Phil Hersh covered the Olympics for the Chicago Tribune for more than 30 years, a job he called the best in the newspaper world. Now he’s saying farewell to that beat. As he retires from the Tribune, he joins Here & Now’s Eric Westervelt to reflect on the good and bad in the Olympics.
Interview Highlights: Philip Hersh
How widespread is doping in Olympic sports like running?
“I think doping is extremely widespread. The thing that surprised me is how widespread and how uncontrolled it was in Kenya. For many young Kenyan athletes, the chance to run a road race to make a little money, a marathon to make a lot of money, it’s their only way out of poverty. If you think your chances to make some money will be improved by taking performance enhancing drugs then you’re more than likely to do it. The involvement over the last 20 years of European agents and European managers of African athletes has accentuated this.
There are a lot of times in the mid-90s that have been barely touched since then, and that was the beginning of the period where African athletes got involved with European managers and therefore, once you get to Europe, the access to a lot of these PEDs is a lot simpler. So I think doping is very widespread in a lot of these sports, I think it’s impossible to eradicate, what you’re trying to do is minimize it as much as possible. I feel bad for the athletes who truly are clean, and I presume there are some, because they’re trying to disprove a negative.”
On the shift in desire to be a host city
“Let’s go back to 1984 when Los Angeles wound up as the only legitimate bidder. Actually Tehran dropped out before the regime change. Therefore the international Olympic committee, which at that point didn’t have two nickels to rub together in their bank account, had to go along with what Los Angeles suggested, which was they weren’t going to sign a complete guarantee against any kind of cost overruns, and they had to live with Peter Ueberroth’s new idea for the Olympics basically funded by corporate sponsorship.
So, to my way of thinking, Los Angeles saved the Olympics. If that had not happened after you had the Munich massacre, you had the riots and the killings in Mexico City in ’68, you had the Montreal boycott by a lot of the African nations because of presence of New Zealand and the rugby tour, then in 1980 you had the U.S. boycott of the Moscow summer games. So the Olympics were on very shaky ground at that point.
Peter Ueberroth rescued them financially, and then all of a sudden cities started saying ‘we can not only not lose money on this, we can maybe make money on this’ so then the number of bidders got larger for the next several Olympic games…and that number kept going up until the last couple of Olympic cycles when for a variety of reasons cities started to get very leery of it and citizens in cities, most notably Boston and now Hamburg, started to get very leery of what the financial consequences would be for bidding for the Olympics.”