Speaking Out

If You Stand For Nothing You Will Fall For Anything


Mark Tewksbury

After reading the newspaper on the morning of February 3, I finally felt a little less alone in the world. Ten days earlier I had spoken out publicly against the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and President Juan Antonio Samaranch in particular, over the ongoing Olympic scandal that was making headlines around the world. I had called for Samaranch's resignation, as it was under his leadership that the Olympic Movement had found its way into its worst crisis in modern Olympic history. If athletes are held accountable to the highest standards, it seemed only fair that the officials be held accountable as well.

My initial outrage was prompted by a radio call-in show in Toronto, where the city is preparing to mount a bid for the 2008 Summer Games. Callers phoned in to express their disgust with the Olympics, and it was clear that whatever excitement had been building over bringing the Games back to Canada was fizzling fast. I realized that in the eyes of the general public, the IOC and the Olympic Games were one and the same. While public disgust was justified, it was time to make an important distinction between the Olympics and the IOC.

"I know how the system works..."
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Marco Chiesa

The heart and soul of the Olympic Games are the athletes, training in obscurity for a goal and an ideal in which they believe. The IOC is an organization comprised (or should I say compromised) of about 110 members who act as the custodians of the Games and who seem devoid of heart and soul. The difference is clear: it was the IOC and not the Games that warranted criticism and reform. And I said as much.

It was a rather lonely stand to take. While my sentiments were echoed by reporters and various officials around the world, surprisingly few athletes joined the public chorus of outrage. While every athlete I spoke with supported my stance privately, nobody wanted to go on the record. Is it because our personal identities as athletes are so closely connected to the Olympic Movement that we would rather remain quiet? Is it a reverence for authority that holds us back?

I was beginning to wonder when a headline that February morning caught my eye: Koss Delivers Strong Message to IOC Boss. Johann Olav Koss, the Norwegian speed skater, is an athlete I hold in high regard. A triple Olympic gold medallist in Lillehammer, he then won the admiration of the world when he donated all of his prize money to an international charity for children in third world countries; Johann even went to work with UNICEF in Rwanda for a summer. Here is a guy who walks his talk. While attending the recent world conference on Drugs in Sport in Lausanne as a member of the IOC Athletes' Commission, Johann made headlines by speaking publicly against Samaranch's attempt to head the new anti-doping agency. It was a strong statement made in front of the world press, and it seemed like other athletes were finally speaking out about the IOC and its leadership. The reinforcements had arrived. Or had they?

Later that morning, Randy Starkman, a reporter for the Toronto Star newspaper and a staunch supporter of amateur sport, called me from Lausanne. He had just received a copy of the Athletes' Declaration released by the IOC Athletes' Commission and warned me that I should sit down.

As he read the first part of the statement I thought it sounded fine. The Athletes' Commission made statements like "We believe in the Olympic ideals of ethics, fair play, and all that Olympism encompasses." Ambiguous and vague, but hardly anything to be upset about.

Eventually Randy got to the final, devastating point. "The IOC Athletes' Commission, the elected body representing all of the Olympic athletes around the world, voted unanimously to support President Samaranch and his recent initiatives. Furthermore, we support his work and believe it will lead to the re-establishment of credibility and trust in the IOC and the entire Olympic Movement." I thought I was dreaming.

How could our peers truly believe that Samaranch's leadership would lead to the re-establishment of credibility given that it was under his very leadership that we came to find ourselves in this mess in the first place?

The Athletes' Commission had a unique opportunity in Lausanne. With the world press watching, it had the chance to publicly demand that the leaders of the movement play by the same rules as their membership. Indeed, it had the only chance to ever move from being a "showpiece" for the IOC to becoming a true voice of the athletes. Unfortunately, the Athlete's Commission failed miserably. Instead of speaking out on behalf of its constituents, the IOC Athletes's Commission bowed to internal pressure and, like everybody else within the organization, toed the party line.

How could this happen? How could athletes I regard so highly support this organization and its leader?

I was once part of the IOC myself. In 1996 I was the athlete representative on the Site Evaluation Commission for the Summer Games of 2004. I know how convincing the arguments can be from within the tent. I know how the system works: every decision needs unanimous support so that the few who oppose the majority are forced to relinquish their individual stand or risk expulsion from the club. It is difficult to stand up for what you believe, especially when that means standing alone. The difficulty is further compounded when you have noble intentions of one day changing the system. But at what point do you say "enough"? When do you decide that you are no longer willing to sacrifice your personal integrity by being part of this? When does the voice inside you scream out to stand up and be counted, because if you don't then you will keep falling for anything?

I am a firm believer that, most often, change happens from within an organization. But every once in a while a revolution is necessary, especially when the corruption runs as deeply as it does currently in the IOC. A revolution will only happen if all of the stakeholders within the Movement speak out. And the athletes' voice is vital. Had even one member of the Athletes' Commission had the courage to break rank and stand up against the status quo, that member would have done more for the Movement than all the rest of his peers combined. It would not have been easy, but that member would have forever earned the title "Olympic Champion." Unfortunately, it's an historic moment that did not happen.

The Athletes' Commission said it believed in the ideals that encompass Olympism. In my mind that includes principles such as honesty, integrity, and responsibility. I have done a lot of thinking lately, and if I am to continue to uphold these principles myself, then that means I have to do more than just talk about them, I have to live by them. Having lost confidence in the leadership of the IOC, it is impossible for me to continue to serve it. It would be like an athlete staying with a coach in whom he has lost faith. It just isn't possible, or worth it. That's why, on February 4, 1999, I resigned all my posts within the Olympic Movement, including my role as honorary secretary of the FINA Athletes' Commission.

It is a sad time. I have left a movement to which I dedicated 22 years of my life. But pain is a great teacher. Once again I have learned how important it is to uphold Olympic ideals. I believe that we are never "former" Olympians; once an Olympian, always an Olympian. And that means living by the ideals that make the Games so magical, both on and off the playing field. As every athlete knows, it is not always easy to stand up for what we believe. Every morning we have the chance to roll over when the alarm clock rings, just as we have the chance to look the other way when corruption or cheating is rampant. But that is not the spirit of the Games, and if we do not stand up for the Olympic spirit, then for what are we going to stand?

Mark Tewksbury won Olympic gold in the 100 backstroke in 1992 and two relay silvers in 1988-92.