Maybe It’s Time To Consider Ending The Olympics Period.
It hasn’t exactly been a banner Olympics for 2022. Overall ratings have been down by nearly half since 2018. There was controversy in the weeks leading up to them, from the conditions in Beijing, to the idea of hosting them during a pandemic, to all of the concerns about human rights that the IOC paid lip service too but did nothing about. There have been at least half a dozen medals retracted because of doping scandals. The biggest controversy of all involved the Russian figure skating team. Most prominent among them was Kamila Valieva who tested positive for a performance enhancing drug but was allowed to perform anyway, much to the criticism of the entire world media and indeed the commentators. When her solo performance finally occurred Thursday and she performed miserably, the world watched in disgust and horror as her coach ignored her viewed with even more hostility as the eventual gold and silver medalists ignored her later. All in all, there has been precious little joy and almost no brotherhood in Beijing this winter.
With each successive Games, the Olympics seem to becoming more and more a ritual that fewer and fewer countries want to host. Ever since the games in Athens ended up help devastate the already fragile Greek economy in 2004, the Olympics have become more and more hosted by countries that are bordering on totalitarian states. This is unlikely to change as many European countries are actually putting on their ballot referendums that they will never host the Olympics again. And those that do, one wonders about their motivation. When Tokyo ended up hosted the Olympics in 2020, it was meant to serve as a celebration of a country that had recovered from the horrors of Fukishima Province in 2011. But as Real Sports on HBO reported, many of the locations for arenas had levels of radiation that were still fairly dangerous, facts the Japanese government denied robustly and that the IOC ignored. (Admittedly, they would soon have far greater concerns to handle.)
Recently on Politico I read an article about the nature of the IOC Boards makeup and that it was beginning to resemble something of a fascist state itself, which is why it was seen as being a straw man for the continued human rights violations in China and refusing to crack down seriously on Russia’s repeated violations of the anti-doping laws. In my opinion, this is giving the Olympics far too much credit as an organization to begin with. It makes the broad assumption that the IOC has ever cared about human rights, sportsmanship or even the well-being of its own athletes, in or outside the Games.
This has been clear very close to the start of the modern Olympics. It’s become a part of pop culture as much as athletic culture the incredible blunder holding the Summer Olympics in Hitler’s Germany in 1936. It basically gave the Third Reich an audience before the whole world of the Nazi regime. And as much as the Olympics no doubt try to focus on Jesse Owens’ triumphs in track and field, it did nothing more for civil rights in 1930s America than Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar win for Gone with the Wind did. I hardly blame Muhammad Ali for throwing the gold medal he won for boxing in 1960 in Lake Michigan; it’s not like it made him viewed any less of a threat in the South.
I’m honestly not sure whether I find holding the Olympics in Berlin less offensive than what happened in Munich in 1972. We’ve all seen Spielberg’s film about the hostage situation involved the Israeli team; we’ve all seen the footage of Jim McKay saying: “They’re all dead.” What is generally forgotten is that the IOC did suspend competition during the hostage situation — for a few hours. Then they went back to the games while athletes they’d invited were being murdered just a few blocks away. Their attitude was basically: “Yes, people are dying but we rented the space. We can’t not use it.”
I think that attitude basically sums up how the IOC views the athletes that participate in their games every four years. They don’t view them as a commodity, as most professional sports do. As any professional sports fan knows, football and baseball players have value. Is it outrageous that they are traded like they are little more than memorabilia? Sort of. But as we all know, these athletes are very well compensated for their troubles.
Olympic athletes have it much worse. They spend their lives training and focusing their attention on their craft to the omission of all else. It is bad enough that, for many of them, the sports they compete in are viewed as punch lines and trivia questions at best by much of the rest of the world, certainly here in the U.S. Seriously, how much money does a professional curling team or pole vaulter make? You show up for two weeks every four years, you’re given a few minutes of attention on television and then you’re done. If you’re lucky — extremely lucky — you might get a parade in your hometown and your face on a box of cereal. Maybe Jimmy Fallon or Stephen Colbert will interview you. Then you’re done. And the IOC really doesn’t have much use for you until the next Olympics. There’s no pension, no speaking tour, no compensation. And usually by the next Olympics, there’s someone younger to take your place. That’s if you’re an American. In some other countries, like Russia, you’re disposed of (figuratively) for the next athlete in the next games. All of this, of course, only happens if you medal. If you don’t finish on the podium, nobody has any time for you.
I think the key to how the Olympics view its athletes is what they focus all their energy on: athletes marching in the opening ceremony, waving to the crowd like beauty pageant contestants (another anachronistic ritual that needs to be disposed of). Your job if you’re an athlete is to smile and wave in the opening, and stand silently on the podium when your national anthem is played during the medal ceremony. You are not to speak about social issues or the fact that your competitors are using performance enhancing drugs or that its unfair one of your fellow athletes was banned for smoking marijuana or how you feel about playing in a country that oppresses its people or for a country that oppresses your people or really anything except being proud to be an athlete. You step out of line; they have no problem cutting you dead. A recent documentary about how Tommie Smith and Carlos Leon, American medalists in 1968 who wore black gloves and did a Black Power salute, shows just how devastating the consequences can be. (I think it worth noting that this is not strictly an African-American or even an American problem. Australian sprinter Peter Norman, who won the silver in their event, also protested by wearing a badge from the Olympic Project for Human Rights on the dais. It wasn’t noted by the rest of viewing audience, but the IOC noticed and, like Smith and Leon, Norman was blackballed from future games and was ostracized by his fellow athletes and his home country for the rest of his life.)
So the Olympics are not about sportsmanship, the athletes that compete in it, or even the sports. What are they about? What every athletic organization is about: money. This should, of course, come as a shock to no one. Why did the IOC change its format from so they’d have a game every two years instead of two games every four years? Why did they allow themselves to go through such an outrageous process called the Triplecast in the 1992 Seoul Games, in those days before hundreds of cable channels? It is about money. The major difference between this and every other professional sports organization is that in almost all of them, the athletes get a decent cut. (We’ll set aside college sports because that’s a whole other headache.) The Olympics are all about the amateur spirit — in you know the sense of not getting paid; since 1988 professional athletes have been competing at every level.
It’s about money and messaging, even if they never work out like the campaign plans. In the lead up to the Summer Olympics of 1992, the airwaves were deluged by ads for Nike involving two track athletes known simply as Dan and Dave. We didn’t even know what events they were competing or even that neither had even qualified yet for the Olympics. All that mattered was that they were white, male and photogenic. The fact that at Seoul Dan just bronzed and Dave didn’t even qualify was irrelevant. They’d made their money for Nike; just the same way Bo Jackson did for accomplishing even less at two professional sports.
That’s what America regards athletes as: entertainers. The fact that they’ve trained their entire lives for a few seconds of glory doesn’t matter to us. I almost wish the IOC would regard athletes as entertainers, but as I said, they regard them more beauty contestants than anything else. Is it any wonder that so many Olympics after the games end up dealing with substance abuse, mental health issues, and even kill themselves? (Michael Phelps HBO Documentary The Weight of Gold really explains the price of being an Olympic athlete.)
Several years ago I read an article that once suggested the Academy Awards had a real possibility of going the way of the Miss America Pageant, being regarded to the backlog of basic cable rather than a major prime time network ratings grabber. I still don’t believe the Oscars will ever drop to that level but with each subsequent Olympics I find it more and more likely it may happen for the games. For all the effort NBC tries to push into its narrative every two years, like almost every other major sporting events ratings have been dropping steadily over the last decade. And the American sporting events carry far less baggage than the Olympics seem to getting every year on almost every front, political, commercial and social. The fact that the athletics themselves become increasingly controversial is practically a non-factor; the viewer accepts it almost as a given.
Indeed, I think there is a high degree of likelihood that within my lifetime, the Olympics may cease to exist. The writing seems to be on the wall considering the lack of countries even willing to bid for the games for 2028. I imagine this will be a hard blow for the hundreds of thousands of young athletes out there who spend their lives training for the possibility to stand at a podium and receive a medal. But the more and more we learn about the huge costs that this takes on athletes across the globe, the way so many of their countries view them as commodities, the way America barely gives them a minute of notice if they medal and no attention if they don’t, part of me just can’t help but think maybe that it would be better for humanity in a way the Olympics have said they are but never really have stood for.