even what constitutes elite Olympic performance.

Forget the 'romance' of serial incompetent Eddie the Eagle, or Cool Runnings, the film about Jamaica's bobsleigh team. I'd plead guilty to being among those journalists who have promoted the eccentricity of sport, but some of those competing this month risk bringing it into disrepute.

Violin virtuoso Vanessa Mae is competing for Thailand in Alpine skiing. She is a UK citizen, born in Singapore, and competes under her Thai father's surname Vanakorn. Olympic rules allow nations with no skier ranked among the world's top 500 to send a single male and female athlete. Vanakorn had to compete in five recognised events. In several she finished last, on one occasion more than half a minute behind second last on a run which the winner covered in just over two minutes.

Tonga has luge competitor Bruno Banani. Aficionados of designer clothing might recognise the name of a racy German underwear manufacturer, but it does not take a geography student to recognise his homeland as a Pacific island with an average annual temperature of 80 degrees. And no snow.

Tongan student Fuahea Semi agreed to give up rugby, move to Germany, change his name, and learn to luge. Oh, and to pretend his father was a coconut farmer, so that he could endorse an underwear range tastefully named Coconut Power. His father was actually a cassava farmer. A member of the Tongan royal family is patron of the luge association. The marketing hoax was exposed under the headline . . . "Liar, liar, pants on fire". The IOC is fuming, but as Bruno Banani is the name on his passport, they can do nothing. Then there are the royal links of another competitor: the skier Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe. He is a half-Mexican Austrian whose family is related to both that of Queen Victoria and the Duke of Edinburgh. He founded the Mexican Ski Federation in 1981 and thus became their first Winter Olympian in 56 years. Aged 55, he will be the oldest competitor in Sochi where he will wear a race suit inspired by Mexican folk music. Presumably because Hubbie performs as a singer, under the names Andy Himalaya and Royal Disaster. After 12 World championship appearances he came back from a broken leg to place fourth last of 81 finishers in the giant slalom at the Turin Olympics four years ago. You have to go back to the inaugural Winter games to find an older competitor; Swedish curler Carl August Kronlund was 58 when he competed against the Scottish gold-medal curling team at the inaugural Games in 1924.

Making the Olympics truly global is commendable, but the IOC should do it by helping promote performance in sporting deserts, rather than aiding the patently inept.

Any country prepared to spend £31bn on the Olympics can surely afford a tax for athlete development. Paying, say, 10% of total costs into an Olympic development fund, to be administered independently, could even be made a prerequisite of hosting the Olympic Games.

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