Alan White's Olympics Diary: Beautiful Bradley, and the IOC's billion-pound edifice of immorality

Jacques Rogge's committee does nothing but look out for its own interests.

I’m so sorry. I wanted to wax lyrical about the beauty of Bradley. Of course I did. But duty calls. So.

On Tuesday, the women’s badminton took an unexpected turn when the Danes pulled off a shock win over a strong Chinese pair and took the top of Group D. The Chinese were due to meet the winners of Group A. Another Chinese pair was playing South Korea for that position.

Neither of them wanted to meet the first Chinese pair, so, to mounting boos and intervention from the referees, they tried to out-underperform each other, deliberately hitting the shuttlecock into the net and so on. The same thing happened in the next match, between South Korea and Indonesia.

Now, as I said yesterday, this isn’t particularly redolent of the Olympic spirit. The eight players were referred to the Badminton World Federation, found to be in breach of the code, and were thrown out of the Olympics.

It all seems pretty cut and dry. They were bad sports, so they were kicked out. Except it isn’t, at all. This morning Matthew Syed, the former table tennis competitor for Team GB, has admitted his team once deliberately lost a game in much the same manner. Gail Emms, whom you’ll remember as a 2004 silver medallist in badminton for Great Britain, has also backed the players.

Far more disturbingly, Emms has told the Guardian: “Yesterday, after the Danish players beat the Chinese in the morning session, the team managers went to the organisers and said: "We're a bit worried about these evening matches." Nothing was done. Straight away they should have got all the players and coaches together and said: 'If there is any single sign of someone trying not to win you will all be disqualified.'”

Emms and Syed both blame the officials. And you can see their point: you enter the Olympics to win. Regardless of whether you agree with the players’ actions, the officials shouldn’t put them in a position where that aim is at odds with the sport’s code. And make no mistake, as German singles player Mark Zweiber has pointed out, this had been coming for some time.

But this all leads me to a far bigger issue. Those officials. There is not a hope in hell of them being pulled up for failing to spot this potential row. Instead the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Jacques Rogge, talks only of further action - presumably formally expelling the athletes from the Games.

You could be forgiven for thinking the IOC couldn’t give a monkey’s about the athletes without whom there would be no games. You might think it is simply a train of pampered bureaucrats that floats from one city to the next, detached from anything other than the rarefied scenes it sees in Park Lane, let alone the competitors it purports to represent.

You might wonder how far an organisation with revenues of £3.9bn in the last four years would prioritise the needs of the athletes over other concerns when its two main sources of funding are television rights and sponsorship. Perhaps you’d raise an eyebrow at its banning athletes mentioning their sponsors on social networks, unless they’re the same ones that pay the IOC.

Maybe you think that money doesn’t line the pockets of Rogge’s cronies, and finds its way to the athletes. Perhaps the words of track runner Nick Simmonds, talking to the Guardian this week, will strike a chord: “"The [IOC’s] sponsors have done absolutely nothing to help me be the athlete I am today ... For years my sponsors … have helped me train and compete and now they are made to feel unwelcome. This is not right."”

Maybe you’ll wonder, then, where that money does go, given that the IOC pays no tax. Perhaps you’ll think that, given it has a total monopoly over a global event worth billions, there’s an outside chance of corruption. In which case you might not be shocked to hear a member of the IOC’s executive board only resigned this March, citing a “lack of ethics and principles”. Two months later, the IOC began an investigation (and how rigorous it’s sure to be) into claims that officials were selling tickets to the 2012 Olympics on the black market.

And when you hear that, while their country burns, Greek Olympic officials have paid £150,000 to hire the Carlton Club in Central London to house sponsors, politicians and officials, you might start to think that this is a neat correlative; that this whole “Olympic Family” – the IOC and its shady web of federations and governing bodies – is little more than a shambling, immoral edifice that should be torn asunder, that it has never done anything more than look out for itself right back to the day it felt Berlin would be a suitable venue in 1936. How happy are you about those empty seats we continue to see in stadia right now?

Like I said, I wish I’d talked about Bradley. He was good, wasn’t he?

Odds and Ends

UK gold medal winners when young: Bradley Wiggins pays tribute to his PE teacher, and here’s Heather Stanning’s eery school yearbook, for those who missed it.

Stunning pic of Gabby Douglas at the gymnastics. Speaking of which, a fabulous GIF retelling of how the USA beat Russia. I particularly like MyKayla Maroney's vault – mesmerising.

Spare a thought for the Olympians embracing Ramadan.

As many a wag pointed out, yesterday an enthusiastic BJ was stopped by an unfortunate zip incident. Here’s a load of photoshops – they’re good, but this here video edit is a thing of genius.

How’s the Olympics been for disabled spectators? Pretty good, apparently.

Can’t believe I forgot to mention yesterday’s interview with Bert le Clos. Give this man a medal of his own.

My assertion yesterday with reference to the Tom Daley Twitter troll case that it's better to "walk on by" was poorly-worded: I was trying to emphasise my belief that no good can come of a mob retaliation towards an online abuser. There's nothing wrong with intervening, but as anywhere else, it's better done through the appropriate channels: Twitter being the obvious place to start.

 

Bradley! Gold! Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war