by Bob Barr
The “modern” Olympic Games are no longer “Olympic.” They have, in recent decades, become as much about politics and money as about individual athletic excellence. It is time to either change them dramatically or just end them altogether.
The 1968 “Black Power” fists by two American athletes as they stood on the dais while our national anthem was played, opened to door to use of the Olympic venue for making controversial political statements. The door was thrown wide open a dozen years later when, in 1980, the United States led a 66-nation boycott of the Summer Games because the Carter Administration was upset with the Soviet Union’s military incursions in Afghanistan. (The predecessor 1976 games suffered a smaller, but still significant, boycott for other, unrelated political reasons.)
It’s been largely downhill since then.
Perhaps it should not be shocking that the Olympics have gone the way of sports generally. The same alliance of money and politics that has made U.S. professional sports increasingly difficult to watch, is endemic to the games and its governing body, the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Television revenue is the fuel for modern Olympics, just as steroid abuse appears to fuel the bodies of many of its athletes.
The few weeks of each summer or winter competition have become so jam-packed with events as to make it nearly impossible to focus on the traditional “Olympic” events on which the Games historically were based. Regularly adding events like skateboarding may bring in a few younger viewers, but at the cost of further diluting the lasting significance of the Games.
The packed schedule makes coverage of events akin to riding in bumper cars, lurching from one stage to the next before the viewer knows what is taking place in the actual arena.
There is barely an effort made by U.S. networks to cover teams from other countries, which used to be one of the more interesting aspects of tuning in to the coverage. Were the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” hockey match between the underdog Americans and the highly favored Soviet team played today, it would likely be shown only as highlights cut-in to live coverage of the snowboard “half pipe.”
Outside of the arena, it is far worse. Countries already struggling economically are routinely scammed into picking up the tab for hosting the Olympics, with promises of tourism and long-term financial return that rarely, if ever materialize. And, when the games predictably come to illiberal countries like Russia and China, the latter of which is hosting this year’s Winter Games, the Olympics serve primarily as an open mic for their state propaganda.
For the sake of the future of the Games and the athletes, it is time to take the “games” out of the Olympics with a complete overhaul.
A good start would be to make Greece and Switzerland the permanent homes for the Summer and Winter Games, respectively. All participating nations would cover the costs of maintaining permanent facilities, and thereby remove much of the financial burden nations now assume in building new facilities every two years. An added bonus is that removing the “selection” process from the Games will knock the IOC’s ego down a few pegs.
Were Greece and Switzerland to agree to such an endeavor, it would remove much of the political gamesmanship that now so deeply permeates the Games. Moreover, both countries are, in general, liberal societies without track records of human rights abuse, civil liberties violations, and anti-Western governments – factors that have become recurring excuses for athletes and participating nations to further politicize the Games.
Significantly paring-back the number of competitions to those involving true athletic ability as opposed to the latest “athletic” fad, and requiring that athletes be allowed to compete only with others of their same “birth sex,” needs also to be part of these reforms.
If the IOC and its top supporting nations do not soon take corrective action in saving the games from being swallowed up by the same forces that have poisoned professional sports generally, the Olympics risk becoming just another narcissistic, over-commercialized and over-politicized event easy to ignore, on par with the NFL or the Oscars.