Down With Critics of the Olympics

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Beijing or Bust

by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken

Hating the Olympics has become something of a favorite pastime among writers wishing to prove their enlightened sensibilities. It has become akin to hating urban sprawl, Starbucks, and Wal-Mart. The different complaints are numerous: The Olympics are too commercial. The Olympics are too political. The Olympics are too undemocratic and thus should be made more political. The Olympics are too nationalistic.

Such scorn has been heaped on the Olympic movement for years, and this year’s winter games managed to attract special ire from the pundits since the winter games, in addition to not being political or commercial in the proper dosage, are also too elitist.

Consider comments recently made by Paul Maidment at Forbes:

As it is the Winter Olympics don’t represent the true Olympic philosophy of promoting global friendship through sport. They are dominated — the infamous Jamaican Bobsled team notwithstanding — by the hegemony of the cold climate cartel. Maybe global warming will thin its ranks to the point where there aren’t enough nations to make it worth holding the winter games. We can only hope.

So there you have it, the Winter Games are too European, or if you prefer, too "white."

Reihan Salam takes this argument to the logical next step by proclaiming that the Winter Games are inherently racist and he presents "the racial case against the Winter Olympics" which consists primarily of pointing out that the "multi-culti Summer Games" are superior to the "lily-white Winter Olympics." Salam, of course, is taking a cue from Paul Farhi who penned an article called "Where the Rich and Elite Meet to Compete" in response to the fact that the winter sports tend to feature expensive equipment, and thus, are guilty of the unforgivable sin of being accessible to the more well-to-do nations of the world.

Over on the right wing, Diana Moon, in the American Conservative, has denounced the Winter Games for being proletarian, and is horrified by the "crudeness, vulgar nativism [as opposed to classy nativism, I suppose], and callowness" that has wrecked the games. They have done away with the good ol’ days when athletes (who weren’t uppity like the athletes of today), were appropriately mindful of their station in life and also "combined the excitement of watching a great sporting event with going to an art-house cinema."

While the accusations of elitism won’t be quite as prevalent for the "multi-culti" summer games that will take place in Beijing in 2008, Moon’s distaste for the Olympics will still be around as will be the myriad of Leftist ideologues who would like to see the International Olympic Committee go down in flames for being insufficiently democratic, too capitalist, and just plain no good.

At the heart of this discontent is the fact that the IOC is a private organization. It makes decisions undemocratically, and it depends on marketing itself to as broad an audience as possible through television coverage, sponsorships, and lots of advertising. Naturally, the Left hates that it’s a capitalist venture, and the right hates that it caters to the hoi polloi, but in the end, the Olympic games are the most popular and most prestigious sports festivals in the world, and have remained so through decades of careful planning and marketing.

It is true that public interest in the games has waned in recent years, and that corruption, declining television ratings, and poor planning have plagued recent games. But such problems are certainly not the result of the Olympics being too commercial or too anything else. Indeed, the problem with the Olympic Games is that they are not nearly commercial enough.

Covering costs has always been a big concern for the IOC. Since the first Olympic games in Athens in 1896, the Olympics has struggled to come up with all the capital, personnel, and advertising necessary to make the games a success. Throughout the 20th century, advertising has regularly provided a healthy piece of the funding, but the need for capitalist-provided funds has conflicted with what some in the movement have defined as a kind of purity of sport that allegedly can’t survive the crassness of capitalist consumption.

For example, prior to the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, promoters looked forward to emphasizing the fact that TV coverage would make corporate ads in the sports facilities themselves visible to viewers on screen as they watched the athletes compete. Unfortunately, the Torino committee ultimately decided to ensure that no ads within the arenas and tracks were visible to viewers, supposedly to combat the image of being too commercialized. Naturally, opportunities for millions in revenue were lost out of a desire to keep viewers from being scandalized by a Coca-Cola logo next to an ice rink.

This impulse to pretend that the Olympics should be something other than a sports festival paid for by advertisers and paying ticket holders has been around since Pierre De Coubertin first conceived of the games as an engine of world peace. In practice, however, the Olympics have always been a product of 19th century bourgeois Europe, the first age of mass consumption, and the first time in human history when the majority of human beings actually had enough leisure time to engage in regular competitions of sport.

The Olympics would be impossible without the Industrial Revolution and without mass consumption. In the pre-industrial age, mankind lived in the grip of perennial grinding poverty and in fear of the general famines that swept the land every several years. Workers — mostly agricultural — would toil 16 hours a day six or seven days a week to stave off hunger. For 99% or humanity, there was no chance for a weekend at the beach or walks through the countryside, or taking part in sports competitions. Large scale organized games were the realm of extremely wealthy people who engaged in war games like jousting for the amusement of other extremely wealthy people.

By the 19th century, all that had changed, and workers began to spend their newly attained free time engaging in organized sports and competing against teams from other cities and towns. Others began to watch such competitions as a form of leisure, and a sports competition might accompany a day at the city park or an afternoon by the sea side.

Mass production, advertising, and entertainment for the masses were the order of the day, and for the first time, life could be more than endless hours of work occasionally punctuated by religious services, illness, and death.

Drawing on this new interest in sports, and concluding that proper physical education might be good for his fellow Frenchmen and even somehow help to avoid future wars, Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee and the first games were held in Athens with a mere 250 Athletes.

Athletes from 13 countries participated, but the Olympics were not organized as a competition among nations. This is worth noting since the complaint that the games promote nationalism has been proffered for a long time. There is no doubt that nationalism regularly accompanies the Olympic games, but little of the blame for this can really be placed at the feet of the IOC. As the Olympics were designed to feature athletes and not nations, at early Olympic games, the athletes wore the uniforms of their private sports clubs. Then as now, medals were given to individuals and not to national teams. The national "medal counts" have always been a creature of journalists and politicians and have never been officially counted by the IOC.

Yet, from the beginning, politics has been marring the Olympics and the IOC. During the planning stages of the 1900 Olympics in Paris, the French government wrested control from Coubertin and incompetently staged the games during the World Exhibition. The 1908 games in London were boycotted by Irish athletes over British repression of the Irish independence movement. Teams, which were becoming more "national" as time went on, leveled charges of cheating at each other. Things would only get worse with various boycotts for a variety of grievances being enacted against the Olympics over the decades. The Nazis used the Olympics in 1936 to showcase the supposed genetic superiority of the Germans, and the Germans did indeed win the most medals that year, pleasing Hitler.

Perhaps the low point for the Olympics came in 1980 when the United States government, at the urging of Jimmy Carter, led the largest-ever boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow in retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While boycotts prior to that time often were voluntary on the part of athletes, the United States made it known that any American athlete who attempted to compete in the games would have his or her passport revoked. Carter encouraged other governments to enact similar policies, and in 1984, the Soviet Union reciprocated, boycotting the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Thus, athletes wishing to merely take part in athletic competition found themselves to be pawns in a petty game of international rivalry.

Even without international intrigue, though, a particularly unfortunate aspect of the Olympics has been the tendency for governments to subsidize the games — at the taxpayer’s expense, of course — as a prestige project or as a misguided attempt at economic development. As Jesse Walker has shown, local governments pour endless streams of cash into building vast complexes of sports facilities. Potential host cities wine and dine members of the IOC selection committee in an effort to secure the right to host the Olympics. This has taken its toll on the image of the Olympics over the years as corruption has been uncovered and as the vast sums of money used to build Olympic stadiums and Olympic ice rinks seem progressively more excessive. This alliance between government and the IOC has rightly done much to convince many observers of the games that the IOC is at heart corrupt and interested in extracting as many resources as possible from the people of potential host cities around the world.

For the sake of both the games and the hapless taxpayers who must supply the funds for the construction of such utterly unnecessary facilities, the IOC should abandon its cozy relationships with governments, and adopt policies that encourage the use of existing sports facilities, much like the World Games already does, and should refuse to accept any taxpayer funding whatsoever.

To make up for the lost revenue, the Olympic games should become as crassly capitalistic as possible, plastering every square inch of the athlete’s uniforms, the equipment, and the facilities with advertisements. We should know exactly which faceless multi-national corporation is sponsoring the uneven bars at every gymnastics competition, and we should know just by looking at him that Athlete X is sponsored in part by Merrill Lynch.

The idea that athletics could somehow be divorced from the private concerns that finance it has always been an awful idea. Athletes and ideologues alike complain that athletics shouldn’t be tainted by the vileness of commerce. Yes, well, my life shouldn’t be tainted by the need to go to work five days a week, but that’s just not the way the cosmos works. We should never forget that large-scale sporting events for common people are made possible in the first place by modern capitalism, so if athletes would like to see the Olympic movement get back to its roots, they should be rooting for the Olympics to become all the more capitalist, bourgeois, and supported in full by the vile refuse of capitalist production and consumption.

In China, the orgy of commerce has already begun. In preparation for 2008, many of the usual global corporate players are lining up for big advertising and sponsorship campaigns during the games, but numerous local, private Chinese firms are looking to take advantage of the global audience as well. Heng Yuan Xiang, a woolen clothes producer, has signed up as a sponsor as has Tsingtao beer, both hoping to raise their international profiles to perhaps approach levels enjoyed by established sponsors like Coca-Cola. Chinese businessmen see dollar signs. That’s good for China, it’s good for the Olympics, and it’s good for the world.

The Olympics has never managed to produce world peace or "social justice," but it has managed to consistently provide one of the most interesting sporting events in the world for over a century. The pundits can complain of elitism or lack of democracy, or of unsophisticated athletes, but ultimately, the Olympics will be judged by those who pay the bills, and if the Olympic games keep delivering the drama as they have been doing for decades, we can only hope that the games will be around for a very long time.

Thanks to Tim Gillin.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.

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