Threats to the Olympic Ideals

The ancient Olympic games can be traced back to 776 B.C., and were founded on honorable principles of sportsmanship, fairness, character and civility. The goals of the ancient Olympics encouraged good relationships throughout Greek cities and focused on sportsmanship between athletes. Truce, or the ekecheiria was the most important rule during these times. This meant that all soldiers had to put down their weapons and stop fighting during the games. All hostilities were suspended for the time of competition, allowing all competitors and visitors to travel safely through enemy territories (“OLYMPIC GAMES” n.


“Eleans” were the supervisors of the ancient games and helped to uphold the code. They acted as overseers during the month training period prior to the games and during the games themselves. The “Eleans” were responsible for imposing punishments on those who violated the rules. They observed the athletes and allowed those who had trained sufficiently to participate and rejected those who had not performed well. This judgment was based not only on an athlete’s physical performance, but also on their character and moral status (“Ancient Olympic Games” n.

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The Greeks valued a “healthy mind in a healthy body”(“Olympic Athletic Ideal-Olympic” n.pag.). [3] An athletic victory was considered a credit to both the athlete’s physical and moral values. Strong disciplined character was just as important as a well-trained body. Cheating was strictly prohibited. If an athlete was caught cheating in any way he was fined, and the dues were used to build bronze statues of Zeus, the patron god of the Olympic games.

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The statues were placed along the tunnel leading up to the Olympic stadium.

Each statue had an inscription that told the cautionary tale of the offense to remind athletes the importance of obeying the rules (“Cheating in the Ancient Olympic Games” n. pag.). “Great financial gain and fame was the prize for victory”, causing many athletes push the rules in hopes of athletic achievement (Nowes n.pag).[4] The fist recorded cheating in Olympic history was 388 B.C., when a boxer named Eupolus bribed three opponents to purposely loose. His large fine was used to build six bronze statues of Zeus (“Cheating in the Ancient Olympic Games” n. pag.).[5] The gods were thought to take a deep interest in the games and some religious significance attached to winning and losing.

When the Romans gained control of Greece in 393 A.D., the practice of the Olympic games ceased.

Transition to Modern Olympic and how they came about

In 1894, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, from France and a group of largely aristocratic young, European men came together and wished to offer an alternative to fighting and bloodshed. Thus began the modern Olympic movement. Coubertin “strongly believed in the ideals that sport possessed the power to benefit humankind and encourage peace among the nations of the world” (“Modern Olympic Movement: Aspects of the Olympic Games” n.pag.). [6] The idealistic founders created the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to guide their new enterprise and the participating countries formed their own National Olympic Committees.

The IOC had very few rules when the Olympics began. As long as the athlete was a citizen of the nation he represented, he was allowed to compete. Before World War One and when the games resumed after the Great War the competition reached a high point in athletic cooperation. The first international Olympic games were held in 1896 in Athens, Greece and were attended by only thirteen countries and fewer than two hundred and fifty athletes. These games included events in weightlifting, tennis, swimming, wrestling, shooting, gymnastics, fencing, and cycling. No women could compete in the first games. In the 1900 Paris games, however, eleven women were allowed to participate. Since then, rates of women’s participation have increased to equal those of men.

Modern Olympics

Beginning in 1896, the Modern Olympic games, enforced many strict rules, carried out by the International Olympic Committee. The governors of the IOC bear extensive responsibilities including, “ the encouragement and support of the promotion of ethics in sports.” Their principles “oppose any political or commercial abuse of sports and athletes, and… lead the fight against doping in sport” (“Ancient Olympic Games: n.pag). [7] The original ideals were based on upholding good sportsmanship and fair play and still hold true today (Guttmann 12).

[8] Although this committee closely regulates the rules, many athletes and even entire countries have tried to slip past the rules and continue to seek loopholes. Throughout the past fifty years, many of the Olympic rules have been adapted and changed, as circumstances have demanded. When the Olympics began, the games welcomed amateur athletes, but professionals were not allowed to compete. Now, professional athletes can take part. However, no athlete, amateur or professional, may receive payment for performance in Olympic contests.

Nationalism and the Olympic Ideals

The early modern Olympics were characterized by severe nationalism. After many years of wars and varying political ideals countries felt that the Olympics were a great opportunity to validate their political systems and national identity. Countries have taken great risks and extensive measures to appear to be on the top of the political scene. China, East Germany and the Soviet Union have taken especially large measures to strengthen their countries.

Soviet Participation

When the games were reinstated in 1920 and again in 1948, [9]the Soviets initially declined to take part. The primary goal of “Socialist sports” was to benefit the masses, not the elite athletes. Marxist-Leninist ideology intended all citizens to participate to enhance their own strength as well as the strength of the state. They believed that recreation and the training of the body allowed workers to remain strong and healthy as well as productive. Health and productivity would also lead to building moral character and social responsibility. Since sports were intended for the masses, rather than for an athletic elite, the Soviet rulers saw no use for participation in the Olympic games. Soon after the 1917 revolution ended, Bolshevik leaders established a state-run sports system, which consisted of hundreds of sports clubs as well as two large sports societies run by the secret police and the Army (Rosellini n.pag.).

Unfortunately, as quickly as these well- intended clubs were formed, their original purpose began to disintegrate. As early as 1926, the sports clubs were accused of ignoring “the vast mass of young people” and focusing on the athletic elite, because the sports facilities were straying from their initial goal of supporting the masses and focusing on the athletically gifted (Rosselini n.pag.). Between the World Wars the Soviets remained separate from the games. But away from the rest of the world, they were devising a plan to make their athletes rank among the best in the world. Finally, in 1948, the Soviets and their Satellites decided to challenge the West in the 1952 Olympics.

The ruling Soviet party demanded that government officials “raise the level of skill, so that Soviet sportsmen might win the world supremacy in the major sports in the immediate future” (Rosellini n.pag.). To do this children were evaluated and if found suitable, were taken to live in “sports factories.” There, children were trained many hours a day and were secretly dosed with steroids. Child athletes were usually between the ages of six and eighteen in these training facilities and could have been taken from their parents as early as the age of three. Each athlete had his or her own trainer, doctor, masseuse, physiologist, and sports conceptualizer to plan an individual program. The outside world remained unaware of the Soviet design for sports dominance.

Not until members of the Soviet Union entered Olympic competition did steroid use affect athletic achievement. The Soviet factories greatly threatened the ideals of the International Olympic Committee. Competitive fair play and international cooperation were jeopardized by the Soviet’s desire for political superiority. The factories were a symptom of one of the greatest threats to the Olympic ideals: countries seeking political influence and international recognition. The Soviets used these “factories” as a way to improve the international standing of their country. If they came out on top in sports they believed they would appear to validate the communist political system to the rest of the world.

But, Soviet athletes physically looked different. When swimmer Raik Hannemann was seventeen, his trainer approached him and said, “We’re going to try something secret, keep it to yourself. It will add two percent to your time and bring you to that extra level of excellence” (Rosselini n.pag). Hannemann knew the blue tablets had to do something with steroids, but he didn’t know what the side effects were and trusted his trainer. He was even told to keep the tablets a secret from his parents.

Once he took the performance-enhancing drugs his speed immediately increased by six seconds (Rosselini n.pag). Athletes competing in a variety of sports were treated with performance-enhancing drugs, but the swimmers especially boasted abnormal musculature. The judges and spectators demanded explanations, of how these athletes grew so grotesquely strong. Although no medical tests for sports enhancing drugs existed yet, in 1976, performance-enhancing drugs were placed on the International Olympic Committee’s banned substances list in response to the unproven Soviet’s steroid use in the recent Olympic games (Chidlovski n.pag.).[10] A decade later the Olympic committee introduced newly designed doping tests to detect if athletes used the drugs in their training period rather than during competition.

Some Olympic events, such as the Hungarian defeat of the Soviet water polo team in 1956 took a large symbolism significance (Sterngass pg. 37).

Drug Use by Other Countries

Of course, the U.S.S.R. was not the only country to seek international recognition through Olympic success. Many other countries have defied the Olympic code by using performance-enhancing drugs as well. “Sports became a propaganda tool and athletic success was closely tied to nationalism and patriotism” (Sterngass pg.37). [11] As medal counts became more important, the use of performance-enhancing drugs also became more prevalent. Steroids first threatened the Olympic ideals by countries seeking political superiority.

Suspicion of steroid use began as early as 1968, but the drugs did not become common until the 1972 Olympic games (“Steroid Abuse in Sports-Steroid” n.pag.)[12] The East German’s joined in the use of performance-enhancing drugs early on as well. “In 1968 East Germany’s chief medical officer submitted a report to the government recommending the total and collective administration of steroids to all East German athletes” (“Steroid Abuse in Sports- Steroid” n.pag.).

In the twenty years preceding this recommendation, Eastern Germany dominated nearly every international sporting competition. The East German drug use was yet another effort to prove their own superiority over the West, just as the Soviets had done just a few years earlier. Many East-German athletes were told that they were taking vitamins, rather than steroids. So, not only was the East German government practicing the use of unfair drugs, but they were also lying to their own athletes and jeopardizing the long-term health of the individuals.

Since then, as more drugs have been developed, drug tests and methods for testing have also expanded (Benagh n.pag.).[13] In recent years, many American athletes have been accused and have tested positively for drug use. This kind of cheating is highly unethical and defies the Olympic code of fair play and good sportsmanship. Performance-enhancing drugs add a more political aspect to the games, causing less focus on the actual competitive athletics. As more and more athletes defy the Olympic ideals, rules must be regulated even more closely. These changes in rules also affect the spirit of the Olympics, which fosters an international feeling of community and competition. As more athletes break the rules, more stringent oversight ensues.

This strict regulation takes much of the integrity out of the games, diminishing the Olympic spirit. In the 2008 Beijing games alone, 4,500 athletes were tested; only eight of those tested positive and were banned from competing (“OLYMPIC GAMES” n.pag.).[14] But, many more athletes also may have been guilty, perhaps they were not caught because the tests were not rigorous enough. Canadian sprinter, Ben Johnson, was just one athlete who was found guilty after winning an Olympic medal. In 1988, Johnson won the gold medal in the one hundred meter final in the Seoul games, setting a world record and was considered the best one hundred meter runner of his time.

However, just three days after winning Olympic gold, Johnson’s urine sample tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and his medal and records were stripped. Johnson was suspended from competition until 1991, but re-entered the indoor track scene and qualified for the 1992 games, where he placed last. Just one year later, Johnson came close to a fifty-meter record, but again failed a drug test (Whooley n.pag). [15]Marion Jones, a former track star who won five medals in the 2000 Sydney games, was convicted of steroid usage and all of her medals were stripped. Years later, evidence and testimony supported a conviction, sentencing Jones to six months in prison (Mulero n. pag.).[16]

Judging Bias

The ideals of the Olympic committee have been threatened by a variety of scandals throughout their history. “Sports factories” as well as performance-enhancing drug use have threatened their ideals. Judging bias has also tainted the purity of the Olympic image. In many sports such as swimming, soccer and basketball the winner is obvious, but in sports like gymnastics and diving judges decide who wins the medals. The judges swear to uphold the rules and be fair, but there are certain people who favor athletes from their own home country. There have been several instances throughout history when judge’s bias has been questioned. For example, in the 2002 Olympic games, pairs figure skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were seen to be winning, but another pairs team was awarded first place by the judges.

The International Skating Union was forced to give the judges perceived winners as well as Sale and Pelletier gold medals. This was due to the judging being corrupt in some way. Another similar instance occurred in 1988 games in Seoul, when American boxer Roy Jones Jr. appeared to be the winner of an Olympic boxing match, but judges gave the verdict to the home boxer. It has been suspected that payments were made to the judges in both cases to buy their votes. Statisticians claim that there is no definite way to eliminate national bias from the results. In sports such as gymnastics, the highest and lowest scores are dropped in hopes of decreasing the likelihood of biased judges.


Today, however, the largest threat to the Olympic games is the free market commercialization of sport in our culture. Corporate sponsors give extensive amounts of money to the International Olympic Committee, national governing associations, and even to athletes themselves despite strict rules against remunerating athletes. These sponsors avoid the rules by paying only for travel, equipment and training, but do not give money directly to the participants. The commercial aspect of the Olympics is encroaching on the original Olympic ideals of sports, culture and education (Wedekind n.pag).[17] The Olympic organizers realize the threat that commercialism has on the games and now forbids stadium advertising and non- sports brands on athlete’s uniforms (“Is the Olympic ideal being crushed by sponsorship?” n.pag.).[18]

In 1986, the IOC opened Olympic participation to all athletes, amateur and professional. This meant that paid athletes and athletes on professional sports teams were now allowed to compete.

In recent games, commercialism has allowed top athletes to cash in their Olympic fame with lucrative opportunities. These include public appearances, product endorsements, appearances on television talk shows and even roles in reality series. These opportunities allow athletes to acquire large sums of money. In today’s society, athletes, and specifically professional athletes are put on a pedestal and portrayed as higher beings. Which causes athletes to take great risks for a chance at fame and fortune. Athletes are willing to sacrifice all of the ideals that make the Olympics great for their own glory. Discipline, hard work, sportsmanship, and fair play are all being exchanged for a chance at fame and wealth. This motivation tempts many sport hopefuls to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Athletes see these drugs as a shortcut to instant fame.

On the other hand, if and when athletes are caught doping, their glorified image disappears. The media and the press will then portray the athlete negatively and in most cases their sponsorships and endorsements vanish. These Olympic sponsorships are often some of the most effective international marketing techniques. The Olympics allow companies to reach billions of people in over 200 different countries.


Throughout the history of the Olympic movement, a cycle has repeated itself. High idealism and international respect/ universal acclaim are followed by scandals that demand the revision of the rules and threaten the original intentions. The games have always been used to promote cooperation between countries, and there have always been cheaters to diminish this goal. Presently, the negative affect of cheating and commercialism put the future of the Olympic games into question. The early Olympic games were threatened more by entire countries hoping to gain political superiority, however as time advanced individuals seeking financial gain and fame, became a primary threat.


[1] “OLYMPIC GAMES.” OLYMPIC GAMES. Foundation of the Hellenic World, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2012. <>.

[2]2 “The Organisation.” International Olympic Committee., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2012. <>.

The webpage was very helpful while researching the ancient Olympic games. The page was titled Ancient Olympic Games and described in detail, the history, mythology, sporting events and athletes involved in the early games. The purpose of this webpage is to inform the public of how the ancient games were run and provide information on the rules, participants, relation to religion and mythology. The site is of great value to those researching the history of the Olympic games. The well-written information on the history, including the dates and participants was especially useful. The site also includes a video representation of the ancient games, allowing the viewer to visualize what is being described. A limitation of this source however, was the lack of information of the original Olympic ideals.

[3]3 “Olympic Athletic Ideal –” Olympic Athletic Ideal – Olympic Avanti-Logic, 2003. Web. 18 Oct. 2012. <>.

[4] Nowes, Howard. “The Ancient Olympics.” The Ancient Olympics. Howard Nowes Ancient Art, 19 Nov. 2004. Web. 19 Oct. 2012. <>.

[5] “Cheating in the Ancient Olympics Games.” Cheating in the Ancient Olympics Games., n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2012. <>.

[6] “Modern Olympic Movement: Aspects of the Olympic Games.” Modern Olympic Movement :: Aspects of the Olympic Games. Pthimon, n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2012. <>.

[7] Ancient Olympic Games.” Olympic Games Medals, Results, Sports, Athletes, n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2012. <>.

[8] Guttmann, Allen. The Olympics, a history of the modern games. Urbana [Ill.: University of Illinois P, 1992.

[9] Rosellini, Lynn. “The Sports Factories.” SIRS. SIRS, 17 Feb. 1992. Web. 05 Nov. 2012. <>.

Published on February 17, 1992, Lynn Rosellini’s article “Sports Factories” describes Soviet sports camps and their intentions. Rosellini is a senior writer for U.S. News and World Report and typically writes about controversial topics such as sports and entertainment. (The purpose of this article is to describe how the Soviets ran their early sport system and more importantly, what the system evolved to. “Sports Factories” highlighted the unethical training system that the U.S.S.R. used and the lives of the athletes involved. This article is of great value to anyone researching Olympic history and more specifically, threats to the original Olympic ideals. The examples of athletes involved in this sporting society and their stories of steroid usage also proved to be helpful. A limitation to this source is that it is biased towards the Soviet sports camps, because an American wrote it.

[10] Chidlovski, Arthur. “Lift Up.” Review of Disqualifications in Weightlifting at the Olympics. History of Olympic Weightlifting, n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2012. <>.

[11] Sterngass, Jon. Steroids. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2011. Print.

[12] “Steroid Abuse in Sports – Steroid” Steroid Abuse in Sports – Steroid Association Against Steroid Abuse, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2012. <>.

[13] Benagh, Jim. “Olympic Games.” Scholastic Teachers. Scholastic, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2012. <>.

[14] “OLYMPIC GAMES.” OLYMPIC GAMES. Foundation of the Hellenic World, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2012. <>.

[15] Whooley, Declan. “Health News.” Ben Johnson: Olympic glory and drug disgrace. 10 Apr. 2012. 13 Oct. 2012 <>.

[16] Mulero, Ed. “5 Athletes Caught Using Steroids.” Mademan RSS. Made Man, 21 Oct. 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2012. <>.

[17] Wedekind, Jennifer, Robert Weissman, and Ben DeGrasse. The Commercial Games. Rep. N.p., Aug. 2008. Web. 15 Oct. 2012. <>.

[18] “Is the Olympic Ideal Being Crushed by Sponsorship?” BBC News. BBC, 24 Sept. 2000. Web. 10 Nov. 2012. <>.

Cite this page

Threats to the Olympic Ideals. (2017, Aug 13). Retrieved from

Threats to the Olympic Ideals

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