Next week, on August 5, begins the Games of the XXXI Olympiad, more popularly known as the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. With everything else going on this summer, especially political events, it seems that the Olympics have barely made a ripple in the roiling waters of public consciousness. I wouldn’t really call myself a big sports fan, but I do have a lot of fond memories of the Olympics past, especially from my childhood and adolescence, and I have to tell you that it’s disappointing to me that I have absolutely no interest in watching or even following the results of the 2016 Olympics. Oh sure, I hope my country wins some medals, and I wish the best to the individual athletes who have trained so hard for this moment and will ultimately do their best. For them, the Olympics may well be the peak of their lives. I don’t begrudge anyone that experience. But I think the Olympics have gone terribly wrong in the past few decades, and I thought it was worth a blog post to examine perhaps why this happened.
I used to love the Olympics. They were a huge tradition in my family and some of my happiest childhood memories center around them. In my house, my mother and sister were particular fans of winter sports like ice skating, luge and bobsled, and it was always an event when the Winter Olympics were broadcast. I remember the incredible feeling of patriotism and pride when the U.S. national hockey team won the 1980 Olympic gold, the famed “Miracle on Ice” about which films have been made and books written. I was a huge fan of figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, who won a gold medal in 1992 in a stand-out performance. As for summer games, I remember the exciting track and field events of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and I followed the 1992 Barcelona games as well. But after that the Olympics sort of fade from my memory and history. All I recall about 1996 was the terrible bombing in Atlanta and the media frenzy following it. I didn’t watch any Olympics after that, except the London (2012) opening ceremonies on YouTube. I cannot name an Olympic athlete, without looking it up, who has competed at the summer games since the turn of this century, and the only winter athlete whose name I know is Shaun White because I follow him on Twitter.
This is the kind of Olympics I remember. Highlights from the 1984 Los Angeles summer games.
What happened to the Olympics? Simply put, I think greed destroyed them. My understanding of the modern Olympics, meaning the ones held since the 1896 games in Athens, is that they were intended to be a forum where nations can compete peacefully and in friendship, stressing the commonalities and links that we all have together, as a counterpoint to the stresses and divisions between nations and peoples that so frequently fill the news the rest of the time. Indeed that’s what I liked about the Olympics. It wasn’t even so much rooting for my own country. In 1988 of course there was the Jamaican bobsledding team that everyone wanted to do well; in 1992 I vaguely recall following a Spanish or Italian archer because he was cute. Following the Olympics, the real-world stakes are low but the payoff is big. If your favorite athlete or your country loses, oh well, it’s not really that big a deal; but if they win, especially against impossible odds, you can feel like you just won the lottery. The Olympics seem very pure to me, very innocent. That’s all gone now.
For one thing, due to the avarice of media companies, it’s much more difficult to actually see the Olympics than it used to be. Back in the ’80s you could switch on the TV, usually NBC, any time while they were on and see something interesting. It was wall-to-wall coverage. In the ’90s I remember being annoyed at having to plan ahead to watch specific events because broadcast coverage was shrinking. After everybody got cable and video streaming in the past few decades, it’s even harder to see anything at all. NBC coughed up a staggering $4.38 billion to the International Olympic Committee to broadcast all Olympics, exclusively, through 2020; NBC was acquired by Comcast in 2011 even further restricting the rights, all in a grab for “exclusivity.” They probably thought it was a big coup to make this deal but it wasn’t. NBC lost over $200 million on the 2010 Winter Olympics alone. Simply put, not enough people are watching anymore to justify these vast sums. How much advertising do you have to sell to make a $4.38 billion investment pay off?
Another great Olympic moment I remember: USA’s basketball “Dream Team” at Barcelona in 1992.
For another, the countries that host the Olympics seem a lot more interested in the money they think they can make–or the political points they can score–than the prestige. The dreadful 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia were the prime example of this. Putin essentially used the Olympics as a vehicle for high-stakes graft, fleecing everybody in sight with overfunded contracts, broadcast-rights swindles and all other sorts of chicanery. The 2008 Beijing Olympics were preceded by a wave of authoritarian “urban renewal,” blitzing communities and hastily building sports venues to attract investors, TV cameras and tourists more than athletes and spectators. All countries and cities that have hosted the Olympics have had a difficult relationship with them: they usually have to build lots of expensive infrastructure, like ski runs and stadiums, that are of limited utility after the Olympics are over. But lately this seems to have gotten even worse.
And finally there are the scandals. Back in the ’80s it was something of an open secret that the Eastern Bloc teams were usually on steroids; the Communists didn’t care much about fair play, but at least there was the perception that Western athletes were above that. Track star Ben Johnson, who won a gold in Seoul for Canada in 1988 but was later found to have used doping, was at least my loss of innocence in this regard. Now it seems just about every Olympics is followed by one scandal or another involving drugs, doping or some other dishonesty, to the point where no one pays much attention. You can’t trust any world’s records anymore because you’re never sure whether they were achieved fairly. Surely the majority of athletes are clean and honest, but the ones who aren’t spoil it for everyone.
Whitney Houston recorded her iconic song “One Moment in Time” for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. It was one of her all-time best songs and captured the Olympic spirit…as it was then.
I’ve heard very little good about the upcoming 2016 Olympics in Rio. The harsh tactics of Rio’s police, the threat of diseases like Zika, and ever-present threats of terrorism or political disruption seem to dominate coverage of the games. I even read last week that one media company is being a bit overzealous in enforcing their exclusivity, threatening to sue anyone who talks about the Olympics without their approval! (So this very blog may trigger a lawsuit). All added up, this negativity renders the Olympics more trouble than they’re worth for me.
It’s not supposed to be this way, at least I don’t think it should be. I have no idea how to “fix” the Olympics, though I would suggest that ending the practice of exclusive broadcast rights is a start. I’d love to be able to enjoy the games again, but these days the eternal flame of greed seems to shine brighter than the Olympic torch. I hope that changes in years to come.