Upholding Olympic Values

By John M. Burnor

The Olympics are fundamentally about the promotion of harmony through athletic endeavors and providing a showcase for great athletic achievements.  The Olympic charter states that “the goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view of promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”  Some of the elements of this goal include solidarity, fair play, and friendship.  This year’s Olympics, in London, has already had its share of spectacular athletic moments. Michael Phelps is now the most decorated Olympic athlete in history.  Ye Shiwen, from China, destroyed the previous record for the women’s 400-meter individual medley in swimming. And let’s not forget the Queen of England’s “parachuting” into the opening ceremony!  Despite this illustrious start, there have been some troubling examples of a shift away from Olympic ideals.

Two issues in particular have disturbed my perception that those behind the Olympics are truly focused on Olympism.  The first involves the recent change in gymnastics which dropped the limit of the number of individuals who may qualify to compete in the women’s individual all-round competition from three to two per country.  This year, the rule had the rather dramatic effect of excluding world champion Jordyn Wieber from qualifying because she scored behind two of her American teammates.  However, my issue is less with the result as with its implications.  Wieber scored fourth in the qualifying rounds, out of all of the competitors.  Yet, because the U.S. has a very able team she was not allowed to participate in the final round of competition because of the rule limiting the number of competitors per country.   Wieber should have been allowed to participate because she scored so highly overall.  The Olympics are not about politics or geography; they are about competition and fair play.  Those who win or lose should do so based on merit, not based on their country of origin which might have “too many” talented athletes.

The second issue concerns a more specific instance.  In the semifinal bout of the women’s epee fencing tournament, South Korea’s Shim A Lam had priority over Germany’s Britta Hiedermann with one second on the clock.  This meant that the two had tied by the end of regulation time and that the only way Hiedermann could advance would be to score a point in the final remaining second.  The problem was that the clock was not started when the fencers were given the command to fence.  Thus, despite the fact that Hiedermann was able to get the point that she needed, it was not during official time.  Despite an appeals process that involved Lam sitting on the strip for 30-45 minutes (to leave would have been to accept the original ruling), the judges refused to retract the ruling and gave the win to Hiedermann.  This problem was not caused by the fencers but by those refereeing the bout.  In fencing, seconds matter.  The judges should have simply required the two fencers to repeat the last second.  Instead, they insisted on sticking with their own faulty ruling, taking away Lam’s rightfully obtained lead.  This is simply unfair and does not align in any way with the Olympic ideal of fair play and athletic dignity.

These two issues reveal flaws in the way that the IOC and the sport federations are upholding the Olympic spirit.  I hope that these issues are only singularities and not the markings of a trend.  Those responsible should reconsider their methods of inspiring Olympic ideals of athleticism and fair play and ensure that their actions are in the true spirit of Olympism.

John Burnor

John M. Burnor is a 3L at Quinnipiac Law School and has a concentration in Intellectual Property Law.  John is a Student Columnist for Connecticut Sports Law.

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