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The Olympics’ Lesser Gods

BERLIN – The Summer Olympic Games are in full swing in Rio. Every time the world’s top athletes gather for the Games, people everywhere have the opportunity not just to root for their countries, but also to become engrossed by stories of sacrifice and success, of broken bones and broken records. Beyond the incredible feats of athleticism are powerful triumphs of the spirit, like that of the Syrian refugee swimmer Yusra Mardini, who less than a year ago jumped into the Mediterranean to help push her broken-down dinghy, containing 19 other refugees, to safety in Greece.

In this sense, the Olympic Games are as much about inspiration as they are about competition. But, thanks to the International Olympic Committee, the Games are also about something much darker. In fact, the IOC – together with its national branches, as well as the associations representing particular sports – embodies some of the most prominent problems the world is facing today, from inequality to exploitation to sheer hypocrisy among our leaders.

Over the years, the IOC and its national branch organizations have been accused of everything from poor governance to corruption. Most recently, a Washington Post analysis damningly depicted the chasm between the earnings of the executives who run the show and the athletes who make it.

Many, if not most, athletes perform for little or no money. Sponsorships can provide funds, but they also include restrictive rules that limit athletes’ ability to raise more money for their training. As the Olympic sailor Ben Barger noted, the money that the “Olympic Movement” produces “goes to executives first, then administrators, then coaches, and then athletes.”