PtG Comment 22.08.2012

Lost in translation

It is not always easy to see where the line is drawn for the Olympic spirit, as several cases have shown us during this year’s Olympic Games, Andreas Selliaas concludes in this comment piece discussing what fair play means in reality.

The London Olympics have shown us that it is difficult to know how to enforce the Olympic spirit – and define what fair play is – before, during and after the Olympic Games. Several cases have shown that an overall vision of what Olympism and fair play is gives occasion for inconsistent handling of controversial issues that arise in the heat of the Games. 

In the Olympic Charter the definition of Olympism is treated under the headline ‘the Fundamental Principles of Olympism’. In the definition it says nothing about how athletes should act during competitions – except for the vague formulation that Olympism seeks to create “the educational value of good example” and to follow its values (Chapter 1.1).

Three times the charter mentions that the participants at the Olympics should live up to the ideal of fair play. What this specifically means is not defined and it is up to the international federations to draw up the rules and invent the tools for sanctions. The IOC can intervene when it feels like it, which makes it even more problematic. 


During the Olympics in London, the Badminton World Federation, backed by the IOC, decided to expel eight badminton players from the women’s doubles tournament for trying to lose on purpose. The ones who wanted to expel them felt that their behavior went against the Olympic spirit, while the badminton players themselves felt that the rules were formed in a way that allowed for these tactics in order to gain an advantage later in the tournament.

The eight expelled badminton players did not, strictly speaking, break any rules when they tried to lose on purpose – neither the rules from the Badminton World Federation nor the Olympic Charter.

Neither did the Algerian middle distance runner Taofik Makhloufi when he walked the first lap of the initial heat in the men’s 800m. He was also expelled from the Olympics because he did not try his best. Makhloufi claimed that he was injured, was reinstated and went on to win the 1500m. 

Swimmer Cameron van der Burgh who won the men’s 100m breaststroke admitted after he returned to South Africa that he had cheated during his turn, using three dolphin kicks after the turn where only one is allowed. The South African won the gold medal many had expected the Norwegian swimmer Alexander Dale Oen, who died during training earlier this year, to win. Upon taking the gold, van der Burgh paid tribute to Oen, who was his swimming partner, and was praised by Norwegian officials and commentators. But what if Oen had participated and come in second?

Chris Hoy was one of the biggest British heroes during the London Olympics. He was the British flag bearer in the opening ceremony and won two gold medals in track cycling, one in the team sprint alongside Jason Kenny and Philip Hindes. Hoy would probably not have won the final if Philip Hindes had not crashed on purpose after a bad start and thus forced the referees to order a restart. In an interview after their victory, Hindes said that the crash had been a part of their tactics – if they had a bad start they would provoke a restart. Hoy and his teammates are still the gold medal winners of the team sprint in track cycling – in spite of a questionable exploitation of the rules.

The latest controversy – and over a week after the closing ceremony in London – came after it was revealed that Michael Phelps fronted a Louis Vuitton commercial during the Games. This is against the IOC commercial jurisdiction and qualifies for losing his medals taken during the Games. The verdict in this case is not yet decided, but the IOC has hinted that he will keep his medals. The reason: they don’t want to destroy his record as the greatest medal winner in the history of the Games!

Many argue that different sports have different sets of morals and that some sports therefore allow more than others. But when you are participating in the Olympic Games, which claim to have a particular set of values, everyone should be treated equally. I am not sure that happened in the cases that I have mentioned here.

Nationality versus individuals

The big question is whether the IOC follows its own rules and lives according to the Olympic spirit. One thing is that the Olympic Charter says that the participants should not be exploited for political or commercial reasons during the Games. The Olympics is – if anything – a political and commercial show. But is also says black in white that ”The Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries” (Chapter 6.1). National medal statistics and National Olympic Committees as the participants’ highest authorities therefore look like a contradiction. 

In the dilemma between the nation and the individual, it is interesting to see how the British sprint team was quick to brush aside the criticism against Philip Hindes when he admitted to stretching the rules. The British cycling officials said that he had been misunderstood because English was not his first language – his statement had been lost in translation. Hindes moved to Great Britain from Germany in 2010 – he has a British father and dual citizenship – and did not speak English until recently. He was brought in from Germany to win the gold. This is not a problem if you follow the Olympic Charter literally, but a questionable practice if you see the Olympics as a competition between countries.

Plastic Brits

Great Britain brought in several participants in order to assert itself in its own Olympics and has in that way neglected the Olympic idea and broken the Olympic Charter. 61 of the 542 British participants were brought in from outside Britain in order to strengthen Team GB. Two of the more controversial participants were the Cuban born triple jumper Yamila Aldama, who competed for Cuba in the 2000 Olympics and for Sudan in 2004 and 2008, and the Ukrainian wrestler Olga Butkevych, who got her British passport only a few months ahead of the Games in London. Nine of the players on the women’s handball team were also brought in from abroad because of the Games. 

Critics have called these ‘hired’ contestants “plastic Brits”. These critics are the ones who see the Olympics as a competition between nations and want to counter the Olympic Charter. 

A rising phenomenon

Great Britain is of course not the only country to bring in foreign contestants in order to climb up the medal table. Most of the long distance runners representing Arab countries were brought in from Africa, and in the women’s table tennis tournament only three out of the 16 teams did not include a Chinese-born player. 

Still, it is important to distinguish between the participants who have been brought in especially for the Olympics and those who move to new countries and become integrated and a part of that society. Team GB’s Mo Farrah is an example of the latter. 

The fight against self-righteousness

It is my impression that the Olympic moral (Olympism) is most often referred to by the people who will gain from it or who have no stake in the matter. Officials criticize contestants who exploit the rules when it does not concern themselves and argue against the criticism when they themselves have been bending the rules. 

The only thing that can stop the inconsistencies and the indiscriminate self-righteousness is to prevent the  Olympic Charter from becoming lost in translation. In other words, we need a clearer definition of what the Olympic spirit, OIympism and the concept of fair play entails.

This article first appeared on Andreas Selliaas' blog 'Sportens Uutholdelige Letthet' on 16 August 2012. Follow Andreas' blog (in Norwegian) on