The Commodification of the Olympic Games and Its Athletes

The conclusion of the Sochi Olympic games sparks the beginning of the discussions, the critiques, the playbacks, and for lack of a better word, the gossip revolving the results of the Games. Who medaled, who didn’t medal, who got injured, which teams played fair, who actually deserved their medals, the list goes on and on. With these discussions underway, a familiar name has recurrently been brought up, and that name is Viktor Ahn.

You may have heard of him as the man without a home, the traitor who abandoned his nation to skate for the Russians, or possibly as the skater who proved his birth country wrong by winning the gold for his new country. Here is his story.

Born in South Korea as Ahn Hyan-Soo, but now known as Russia’s Viktor Ahn, made the tough decision of switching citizenships just two years before the Sochi Games in order to be able to compete after coming back from a knee injury. The South Korean-turned-Russian speed skating superstar became the first athlete to win Olympic medals for different nations and became the most adorned short-track speed skater with a total of six gold medals.

Ahn competed in the 2006 Turin Games and took home three gold medals and one bronze medal. Although due to his injury, he was sidelined and could not qualify for the following 2010 Vancouver Games. However, after returning from his injury, Ahn was confronted with a harsh reality: his team would not accept him back on the team. South Korea is a breeding mine for short-track speed skaters, meaning there are always younger up-and-coming skaters willing and able to take the spots of the veterans. One could say Ahn felt cast aside by his country.

Determined to skate in the upcoming Sochi Games and prove to his home country that he was not dispensable, Ahn searched for refuge elsewhere. He knew his talent would not go unnoticed by other nations eager to get their hands on another medal. And sure enough, both Russia and the United States offered him an opportunity to train at their facilities and represent their respective countries in the Sochi Games. Given that this decision involved switching citizenships and allegiances, one might question how he decided which country he would soon call his new home. The answer? Money.

According to The New York Times, he was offered a hefty compensation for his guaranteed training with Russia and in the words of his recruiter, Jang Kwon-ok, the process of switching citizenship was “very, very easy,” compared to that of the United States. Somehow, to the dismay of South Korea, Ahn was able to slip under the radar and gain Russian citizenship, thus denying his home country three gold medals in the men’s short track.

Ahn’s story presents two interesting points to examine: have the Olympics strayed away from its roots as a nation-based team competition and become an increasingly individualistic sport based on solitary gain and success? Furthermore, has the commodification of sports corrupted athletes’ sense of self and turned them into items on a shelf that are available for trade or purchase?

The sports industry, with its illustrious power and ability to capture an entire society, has become corrupted by its own commodification (Giulianotti 39).  Advertisements are incessantly inserted into every match, both live and on television, games are fixed, bribes are taken, teams are exploited, and in this case, players’ loyalties are auctioned off to the highest bidder (Giulianotti 40). This industry has greatly become dominated by money and power and the true nature of sport and athletic mastery is simply not enough.

The Neo-Marxists view sport as an “ ideological tool to distract the masses from bourgeois control” (bourgeois representing the ruling capitalist class.) Under this system, athletes are simply “advertising ‘sandwich-boards’ for major corporations,” controlled by the markets in power (Giulianotti 32). Viktor Ahn was evaluated for his worth and bided on accordingly. In the end, Russia had the means to take home the item of the day: the greatest short track speed skater in the world. But who knows. If the US had presented Ahn with a larger paycheck, maybe it would have been team USA walking away with three more gold medals around its neck.

Money, efficiency, and opportunity were the driving forces behind Ahn’s decision to switch allegiances from his motherland to Mother Russia. How long will it be until athletes compete not in honor of their country, but in honor of the corporation that owns them? This may seem far-fetched, but if you think about it, we are practically there now.

The conclusion of the Sochi Olympic games sparks the beginning of the discussions, the critiques, the playbacks, and for lack of a better word, the gossip revolving the results of the Games. Who medaled, who didn’t medal, who got injured, which teams played fair, who actually deserved their medals, the list goes on and on. With these discussions underway, a familiar name has recurrently been brought up, and that name is Viktor Ahn.

You may have heard of him as the man without a home, the traitor who abandoned his nation to skate for the Russians, or possibly as the skater who proved his birth country wrong by winning the gold for his new country. Here is his story.

Born in South Korea as Ahn Hyan-Soo, but now known as Russia’s Viktor Ahn, made the tough decision of switching citizenships just two years before the Sochi Games in order to be able to compete after coming back from a knee injury. The South Korean-turned-Russian speed skating superstar became the first athlete to win Olympic medals for different nations and became the most adorned short-track speed skater with a total of six gold medals.

Ahn competed in the 2006 Turin Games and took home three gold medals and one bronze medal. Although due to his injury, he was sidelined and could not qualify for the following 2010 Vancouver Games. However, after returning from his injury, Ahn was confronted with a harsh reality: his team would not accept him back on the team. South Korea is a breeding mine for short-track speed skaters, meaning there are always younger up-and-coming skaters willing and able to take the spots of the veterans. One could say Ahn felt cast aside by his country.

Determined to skate in the upcoming Sochi Games and prove to his home country that he was not dispensable, Ahn searched for refuge elsewhere. He knew his talent would not go unnoticed by other nations eager to get their hands on another medal. And sure enough, both Russia and the United States offered him an opportunity to train at their facilities and represent their respective countries in the Sochi Games. Given that this decision involved switching citizenships and allegiances, one might question how he decided which country he would soon call his new home. The answer? Money.

According to the New York Times, he was offered a hefty compensation for his guaranteed training with Russia and in the words of his recruiter, Jang Kwon-ok, the process of switching citizenship was “very, very easy,” compared to that of the United States. Somehow, to the dismay of South Korea, Ahn was able to slip under the radar and gain Russian citizenship, thus denying his home country three gold medals in the men’s short track.

Ahn’s story presents two interesting points to examine: have the Olympics strayed away from its roots as a nation-based team competition and become an increasingly individualistic sport based on solitary gain and success? Furthermore, has the commodification of sports corrupted athletes’ sense of self and turned them into items on a shelf that are available for trade or purchase?

The sports industry, with its illustrious power and ability to capture an entire society, has become corrupted by its own commodification (Giulianotti 39).  Advertisements are incessantly inserted into every match, both live and on television, games are fixed, bribes are taken, teams are exploited, and in this case, players’ loyalties are auctioned off to the highest bidder (Giulianotti 40). This industry has greatly become dominated by money and power and the true nature of sport and athletic mastery is simply not enough.

The Neo-Marxists view sport as an “ ideological tool to distract the masses from bourgeois control” (bourgeois representing the ruling capitalist class.) Under this system, athletes are simply “advertising ‘sandwich-boards’ for major corporations,” controlled by the markets in power (Giulianotti 32). Viktor Ahn was evaluated for his worth and bided on accordingly. In the end, Russia had the means to take home the item of the day: the greatest short track speed skater in the world. But who knows. If the US had presented Ahn with a larger paycheck, maybe it would have been team USA walking away with three more gold medals around its neck.

Money, efficiency, and opportunity were the driving forces behind Ahn’s decision to switch allegiances from his motherland to Mother Russia. How long will it be until athletes compete not in honor of their country, but in honor of the corporation that owns them? This may seem far-fetched, but if you think about it, we are practically there now.

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