WMU News

It's about more than medals

Sept. 12, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- Ever wonder why some of the world's poorest nations have such strong Olympic teams? Dr. Lewis H. Carlson, WMU professor emeritus of history, says that for many of the world's countries, the Olympic Games aren't about proving which athletes are better, but which nation is.

"Countries use Olympic sports to prove the legitimacy of their government, " he says. "Take a look at Cuba or even the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany)--they put so much money into training their athletes and building their teams. The goal is to make their athletes the best in the world."

America most certainly isn't immune to the nationalism bug. "Even as early as the 1908 Olympics, America was using the games to promote a political agenda. We had horrible battles with the British over our flag. And when Carter boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, he was using our non-participation in the Olympics to send a message."

Carlson says that this nationalism is an underlying cause for athletes' use of drugs and steroids in an effort to enhance their competitiveness and win one for the homeland. In some countries, such as the former GDR, drug use was sanctioned. However, in America, where such use of drugs is prohibited, Carlson said individual athletes often make the choice to use the potentially dangerous drugs.

"Countries that sanction and even mandate the use of drugs make the choice to sacrifice their athletes," he says. "But there was a poll that asked American teenage gymnasts that if there was a drug that would decrease their life expectancy to 45 years but allowed them to win the gold medal, would they take it? The gymnasts overwhelmingly said they'd take the drug. In our country, our athletes sacrifice themselves."

Carlson is the co-author of the award-winning book, "Tales of Gold: An Oral History of the Olympic Game Told by America's Gold Medal Winners," is an expert on the history of the Olympic Games, Olympic athletes, and the impact of politics and economics on the Olympic Games.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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