Acton Institute Powerblog

Olympians Behaving Badly

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Almost nothing is more common in sports than to hear a sportscaster going on about how some athlete is a fine young man or young woman. How they work hard, sacrificed for their sport, are respected by their teammates, and volunteer with children. We enjoy the thrill of athletic competition and rejoice in a game well played or a move perfectly executed, and it is natural that we hope these athletes are as excellent off the field as on.

We want heroes like Eric Lidell of “Chariots of Fire” fame, who overcame insurmountable odds in athletics and live heroic lives of sacrifice as well. But as we regularly witness in college and professional sports, and, recently, the Olympics these fine, young athletes are too often, unfortunately, not fine young men and women.

We have almost come to expect this from professional, and increasingly, college sports, but somehow the Olympics maintained its luster. Yet as the Winter Olympics came to an end on Sunday, more stories about lewd and vulgar behavior continue to emerge. From reports of supplying Olympic Village with over 100,000 condoms to racy photographs and admissions of wild nights and pornographic addiction, one lesson seems apparent: Don’t let your babies grow up to be Olympians.

Sports are often said to build character. They can and do. They teach hard work, patience, self-denial, and teamwork. But, especially in a sports-obsessed culture like ours, they also have the tendency to breed narcissism. Athletes become privileged entertainers who have been coddled and told they are special from the moment they showed prowess. They are adored, their misdeeds overlooked. It starts small, but those misdeeds can become a way of life as much as the sports themselves.

We want our sports stars to be role models, but instead they are increasingly purveyors of cultural decadence, selfishness, and a distraction from the serious moral challenges of living a life of real virtue and heroism. When Charles Barkley declared that he was not a role model, he was right. In his inimitable way, he was trying to tell us something: Find your real heroes elsewhere.

Yes, to become a professional or Olympic athlete requires great dedication and sacrifice, but it doesn’t really matter much unless those traits transfer into other areas of life. Instead, sacrifice and self-denial seem to be limited to one’s own search for glory.

The moral crisis that pervades sports is part of a larger social breakdown that is compounded by a culture that is afraid to speak about truth and virtue—much less moral evil and sin. Moral relativism has become the norm and freedom means doing what you want instead of submitting to some higher standard (at least outside of the sports arena). Authentic pursuit of virtue has been replaced by mere volunteerism and fashionable political activism, and the idea that young men and women should strive for moral excellence and self-control is viewed cynically. The 100,000 condoms for Olympians are emblematic of the message given to young people in a myriad of ways: They are expected to act like animals, unable to control themselves. But they are not animals—they can control themselves, and many do.

This may sound like a curmudgeonly grumbling about young people just having fun. I wish it were so. It would be less of a problem if entertainers—whether Olympic athletes or actors and rock stars—did not play such a central role in shaping our culture. Our post-industrialist, highly technological culture is dominated by entertainment. But the entertainers are barbarians within the gates, and their behavior is emulated by young, adoring fans who see that moral virtue and steady character are not requisite for athletic and social success.

This has long term consequences for our freedom. George Washington warned that a free society required a virtuous people with maturity and self-control. Liberty is not the property of adolescents unable to control their passions. Yet American cultural life is increasingly described by what Diane West called “the death of the grown up.”

We want our athletes to be heroes, but we also glorify an adolescent culture that follows its whims. The two are mutually exclusive. C.S. Lewis described the problem decades ago: “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst, we castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Michael Matheson Miller


  • Mikey Likesit

    The irony within this discourse is the kind of which legends are made. If one wishes to talk of morals, one can see sin abounding around every corner. For one to pick out the Olympics for a diatribe seems a little misguided at best. The cultural fight is within ourselves, our schools, society and a media that thrives off of shock, sex, drugs, video tape, corruption, or whatever scandal that sends the $ signs glowing in execs eyes. As technology and access to ill repute grows so grows the surrender to the temptations of sin.

    Irony 1: The Olympics were first competed in the nude. There has not been one single Olympics in history that did not have controversy or scandal involved.

    Irony 2: Most peoples’ experience of the Olympics this last time out was “luge death”, “US lousy at curling”, and “bad closing ceremony”. I new nothing of the condoms until this brought it to my attention. Just as I knew nothing of extra small condoms being made for 12 year olds in the UK until Fox News brought it to my attention.

    Irony 3: When was this golden era of sport and virtue? This is nothing new. The only difference between the virtue of a Ruth and Tiger or a Kobe is the way the media portrays it. Go back as far as you would care to explore, gladiator vs Christians for sport, ancient athletes and bath houses. “There is nothing new under the sun.” Again, sin and virtue have always existed in the realm of sports.

    Irony 4: Quoting Washington. Lil George by 16 was out surveying the wilderness pulling down a hefty salary, not playing “who can slide down the hill fastest” for endosements. One of the facts of people moving from the farm to industry, and an unintented consequence of the child labor laws was suddenly kids had all this free time on their hands. It was not long before these idle hands looked for entertainment and found people ready to fill the void with ever more efficiency and ever less virtue.

    Yes, in a world where everything is relative, evil is extolled, good is mocked, schools teach of paradigm shifts, religious are on the decline, access is ever on the rise (I must decrease, while He must increase?) Until poeple start demanding more from themselves, their kids, the media, society, government, and dare I say their clergy, do not expect any improvements anytime soon.

  • You get what you look for! I think people have falsely seen the involvement of their kids in sports as some sort of nod that the kid has made it and will not fall prey to the absolute silliness that surrounds asolecense.

    The Internet has now given your kids access to a world of horrors once only imagined….and has cut them off from real positive interaction.