The Olympics are coming. It’s a great event for media members to cover. One travels to an exotic location and encounters novel sports, nationalities, and stories. Charming travel anecdotes are solid B-plus conversation filler. The Olympics is more fun, edifying, and self-fulfilling than trying to make the played back coach/athlete speak mean something.
So, media members can, will, and should enjoy it and toot its horn. That should not occlude the fact the Olympics is a compendium of everything that is awful about sports.
Olympic sports can’t be taken seriously. Track and field has become a joke. The list of events, nations, and athletes compromised by doping is astounding. The entire Russian Track and Field team is banned. Tittering American fans can cheer on Justin Gatlin, twice banned for doping. “Clean” is managing your chemistry to come just under the arbitrary limits.
Anything we’ve never seen before in Olympic track and field should be treated with the utmost skepticism. So should many of the things we have.
The Winter Olympics’ major draw is figure skating, a sport where allegations of corruption, collusion, and biased judging are endemic. It’s near impossible to assess the sport without them, even with the Byzantine “objective” scoring procedure.
Stating the Olympics has tarnished a noble reputation would be false. It has never had one. The Olympics began to celebrate athletics. Athletics by white males. Athletics by white males with the leisure time to pursue elite athletics without getting paid for it. It still clings to convenient vestiges of this amateur ideal. (Thou shalt not tout personal brands on social media).
The Olympics does not unite nations in an apolitical sports wonderland. It pits them against one another. The most invested nations are the United States (pouring in money to affirm freedom, capitalism and national exceptionalism), China (pouring in money to affirm Communist Party leadership and national exceptionalism), and Russia (creating puppet theater to distract from the failings of corrupt autocracy).
Many meaningful, memorable Olympic moments were political proxy battles, such as the Miracle on Ice. The Olympics is the more wholesome version of hacking one another’s dirty laundry and leaking it to news agencies, allegedly.
The less popular Winter Olympics are giving us a preview of what the future may look like. Russia hosted the 2014 Games in snowless Sochi, as billions upon billions disappeared. There were two bidders for 2022, an unwieldy Beijing bid and Almaty, Kazakhstan.
As Democracies discredit spending billions on redundant athletics infrastructure, hosting the Olympics may become the sole province of Russia, China, and arriviste, resource-rich Central Asian countries with questionable human rights practices.
Besides the political posturing, the Olympics’ other raison d’etre is TV money, much of it American. NBC’s bloated deals alone have been providing more than half the broadcasting revenue for the IOC and a substantial portion of the overall revenue.
Games in Rio will proceed as scheduled, despite incomplete infrastructure, environmental hazards, a tottering domestic political and economic climate, and the risk of exacerbating a major global health pandemic because of…television companies losing hundreds of millions (and millions corporate sponsors have invested).
This isn’t the World Cup, where the sporting competition transcend’s FIFA’s awfulness. Olympics sports aren’t compelling viewing. NBC shows mere snippets of events between endless curated treacle for a reason. Most are brutal to watch in real time. They can’t be packaged into reasonable live television. They are sports few people care about. Spare us your ironic curling fandom every four years.
Competitions in sports people do like are trivial and not very important. Olympic soccer? Irrelevant. It’s trumped by the World Cup and pretty much anything else. Olympic basketball? Seldom interesting, unless the American team is a disaster. Golf and Tennis are sideshows. Olympic hockey, perhaps the best of the bunch, is about to be trumped by the World Cup of Hockey.
Professional sports have benefitted from Olympic exposure, notably the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics. But, now, including professional sports is far more about drawing (or guilt-tripping) professional stars to participate in the Games.
The Olympics has saddled its “brand” to X-games events such as BMX and snowboarding to “attract the youth.” The Olympics has included beach volleyball to reel in the middle aged male demographic attracted by the purity of competition between pairs of toned, scantily clad butts (only about 50 percent of NBC’s live programming). We expect by the 2020s we’ll be hailing Vitamin D-deficient gold medalists in League of Legends and Dota.
The Olympics can suck you in with its charms. We’ll doubtless be found rooting on Michael Phelps and his genetic lottery-winning body dimensions on an oppressive summer afternoon. We’ll titter over missing toilet seats and tales of prolific debauchery from the Olympic Village. But, the promotion and relentless schmaltz onslaught can’t cover the pox and sores.
Sold as sports at its best, the Olympics is, quite often, sports at its worst.