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02/17/2014 09:31 EST | Updated 04/19/2014 05:59 EDT

Moral Relativism and the Olympics

Protagoras was the Greek philosopher who first taught rhetoric and argumentation. "Man is the measure of all things" he argued. There is no truth except that which individuals deem to be the truth.

Rhetorical contests were part of the ancient Olympic games. I'm not making this up. If the Olympics are the pinnacle of athletic endeavour, then we must also examine the actions of the participants as a reflection of who and what we believe to be moral and ethical.

Of course I am not the first person to ask the question. Just throwing my two cents in. Rounded off to the nearest nickel.

We're at the point in the Sochi Olympics where we start to look back a little and try and digest all that we have seen and read so far. Upon introspection, the prevailing sentiment has been one of pleasant surprise.

Television has brought us the beauty of the mountain cluster, all blue sky and panoramic vistas. The Caucasus mountains forming the frame in which the snowboarders jumped and twisted and the skiers carved their turns.

The coastal cluster with all the major stadiums constructed so closely together made for intimate interaction between athletes, fans and journalists. The Olympic flame burning brightly at night is a beacon etched in the memory.

Every Olympics television outdoes itself with better quality coverage. How about that helicopter tracking shot of the skiers blasting down the hill for the real sensation of speed? The fabulous High Speed Super Slow Motion (HSSM) replays of the ski jumpers against the stadium lighting that illuminates the blackness of the Sochi night. And my favourite, the superimposition of two competitors on the same portion of the luge and bobsled track and the mountain ski courses that provided each one's position relevant to the others not by time but by actual visuals.

Even the senior sports columnist for the Toronto Sun called the Sochi games Best. Games. Ever. That's the Toronto Sun. Not exactly Vladimir Putin's biggest supporters.

The Russians have spent a whole lot of money, but in relative terms to the potential wealth of the country's natural resources, and to the future of the Sochi area, Putin can argue that it is money well spent.

So what have we learned? That the billions spent by Russia has gone a long way in repairing the prevailing image of an autocratic, corrupt society of billionaire oligarchs and fierce repression?

Not quite.

After the last event at the Paralympics, Putin will go back to running the country. There will be the inevitable cabinet shuffles, the suppression of any attempts by rivals to make a move on Putin's position of authority, a strengthening of state control over Russia's massive natural resources, and most of all the ability to stand tall and say to the world: "How did you like our party? We Russians know what we're doing. So don't try and tell us how the world should be run without including us."

Putin has promised to make Sochi a place where Russia's emerging middle classes could come to play year round. He has a vested interest in the area as a major land owner. He has also nixed the idea of building a casino. Don't want to make Sochi the Monte Carlo of the Black Sea.

There will be a Formula One race there this summer. That's a sign that the area has arrived like a debutante at the world ball.

What else have we learned?

The Olympics has a way of focusing our moral relativism - the differences in moral judgments across different people and cultures. So when the Canadian speed skater Gilmore Junio gives up his place to another teammate, Denny Morrison, who fell during the Canadian Olympic trials, and Morrison, who is the better skater goes on to win two medals, did Junio do the right thing? He may never have a chance to race in the Olympics again. It is a once in a lifetime event for many athletes here.

Junio says the decision was his and his alone, although I'm willing to bet that there was some discussion with people from the Canadian Olympic Committee. Olympic medal count is important for future funding.

What of the Canadian cross country ski coach who gave one of his team's replacement skis to a Russian who fell and broke his own ski and couldn't continue? Strictly speaking he is helping a competitor. And the Olympics are about competition which intrinsically involves being selfish.

Is that who we, as suggested by numerous columnists and television pundits, consider ourselves to be as Canadians? Not only exceedingly polite but willing to make sacrifices because we are a moral and ethical people? Coach Justin Wadsworth's moral compass steered him in that direction; he didn't even think about. It was as natural as breathing. The Russian skier looked like a bird with a broken wing flopping around on the ground and Wadsworth did what he thought was right. The Olympics magnifies that, and it makes us all warm and fuzzy to believe that it was the ultimate Canadian way, but in the end it was an individual act of moral and ethical clarity. Moral decisions are made on a case by case basis, and the Olympics is the both the protagonist and the stage.

Some other observations at the halfway point in Sochi.

Not a single doping disqualification. Does that mean athletes have stopped cheating, or are the World Anti Doping Association (WADA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) holding things back for the good of the Games? In an earlier post I told you about the New York Times report in which Don Catlin, the former head of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, said he and his team discovered three positives near the end of the Salt Lake Games in 2002, but that he and the International Olympic Committee president at the time, Jacques Rogge, had decided against pursuing their cases because "it would raise a huge stink around the world."

There IS doping going on at the Games, whether we like to think so or not. That's not being cynical; it's just the reality of high performance sport. You need an edge; you take it. Is that right or wrong? In a world where you can get a pill for anything that ails you?

Another question.

Will this be the last Olympics that we see women's hockey? It should be. Only two teams have ever fought it out for the World Championship since its inception in 1990, and since women's hockey started in 1998 in Nagano, Canada has been in every final, the U.S.A, missing out only once, losing in a semi-final to Sweden. Canada versus the U.S.A. again this year. Like we all predicted.

This is not a competition. There can be no question of the rest of the world catching up. It's been 20 years and the same two countries fight for Gold. And Canadians go crazy for it. Why?

One last thought.

How is it that the two rivals for the Ice Dance gold, Canada's pair of Virtue and Moir and the two Americans, White and Davis, share the same coach Marina Zoueva? Watching Zoueva sit beside Virtue and Moir with a Canadian team jacket on, then jumping up to watch the American pair and then sitting beside White and Davis in the kiss and cry area? What is that? Pick a side. I guess she needs the money.

Never mind, its been a lot of fun and the marquee games of men's hockey are yet to come. Lots to look forward to yet.

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