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JIGGENS: Olympics had plenty of drama, and some of it was because of the location

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Another Olympiad has come and gone, and, once again, the Games had its share of soap opera-like drama and controversy. Can the Olympics – winter or summer – ever play out without squabbles over rules violations, doping, biased judging, questionable changes in nationality or other head-scratching matters?

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Well, before the Games got underway, the choice of Beijing as host city got the controversy ball rolling. Other countries were appalled by China’s apparent disregard for human rights, leading to a massive diplomatic boycott of the Games. Competing athletes were then cautioned about bringing their cell phones and other electronic devices with them, being warned there could be serious security risks.

Once the Games began, the spotlight was on 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva who had tested positive late last year for an angina treatment drug that is also said to be a performance-enhancing substance.

The convoluted story involved her grandfather, which made it even more bizarre. This led to a chain of events that carried over to the start of the Games. Although she was cleared to skate – amid tremendous backlash – the dark cloud hanging over her head, and that of her entourage, never dissipated, especially after she helped the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) win gold in the figure skating team event.

The Valieva case has possibly undermined Russian athletes’ efforts to be allowed to compete again anytime soon under their country’s name. As it stands, Russian athletes must wait until at least Dec. 16 to legally compete under their country’s name or to bear their flag or have their national anthem played. Until then, they’ll continue to compete under the ROC moniker.

The selection of Beijing as host city was also questioned because the region rarely sees snow. This meant having to produce artificial snow for all the skiing and snowboarding venues. The process used to create synthetic snow produces harder and slicker conditions, resulting in potentially more dangerous runs as competitors zip downhill that much faster. A U.S. slalom skier broker her leg while a German downhill skier lost control and crashed at a speed of 130 kilometres per hour before being carried away on a stretcher.

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Short track speed skating is never without controversy. The team relay is called roller derby on ice for good reason. Although there is supposed to be no contact among opposing skaters in short track, that tends to be easier said than done, whether it’s an individual or relay competition. Incidents of contact, especially when skaters lose control and slide off into the protective perimeter, are reviewed by the judges to see if any interference occurred, but their decisions are often debatable.

One such incident involved Canadian skaters. In the women’s 500-metre quarterfinals, the crash of a Canadian skater was judged to have been caused by a teammate, resulting in a disqualification. A video replay showed the crash was actually caused by a Chinese skater who flicked a boundary cone at the Canadian. The fallen Canadian was advanced to the semi-final, but no penalty was assessed to the Chinese skater.

And then there is the head-scratching that goes on when an athlete who had previously competed for one country is now draped in the flag of another nation. Kaillie Humphries, a two-time gold medalist for Canada in the two-woman bobsled event, won gold this time around as an American in the monobob event. Having married an American and subsequently becoming a U.S. citizen – which might explain her reasons for competing for another country – likely wasn’t her true motive for turning her back on Canada. It stems from the alleged abuse and harassment she claims to have experienced in 2019 at the hands of the Canadian bobsled federation.

Not to be outdone, freestyle skier Eileen Gu, who had previously competed for the United States, competed for China in Beijing. That story demands more space than I’m allotted here, so I would simply say, “Google it.”

It should be interesting to see what drama and controversy awaits us at the 2024 Summer Olympics.

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