I always love seeing the variety of vehemence in that eternal argument about which Olympic sports should be axed -- and whether the Games themselves should be axed, and why. I tip my hat to Ryan Quinn for leading off the current round of screaming and yelling about this. But in my opinion it's an academic argument. As the then IOC president said in an interview just before the Sydney 2000 games, "To accept new sports is very easy, but to get rid of sports is quite impossible." Anybody who wants to see their least favorite sports disappear will have to assemble a lobby that is more powerful than the lobby that put the sport on the IOC program in the first place. So good luck.
To get on the IOC program, a sport has to demonstrate popularity in a minimum number of countries around the world. It also has to fit handily into programming. Though cricket is fiercely popular in 16 countries, it was slow making the Olympic grade because of the lengthy traditional match format. So in recent years the sport has come up with Twenty20, a streamlined form of cricket that is now bidding for Olympic acceptance. Many Americans think cricket is the silliest sport on earth...but its diehard fans around the globe will be glued to the TV to watch Olympic cricket matches.
A different case was women's marathoning, which had a meteoric rise to IOC acceptance. It didn't even exist as a sport till the 1960s, but exploded into such international popularity by the late 1970s, that it was accepted by the IOC for 1984. Today the media have even figured out how to package a 2-hour-plus marathon race, how to dramatize and interpret it to TV viewers. NBC did a brilliant job with the women's marathon yesterday.
All the points made in this Outsports debate are well-taken. But history and human nature being what they are, the whole idea of international games isn't going away anytime soon. Whether in the ancient Mediterranean world, or the Middle Ages when kingdoms got together to bust each other's butts at jousting tournaments, many people have never been able to resist the idea of countries and cultures and religions going head to head in sports. And I don't care what the IOC mission statement says -- sports ARE political. Always have been, always will be.
Our screaming and yelling is also touching the financial side of Olympics politics. But to talk about doing away with the "monied sports" and limiting it to "democratic sports" isn't very realistic. The monied people (whether individual patrons or corporate sponsors) are part of the very mega-monied support system that makes the Games happen. To complain about this is a kind of reverse snobbism. The fact that it costs a bundle to compete in sailing or show jumping doesn't diminish the difficulty of the unique skills that it takes to win a gold medal there. Also -- these sports are not totally "inaccessible." It's always possible for the gifted but penniless athlete to rise to the top in "rich sports" --he or she just has to know how to work the patronage system.
On what basis do we decide what "the most valuable medal" is? The Games are all about celebrating variety in sport, and they've evolved steadily into greater variety since their beginning. There are many ways of being an athlete, not just one. Winning the 100-meter run is impressive as hell, but a win in shooting or weightlifting takes a different kind of skill that is equally impressive. There might be some value in letting the global public decide what effort they're most impressed by, at each summer and winter Games. Now that the Internet is such a factor in Olympics media exposure, people could go online to vote. This time around, the U.S.'s "Flying Fish" would probably get the vote. But at other Games, I'll bet we would see some surprises.
On to debate about finance -- and I agree that the cost of the opening ceremonies is obscene. And the cost of staging the Games overall is even more obscene. I haven't seen a figure representing the total GNP of the Games, but for starters, NBC paid $900 million for the broadcast rights. A country would be better off spending these vast sums on -- say -- developing and improving its green energy resources than on trying to amp tourism, which usually puts more strain on a country's infrastructure and environment. We also need to be honest about how China could afford those opening ceremonies. China is cash-rich right now, and could spend on the Games without going into extreme debt like Greece did, because millions of Americans are addicted to buying cheap products made in China.
My two cents is that economics, not ideology, will finally put an end to the Olympic Games -- or at least to severely crimp their scope as the world goes ever deeper into economic crisis.
It's true that the Games may have a positive aftermath for China, because of the country's positive balance-of-payments situation going in. But China may be a glaring exception. Greece is still battered by borrowing heavily for the 2004 Games, especially the last-minute expense for extra security -- a cost that no visiting country had the graciousness to help the Greeks with (including the U.S.) Greece's example warns that smaller countries can't risk hosting the Games any more -- thus keeping the Games in the clubby grasp of the G8 and G5 countries. But I wonder what the impact of the 2012 London Games will be on the economically troubled UK, a G8 member. According to reports in the British press, the Public Accounts Committee has condemned the government for letting the Olympics budget treble to £9 billion.
If things get badly out of control with finances on the London Games, it might be the end of the Olympics -- at least in the familiar format that we've known them since 1896.