I am a sports fan. I have spent many hours, days, weeks–I’d better stop now before this gets depressing–of my life centered around the sports I follow. Cricket most notably, but football (Association and American), tennis, boxing, baseball, basketball, track and field–the list goes on. It might therefore be a reasonable surmise that I should be excited and agog–drinking and eating supplies handy–by the prospects of the Olympics, due to be staged in a couple of weeks time in London. Yet, not only am I not going to be close to a television for most of the games, my central reaction somehow seems to have to come to a ginormous ‘Meh.’
Why so blasé? The first Olympics I paid attention to–the 1976 Montreal Games–riveted me; I watched highlights diligently, experienced heartbreak and exultation, read as many books on the Olympic Games as possible, swallowed the legend whole. In 1980, a downhill slide commenced. The US boycott of the Moscow Games ruined those games and the Russians then followed up with a tit-for-tat boycott of the 1984 LA Olympics. Thus did I become aware of the enmeshment of the Games with political and nationalist imperatives. (I was too young to pay attention to the African boycott of the 1976 Olympics.) I still followed the games, but the notion of a ‘devalued’ gold medal considerably diminished my enthusiasm. In 1988, I was in the US, and was treated to the spectacle of a tape-delayed Olympics. In 1992, the Dream Team reminded me the era of amateurism was over. I paid a great deal of attention to the 2000 Olympics because, well, I was living in Sydney, and it was hard to get away from the hype in a sports-crazy country like Australia. (I even bought tickets to India’s disastrous failure to qualify for the field-hockey semi-finals.) But I barely remember the 1996, 2004 and 2008 games. This year, I’ve come to realize my estrangement from the Games is complete.
Most superficially, the Games are too big. There are too many ‘sports’ that don’t seem like sports–equestrian dressage and synchronized swimming for instance. I’d prefer an Olympics concentrated on track and field, weightlifting, boxing, hockey, swimming, basketball, wrestling, and volleyball. But to say that is do no more than list preferences for one’s favorite Olympic sports. Other sports fan might well say, ‘Just watch the ones you want.’ And they’d be right. The reasons for my disillusionment lie elsewhere.
I suspect the central problem is that the Olympics have come to be associated with: cities brought to the brink of bankruptcy; gigantic white elephants, er, sports facilities that sit around unused, often in cities that lack adequate, affordable housing; relentless, rapacious, crude commercialization; the ludicrous deployment of ‘intellectual property’ legal regimes; persistent, pernicious, vicious nationalism; and of course, Olympic committee corruption. The Olympics now speak of a grinning cabal of salivating commercial sponsors, local and national politicians, and always desperate sports associations, happy to render the population of a city miserable in order to ‘bring’ the Games to them. They speak of gargantuan bureaucracies enmeshed with the worst of sports.
Bureaucracies, unhinged commercialization, nationalism. No thanks. I’m turning off my television and hitting the road. I’ll catch the highlights when I return.
Note: My critique of the Olympics is easily extended to most sports that I do follow; it is just that the Games brings it all together on a scale quite unlike anything else.