PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Buried somewhere inside of American-turned-Russian-turned-citizen of the world Vic Wild’s gonzo 19-minute napalming of the International Olympic Committee was a kernel of wisdom so true and profound that it risked getting lost amid his effort to be the first human who transmogrified words into fire emojis.
“Eventually,” Wild said, “athletes will wake up.”
After bowing out in the round of 16 in parallel giant slalom snowboarding, Wild was standing at Phoenix Snow Park’s interview mixed zone, typically a genteel place, rarely a den of criticism. Born and raised in Washington, he married a fellow snowboarder from Russia, moved to Moscow and was granted citizenship after the United States Ski and Snowboard Association killed funding for his sport, and won two gold medals at the Sochi Games. He is, to say the least, atypical.
And though his desire to blast the IOC came after what he felt was mistreatment – specifically the fashion in which the organization left Russian athletes twisting in the wind while adjudicating how to punish the country for its alleged systemic doping in Sochi – one element of Wild’s argument applies to every athlete who competed in PyeongChang, will compete in Tokyo and on ad infinitum.
“I feel like I’ve got their back, the Olympics’ back, and they don’t have my back,” Wild said. “All I needed to hear was, ‘What’s going on?’ They didn’t do anything for me. It kind of makes me feel, in a sense, like – ”
He paused, understanding he was getting to the gist of his point, the part that cuts to the soul of the IOC.
“ – just another unit for them to create profits off of. I don’t know. That’s kind of harsh to say. It just feels like that. I wouldn’t say that’s true. At least it feels that way.”
It feels that way because it is true, and that Wild backtracked momentarily reveals how the Olympic movement almost brainwashes athletes – even the freest thinkers – into hesitating about calling out the organization that feasts on billions of dollars in rights fees and sponsorships by using athletes, many of whom need second jobs for supplementary income.
By the way, for its 533 employees last year, the IOC spent $153 million, an average of nearly $300,000 per person.
It took Wild some time to get to his central thesis, though the journey there was quite delightful. Among the stops on the bullet train that is his mind:
Wild is mad at both the IOC and the International Skiing Federation for not clarifying his status. “I truly believe both of them owe me an apology,” he said, adding that he used Google to look up the IOC’s phone number, needed to tell the person who picked up he was a two-time gold-medal winner to get a transfer, reached a person who gave him an email address and never got a response after he wrote it.
While he said he was not part of Russia’s alleged state-sponsored doping program, Wild worried the rampant swapping of urine samples could have implicated him: “I always knew that I was clean. They were talking about samples being changed, so that made me nervous. If somehow, someway, they were just doing everybody’s samples. But that’s not the case, so I’m good.” He also said he was frustrated that the Russian Olympic Committee gave him the same “I don’t know” answers as the IOC and FIS.
The strained relations between the United States and Russia aren’t cramping Wild’s style: “I don’t have a nationalistic approach to life. I try to identify with my surroundings. Growing up in White Salmon (Wash.), I have a lot pride for White Salmon. Now I live in Moscow. I also have a lot of pride in Moscow, and I want to see things get better there.” He later clarified nothing is wrong with Moscow, per se, he simply aspires for all cities to have better environments and communities and cleanliness.
By the time Wild wound his way back around to the treatment of athletes, he was suggesting something radical – and something that would change the dynamics of a relationship so one-sided: “If you want to know the truth, I think all athletes should create a union, like football, baseball, basketball. We should all work together. I think there’s a lot of profit going on here that doesn’t make it to a lot of people that need it. I think that there’s zero push coming from any (national organizing committees), the IOC, to try to create something like that. But it’ll come, eventually.”
The fight already is starting. Rule 40.3 is the draconian edict from the IOC that essentially robs athletes of their identity before, during and after the Olympics. An athlete subsists because of a sponsor? Sorry. Can’t mention it. Want to celebrate an incredible moment? Better not use video of it to make money. The absurdity of it was clear to Germany’s Federal Cartel Office, and it sued Germany’s NOC and imparted pressure on the IOC.
It caved, slightly adjusting its rules, which, considering the intransigence of the IOC, is quite the step. Maybe this is the crack in the dam it should be. Or perhaps it gets patched up in no time and it keeps alive the cycle of graft and corruption and all of the qualities with which the IOC has defined itself.
“I’m not here to bash the IOC,” Wild said. “I do think they do a lot of great for a lot of countries and a lot of athletes. They’re not the enemy, for sure. But I do think we need to work together more.”
There, again, the deference. Which, if Wild really can rally athletes, isn’t the worst tack. Because he’s right. The IOC isn’t going anywhere. It’s just like the college basketball scandal unfolding. It eviscerates the notion of amateurism even being possible in 2018, and yet because of the NCAA’s stranglehold on the entirety of college sports, the best solution to get athletes paid for now is through the organization. Some monoliths are too large to tumble overnight.
As the Closing Ceremony beckons Saturday and another Olympics comes to a finish, it’s worth asking what sort of moral backbone a movement that can’t be bothered to pay its workers but instead funnels money down through organizations, many of which have dozens of hands clawing and grabbing for fistfuls of dollars, can possibly have. The IOC is the big fish, the NOCs the medium and the athletes – the entire reason for the Olympics’ existence – the guppies.
Last year, a law journal devoted 28 pages to trying to answer a single question. The name of the paper: “Has the International Olympic Committee Risen Above Corruption?”
Much as the 28 pages of debate and suggestions are appreciated, brevity, in this case, more than suffices. And it’s an answer with which Vic Wild surely would agree: No.
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