Today is the official start of the Olympics, because today is when NBC carries the Olympics opening ceremonies, even though events began Wednesday.
This, however, is the official Olympic theme song:
The best thing about the Olympics may be that, for sports fans, TV-watching improves tremendously. The Olympics are now all over the cable or satellite dial, with CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo, the NBC Sports Network and Telemundo all carrying events. And, for those of us without a working TV in our houses, it’s all available online.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that NBC’s Olympics coverage is not really geared for sports fans; in fact, event coverage degenerates into soap opera, a trend that began with ABC-TV’s “Up Close and Personal” vignettes during their coverage.
(Speaking of up close and personal: my wife was a translator — Spanish and, unexpectedly, Portugese — for Olympic volleyball in the old Omni for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. One night, I was idly watching late-night coverage back in Wisconsin when it was suddenly interrupted for news of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. That caught my immediate attention because the Omni wasn’t far from the bombing site, and I wasn’t sure if she might not have been in that area at the time. She wasn’t, I found out after one after-midnight phone call to the house where she was staying.)
It would be nice if the Olympic movement was only about athletic achievement. For that matter, it would be nice if the Olympic movement was motivated only by athletic achievement. It would also be nice if the Olympics was a place where international disagreements could be set aside for a couple of weeks. None are the case, of course; in fact, anyone who says the Olympics should be free from politics doesn’t know much about the Olympics, of which USA Today’s Richard Benedetto said, “Sports and politics are running mates.”
The Olympic movement has been the poster child for political intrigue for almost its entire existence, dating back to the days when Baron Pierre de Coubertin resurrected the Olympic movement in the 1890s. Coubertin believed that professional athletes soiled sports, so, when Jim Thorpe was discovered to have played “professional” baseball ($2 a game), he was stripped of his medals even though his losing his medals was against Olympic rules. Adolf Hitler viewed the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a chance to show off the superiority of his master race. Several Arab countries boycotted the 1956 Melbourne Olympics to protest Israel, and 20 years later many African countries boycotted over South Africa. The 1968 Mexico City Olympics was marred by the Mexican government’s massacre of more than 200 protestors.
Four years ago, the Weekly Standard‘s Dean Barnett wrote that “Unwholesome Olympics politics are more the rule than the exception,” including the 1936 Olympics and boycotts by the U.S. in 1980 and then of the U.S. by Soviet bloc countries four years later. In a completely different category would be the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists in the 1972 Munich Olympics, an obscenity basically blown off by International Olympic Committee head Avery Brundage, a truly loathsome figure in sports history. (As for now, same thing.)
Beyond boycotts, each of the winter and summer Olympics between 1948 and 1988 was an athletic attempt for the U.S. and the Soviet Union to show off its superiority against the other. This was a rather stacked race given that the U.S.S.R.’s “amateurs” were not amateurs at all. Some viewers see NBC’s coverage of the Olympics as excessively pro-American to the point of being jingoistic. And we haven’t even discussed various medical scandals tied to the effort of outdoing the competition.
Commercialism has been a recent complaint, and yet the three U.S. Olympics held in the past 25 years — Los Angeles in 1984, Atlanta in 1996, and Salt Lake City in 2002 (run by some guy named Romney) — all were profitable. (I was in Salt Lake City three years before the Olympics, and one business group that benefitted from the Olympics before the Olympics were road builders.) The Athens Olympics in 2004, the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006, and the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 ran deficits. We’ll never know how much money the 2008 Olympics in China lost, since China lacks, you know, freedom.
This has all made me a bit cynical of the Olympic movement, a feeling expressed by Mary Riddell of London’s Telegraph:
What voters want from these Olympics is a chance to forget about politics. In bleak times, when people lose faith in their leaders and their gods, they seek saviours from other spheres. The rise of comic book superheroes, such as Superman and Wonder Woman, coincided with the collapse of the American dream after the Great Depression. It is not an accident, in an age when many of the super-rich have been exposed as charlatans and politicians can offer no escape from crisis, that Spiderman and Batman are back, over-riding political incompetence and corporate greed, to rescue the world from the forces of evil. …
Great events, lauded as founts of bravery and revival, are always invested with more significance they can bear. So keep it simple. In an age warped by unfairness and inequality, ordinary Britons must be willing and able to reclaim the Games. The biggest jamboree of the recession was devised as the people’s Olympics. It will live or die on that criterion.
Still, the Olympics can generate stunning achievement, including gold medals by athletes you’ve never heard of, such as American Billy Mills in the 1964 10,000-meter run, or Nadia Comaneci in 1976 gymnastics, or Cathy Freeman in the 2000 400-meter run. And, of course, there was that hockey team in 1980. (1960, too.) The Olympic Games is worthwhile watching, as long as you don’t watch too closely.