Sports is a way to live vicariously through others. Sports has the capability to unite and to divide, usually temporarily and usually good naturedly. But sports in 2008 is also big business. Actually, it's huge business. Sports is one of the few sure things in TV broadcasting nowadays. That increased results in increased analysis and, soon enough, analysis gives way to punditry and grand-standing. (Yes, I'm aware of the irony.)
One of the best examples of grand-standing are the hearings Sen. Arlen Specter convened on the Patriots' video taping of opponents signals. As I've written elsewhere, I believe that Mr. Specter is acting solely because his favorite teams were possibly impacted. To me, his ridiculous hearings are on the same level as the time Congress wasted devoted to the steroid investigation. At the same time, Mr. Specter's committee is virtually absent in news stories about Sen. Ted Stevens' corruption indictment. Sports, then, appear to be subject to a higher morality than real life. It's as if the people in charge - Congressmen/women, Senators, etc. - feel the need to protect the ideals of sport in the face of the reality of business.
This brings me, in a long-ish way, to the Chinese gymnast controversy. Now, the media loves controversy. It loves controversy more than anything else in the world (with the possible exception of covering the RNC and the DNC, which is a cushy gig with lots of free food and drinks). The simple fact is that controversy sells. The Chinese provide an easy target as well: a one-party state with a reputation for repression against its own people and support for sketchy regimes abroad. The Beijing Olympics are all about putting a good face on for the west. In this respect, the Chinese are probably a little too accommodating for western comfort.
Selena Roberts wrote that the IOC refuses to doubt the veracity of the Chinese age claims. The IOC’s job, despite its high-minded rhetoric about Olympic ideals and amateur athleticism, is to extend the Olympic brand and make more money. It sees China a way to make money; it apparently believes the myth of the China Market. Ethics are secondary at best. There is a similar organization in the US: the NCAA. The NCAA likes to think of itself as the guardian of amateur ideals but when it comes to big-time college football or basketball, the NCAA is exploitative at best. They control eligibility rules and reserve the right to change those rules at any point. The IOC retains similar controls. For example, the soccer teams participating in the Olympics had to remove their country’s logos but could retain the shirt-maker’s logo. Where’s the ethics in that?
Sports, then, isn't really about ethics. It's about money. Mr. Specter's selective morality - applying it to sports but not politics - is misplaced. The NFL made a lot of money from the Patriots. Just like MLB made a ton of money from the summer of 1998. If sports really were about ethics, Mr. Specter and the IOC should be questioning the original sins: what kind of culture pushes coaches to cheat (notwithstanding Belichick's mania for winning, of course)? Why would MLB promote the long ball over the intricate beauty of a baseball game? Why would the IOC award China the Olympic games? The simple answer? Money. Everyone involved - except, ironically, Beijing - stands to make buckets of money from this Olympics.
Of course, the athletes will be shunted aside in less than a week. Where's the morality play for that, Mr. Specter?