Examples of pulling rank play out at the Olympics

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Author Robert Fuller sees more ranking than rankism in the Beijing Olympics.

And that's a good thing, he says.

Rankism, the root of all discrimination and "isms" from sexism to racism to ageism, is "the abuse that happens when people in power -- high-rank holders -- use their rank to exploit, demean or gain unfair advantage over those of lower rank," said Dr. Fuller, a former Oberlin College president and co-author of "Dignity for All: How to Create a World Without Rankism," (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., $13.95 online.)

In examining the Olympics, he has found evidence of some rankism, but also many examples of people simply focusing on rank.

"The Olympics are a great festival of human beings seeking rank, and that's OK," he said. "We all seek high rank, and we rather enjoy watching other people seek gold medals, and we applaud the victor and feel sorry for the loser."

Problems arise when rank holders abuse their power.

Chinese officials who decided to use the angelic singing voice of one cute little snaggled-toothed girl but display the lip-syncing visage of another little girl deemed prettier was a misuse of rank.

In the realm of competition itself, rankism comes into play whenever someone -- athlete, judge or official -- tries to game the system.

"We're assuming these people aren't cheating and if any of them are, that's rankism -- that's the abuse of the process through which rank is earned legitimately," Dr. Fuller said.

The drug testing of athletes and the scoring system in some events, such as gymnastics and diving, which automatically excludes the highest and lowest scores, are examples of safeguards against rankism and cheating, he says.

Of course, not all safeguards are foolproof.

A controversy arose earlier this week when U.S. gymnast Nastia Liukin tied Chinese gymnast He Kexin in the individual uneven bars competition. Both athletes scored 16.725 on their routines, but when the tiebreaker was applied, Ms. He was awarded the gold medal and Ms. Liukin -- who averaged .033 more deductions than her competitor when their component scores were reviewed -- received the silver medal.

Although the tiebreaker was applied accurately, some felt the tiebreaker system was unfair and a double gold should have been awarded. Others believed a judge may have inappropriately given Ms. Liukin a lower score than her performance warranted.

North Korean shooter Kim Jong Su was stripped of two medals after testing positive for a banned substance. Vietnamese gymnast Thi Ngan Thuong Do, who did not win a medal, also failed a doping test. Both athletes had to relinquish their credentials and leave the Games.

Last week, U.S. tennis player James Blake accused Chilean tennis player Fernando Gonzalez of playing less than fair in their semifinal match, which decided who went on to the gold medal match.

Mr. Blake charged -- and television replays of the point proved and TV commentators observing the match agreed -- that a shot ruled out, giving a point to Mr. Gonzalez, actually struck Mr. Gonzalez's racket before landing out, in which case the point should have gone to Mr. Blake.

Mr. Blake was disappointed that his opponent didn't concede the point. Mr. Gonzalez, who said he didn't speak up because he wasn't sure whether the ball hit his racket, went on to win the match.

If any of the young women on the Chinese women's gymnastic team is proven to be under legal age for competition, that, too, would be cheating/rankism.

"There are other egregious forms of rankism, but we don't get to see that on our TV screen -- a few coaches really abusing their athletes," says Dr. Fuller, also the author of the 2003 book, "Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank." "It went on in East Germany. It went on famously in gymnastics, where young girls have their futures compromised, both nutritionally and otherwise, by brutal coaches."

The U.S. men's gymnastics team bronze medal was much heralded because the team wasn't expected to medal. However, the women's gymnastics team silver medal was somewhat lamented because the team was expected to win the gold.

America's winner-take-all and gold-or-nothing attitude is silly, Dr. Fuller says, and society should celebrate anyone who worked hard enough to win any medal and even just get to the Games.

Swedish wrestler Ara Abrahamian didn't adopt that outlook last weekend. During the medal ceremony, he was still so angry about an earlier penalty call that cost him the chance to move on to the gold medal match, that he removed the bronze medal from around his neck, dropped it on the wrestling mat in protest and walked away.

"I don't care about this medal. I wanted gold," he said, according to Reuters.

The IOC later disqualified him and stripped him of his bronze medal and Olympic credentials.

Swimmer Michael Phelps' truly phenomenal victories -- winning eight Olympic gold medals at the Beijing Games and bringing his career gold medal count to 14 -- have catapulted into the stratosphere his celebrity and ability to net lucrative international commercial endorsements.

However, rankism can spring from rank -- even rank gloriously and legitimately earned.

"Rankism happens when we over celebrate the victory and, having lionized the victor, then give that victor all sort of special privileges," he says. "It's we gullible people who think winner takes all means winner knows everything.

"Winner doesn't. Winner knows how to hit the baseball or knows how to swim. Winner doesn't know which car is better than another car."

In American society, we believe that if someone is good at one thing, they're good at everything, he said, and that's rankism.

Dr. Fuller would like to see a dignitarian society -- one based on dignity for all -- in which our country's democratic ideas are extended beyond government to businesses and other organizations.

"When you have a company where everybody feels dignified, they work harder, they get sick less often, they love the boss, they go the extra mile and they're a team," he says. "They know that everybody has equal dignity, from the CEO to the janitor, and all of them are invited to the Christmas party and everybody's contribution is acknowledged and essential."


L.A. Johnson can be reached at ljohnson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3903.


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