Starting Friday night, the world’s greatest athletes will parade through London’s Olympic Stadium. Dignitaries and heads of state will watch the pageantry. A torchbearer will carry the Olympic flame into London’s Olympic Stadium.
And I couldn’t care less.
Don’t get me wrong. While I’m not a sports fan, I’m not immune to its appeal. I catch a boxing match or UFC fight whenever I get a chance. Covering this year’s girls basketball championship was among my most enjoyable experiences at Patch. I love a thrilling, come-from-behind victory as much as the next guy.
But the Olympics just tries too damn hard.
Starting Saturday, networks are going to bombard viewers with saccharine stories about athletes and the games. Everyone from the International Olympic Committee to the local Wal-Mart hawking Team USA gear is going to tell you it’s about your country, international brotherhood and mankind.
I don’t buy it for a moment. Here’s why I hate the Olympics.
(Do you think I’m off base? Will you be watching the games? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.)
It has nothing to do with international brotherhood or world peace.
Think back to the greatest Olympic moments. There are moments of individual perfection. There are moments athletes found victory only after overcoming adversity.
But even though much is made of the Olympic truce, you won’t find many moments when sports brought countries together.
In NBC’s list of 30 greatest NBC Olympic moments, there’s not a single one. In Men’s Health’s list of 20, there are only one or two—depending on whether you consider Jesse Owens’ 1936 performance unifying or a prelude to the world war that kicked off three years later.
In fact, some of the most memorable events happened because of—not in spite of—international rivalries. Would the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” have the same resonance without Cold War tensions? Would the 1972 basketball controversy have the same heartache if the Soviet Union and the United States didn’t have nuclear missiles pointed at each other?
Even though the Cold War is over, seemingly every Olympics coughs up some sort of international incident—whether it’s Russian figure skating judges, Chinese gymnasts or even digitized fireworks for the opening ceremonies.
It misallocates resources.
The 2012 Olympics is expected to carry a $14.5 billion price tag, according to Vanity Fair.
Some of that will improve public infrastructure or lure investment into areas that would otherwise be ignored. But much of the money will go toward ephemeral purchases that will disappear once the Olympic flame leaves London—as Vanity Fair detailed:
Members of the Olympic Family must also have at their disposal at least 500 air-conditioned limousines with chauffeurs wearing uniforms and caps. London must set aside, and pay for, 40,000 hotel rooms, including 1,800 four- and five-star rooms for the I.O.C. and its associates, for the entire period of the Games.
Even the investments that are meant to last can be questionable. London spent $150 million on its new Velodrome, where cycling’s track events will take place. While the facility will be handed over to a regional park authority after the games, such specialized structures often have difficulty sustaining themselves.
The investment is especially dubious when weighed against what the host city could’ve accomplished by putting that money toward other uses. What benefits a city more in the long run — a Velodrome or $150 million more toward transportation?
Perhaps the clearest example of the games’ modest benefits—at best—come from presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who headed the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, which planned the 2002 Olympics. Unlike with his experience in the business world, Romney doesn’t claim to have created jobs or helped businesses.
Instead he makes the more-modest claim to have turned around a scandal-plagued, deficit-ridden organization—claims the Washington Post’s Fact Checker backed up last year:
We found no independent reports to verify the IOC’s claims, but we know that Salt Lake City and the state of Utah did not incur massive debt like other host sites such as Athens and Montreal. … Number crunchers can manipulate data to say just about anything, but it seems fairly certain that the SLOC at least broke even on the second-most-expensive Winter Olympics up to that point—the final budget was $1.3 billion.
That’s a far cry from an unmitigated triumph.
It happens too often.
Once upon a time, Olympics were cherished events that occurred once every four years. The very name Olympiad came to mean a four-year period.
Then in 1992, the International Olympic Committee decided to stagger the summer and winter games. While each one still took place every four years, this meant there was an Olympics happening in some form every other year.
The end result is an Olympics cycle that never really ends—and a major case of Olympics fatigue.
The events already have their own international championships.
Quick question: Who’s the better athlete, a sprinter who wins gold in the 2011 championships or someone who wins gold in the exact same race at this year’s Olympics?
The answer is ultimately determined by the time on the race clock—not whether the medal has a few rings on it.
There’s no mixed martial arts event.
The ancient Olympics eventually came to have about seven different events. The modern Olympics includes all but three of those—hoplite races, chariot racing and pankration.
Hoplite racing was a foot race done in full armor (Greek heavy infantry of the time were called hoplites). This and chariot racing aren’t present on any real scale anymore, so I’ll give the games a pass on those.
But pankration is a mix of striking and grappling found today in the somewhat less-brutal sport of mixed martial arts—a fast-growing industry that’s putting the heat on boxing, its combat sports rival.
If the International Olympic Committee is intent on promoting the modern games as the continuation of an ancient tradition—which they’re not—the least it could do is include the ancient event that, aside from boxing, has the most mainstream popularity in the modern world.
After all, when was the last time you saw a poster at your local watering hole advertising an international track-and-field event? I guarantee you there are posters for the next UFC fight at numerous sports bars around the Twin Cities.
It’s all about money.
Dig deep enough beneath the pageantry and symbolism, and you’ll find money greasing the games’ wheels. Pricy training centers give athletes from wealthy nations a sometimes-literal leg up on challengers from poorer countries. Costly research puts athletes in swimsuits like the now-banned Speedo LZR, which was responsible for about 100 new world records in its first year. Corporate sponsorships fund the games—with corporate sponsors Coca-Cola, Lloyds TSB and Samsung preceding the torchbearer on this year’s route to the opening ceremonies.
You gotta pay the money to play the game.
And I have no problem with that. It’s the pretense I don’t like. Say what you will about the Vikings stadium, at least supporters and opponents were upfront about where their priorities were.
When the Super Bowl finally visits Minneapolis, no one will pretend the players on the field are fostering brotherly love. No one will pretend Justin Bieber or whichever Auto-Tuned crooner takes the stage is creating world harmony.
It’s a straight-up financial transaction. We (or advertisers, at least) pay for an entertaining product. The NFL provides that product. Minnesota competes with other cities to host the event so local businesses get a cut of that action.
There’s purity in that commercial candor you won’t find in the Olympics’ smoke and mirrors.