Did you skip most of the Olympic games over the last two weeks? Or were you even aware the games were taking place?
The Olympics are in trouble. The decline in interest in the Tokyo games can be explained by the one-year delay in the games because of the pandemic, but is more involved? Are the Olympics too expensive to hold? In a world moving away from nationalism, are they an anachronism? Can the games still be described as “a gathering of the world’s athletes?”
Is it time to rethink the Olympics to save them?
This year’s Olympics proved to be a financial disaster for Japan, the holder of the Olympic broadcast rights, NBC, and others. Japan spent $28 billion to host the games. First, the games were delayed a year. Then, because of the delta variant, fans were banned from attending events. Competitions were held in empty arenas. The final tally of financial losses is now being calculated and is likely to exceed $10 billion.
Japan, of course, is not the first country to suffer massive economic losses from hosting these games. The problem is that the venues and housing for athletes are outrageously expensive. Venues have to be constructed for sports with no following in the host country. Other venues are close to impossible to “repurpose” after the games are over.
One “solution” that Japan and other recent hosts adopted is to create “temporary venues,” meaning that after the games (and after the Paralympic Games, which begin August 24), these venues will be torn down. Other venues are likely to become white elephants, much like the “bird’s nest” constructed for the Beijing games a few years back. Since the 2008 games, the venue has been largely unused. It costs $9 million annually to maintain. What a waste!
It would be nice if the only thing wrong with the games was the cost of holding them. That’s not the primary problem. The cost issue could be addressed through a variety of means, including, as some have suggested, by choosing a permanent site for the Olympics. Athens is most often mentioned.
But what about nationalism? Isn’t it great that the U.S. whipped China’s behind and won 25 more medals than the Reds did? And doesn’t our “winning” the games prove that the U.S. is the greatest nation on earth?
Sentiments such as these are nonsense. Did anyone expect the U.S. not to “win” the games? The U.S. sends more well-trained and supported athletes to the Olympics than any other country. The U.S. also participates in dozens of sports where there is little or no competition.
From some perspectives, you might say that the U.S. is cheating. America loves the Olympic Games because they usually “win” them. Our only real competition is China and Russia, a country that got itself banned because of state-sponsored use of performance-enhancing drugs but nonetheless came in third in this year’s games as it participated as the “Russian Olympic Committee.”
Somewhere along the line, common sense and the “Olympic Spirit” parted company. The games still are about celebrating the achievements of individual athletes, but that is secondary to the competition among nations. That’s why the opening ceremony features the “parade of nations” and why winners are honored by having their national anthems played when they receive their medals.
The “wins” at the Olympics, if you tell the truth, are not true victories. Almost all potential competition from other countries doesn’t show up. Support for training is next to nonexistent in most countries. These countries are more focused on getting people fed, fighting disease, and a lot of other things. If there are potential Olympic champions living there, they never have a chance to compete.
If even a fraction of the potentially gifted athletes in these countries received the same training and support of athletes in the U.S., China, Russia, and a few other places, the list of winners would be much more diverse. Champions would be truer Olympic champions.
These are just a few of the most serious problems with the Olympics. There are others.
More than a few pundits have been thinking about how to reform the Olympics. I have not reviewed all suggestions, but here are a few of my ideas, prompted by this year’s Olympic disaster. I readily acknowledge that some of them are not original and that some of them would and perhaps should be condemned in some quarters as “destroying” the Olympics as we know them today.
The goal of reform should be to revive the true Olympic spirit by making the games a true competition among athletes rather than nations and making the games truly global by enabling as many athletes as possible from all nations to participate.
First, unless the games are played at a single permanent site (or two single permanent sites–one for the summer games and the other for the winter games), the games themselves should be awarded to between four and eight nations. This would allow smaller countries to be awarded competitions and share in the games’ economic benefits.
What if an African country could be awarded boxing, martial arts, weightlifting, and a few other sports while an Asian country was awarded tennis and gymnastics, and a European country was awarded golf, track and field, and a few others? You get the idea — bring the thrill of the games to locations that will never get to host under the current system.
Second, radically revise the Olympic business model. NBC paid $12 billion for the rights to broadcast the Olympics through 2032. Where does that money go? The International Olympic Committee says 90 percent of its revenues are spent on “promoting sports,” but that includes staging the over-produced summer and winter games. A full 10 percent of the revenues, over $100 million dollars, goes to support the Committee’s activities.
What if there were a requirement to use most of the money to support athletes more directly –radically increasing funding for the development of sports programs in countries where support is nonexistent or inadequately supported? If this happened, you would likely see fiercer competition in many sports in as few as four years.
Third, start celebrating athletes rather than supporting nationalism. Do away with the antiquated emphasis on nations and replace it with the concept of a world at peace where athletes compete to be the world’s best. Obviously, U.S. fans would still follow U.S. athletes, but enthusiasm for athletic excellence would increase over time. Americans would feel comfortable celebrating the victory of a Japanese athlete because their focus would be on performance, rather than country.
Fourth, rethink the proliferation of sports. Did I really see a rock wall climbing contest this year? Do surfing, air pistol shooting, and “BMX freestyle” belong in the same Olympic games as track and field? In my mind, the answer is no. Why not eliminate some of these sports? That would make it less costly to stage the games, make it easier for athletes from all countries to become more competitive, and save some of us time in front of the TV.
Those are just a few ideas. To be considered properly, any proposal for major changes to the Olympics requires careful study. Would financial support for less nationalistic Olympics decline? Is the establishment of quality sports training programs in “underserved” countries possible? And, most importantly, is the world ready to start thinking globally?
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, birds, and occasionally goldendoodles