Askia MuhammadColumnistsOp-EdOpinion

MUHAMMAD: Olympics Have Outlived Their Mission

The one great thing I appreciate about athletic competition is the sheer meritocracy of sports. It’s the way the ball bounces, so to speak.

I am equally fond of sports journalism. My career was nursed all through high school in the Los Angeles Examiner’s Scholastic Sports Association. My John C. Fremont Senior High School was a sports powerhouse — football, basketball, track and field, baseball — and there I was a reporter with access to the sports section of The Morning Paper, right there on the sidelines!

My high school buddy Richard Stebbins won a gold medal (Men’s 4X100 relay) in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Awesome!

But by the time I arrived on campus at San Jose State University, my ardor for sports had begun to cool, even though I was attending the most envied track and field powerhouse in the world.

In 1968, I was a schoolmate of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who famously protested on the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, rather than choosing to boycott as did future superstar Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

Later, I came to know and even travel occasionally with Muhammad Ali, light heavyweight boxing gold medalist at the 1960 Rome Games.

So, sports and the Olympics have been great blessings in my life. I thrill at the unscripted spontaneity of athletics, but I shudder at the sports-booking industry which now, literally, electronically “makes bank” as hooked suckers have a chance to make bets on the outcome of literally every play during a game.

The reason I still enjoy watching is the element of mind over matter, which always comes into play. Imagine the first NFL team since 1972 to go undefeated all season, right up to the Super Bowl. They would seal their fate in history except for a series of miracle plays in 2007, which gave the New York Giants a miracle victory after receiver David Tyree literally caught a pass on his helmet, ending the historic season of the New England Patriots.

It’s like magic, right before our eyes. But at what price?

City after city disrupts and destroys neighborhood after neighborhood in order to accommodate the voracious appetites sports franchises — from massive tax breaks to huge land giveaways — in order to make room for new stadium after new stadium.

Sports was once a pathway to education and escape into the middle class for Black folks. The sports success story is still important, only too many people today believe that success in sports is the goal, rather than an opportunity to get a free education.

The amateur athletic industry in the U.S. (dominated by the U.S. Olympic Committee — after all, an Olympic gold medal is the most coveted prize in sports) has tricked and robbed student-athletes for decades. Powerhouse schools sold tickets and paraphernalia, and collected endorsements based on the performance of student-athletes who went paid, in order to maintain their eligibility and their amateur status.

Little by little, the courts have been opening up the restrictions against collegiate athletes receiving “endorsements” and other forms of compensation, a victory for the athletes. Back at San Jose State Tommie Smith was employed part-time at an auto dealership, and wouldn’t you know it, folks would occasionally show up from time to time to make sure he working for the pay, and not just receiving money under the table. At the same time, many of the administrators have been caught, shamed, and even convicted for stealing money on top of their million-dollar salaries for coaching and administering some college sports, all the while the athletes whose behavior on the field of play attracts so much financial support, go wanting.

As far as sports branding goes, the Olympic Games are the top banana, and have proven themselves to be ripe for exploitation. Host cities rarely profit from their mega-investments to lure games, and invariably residents — most certainly to be low-wealth persons — suffer the greatest loss and displacement.

For me, I see only one equitable solution: Scrap the whole system and then rebuild it without the financial exploitation architecture, a system which the Olympics long ago outlived.

Askia Muhammad

WPFW News Director Askia Muhammad is also a poet, and a photojournalist. He is Senior Editor for The Final Call newspaper and he writes a weekly column in The Washington Informer.

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