The first modern Olympic Games, with the IOC (International Olympic Committee) running the show, was held in Athens, Greece, in 1896. There were 14 nations represented, with a total of 241 athletes competing. Jumping ahead 112 years, to the 2008 Olympics, held in Beijing, China, there were 204 countries represented, with some 11,000 athletes competing.
That reference to 204 countries confuses me. I confess to having thought that there were only 196 countries in the entire world, not counting the Vatican (but including South Sudan, which became a separate country on July 9, 2011). In fact, I have alluded to that 196 figure many times, in both conversation and written material, and never had anyone challenge me on it.
Even if the Vatican had somehow gotten IOC approval and been allowed to compete in Beijing (having sent, perhaps, a relay team composed of cardinals and bishops), that would still bring the number to only 197. Although we’re all acutely aware of China’s reputation for resourcefulness, how they managed to rustle up 204 countries remains unclear. I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for it.
Numbers aside, let’s consider the Games themselves. The goal of the Olympics was, originally, to promote goodwill and harmony through competition. Remove the politics and self-interests, remove the prejudices and social barriers, put aside the bad blood and adversarial histories, and allow the nations of the world to create the kind of mutual respect and understanding that can only be produced via contests of pure athleticism.
Obviously, that noble goal hasn’t been achieved. In fact, a cynic might even suggest that it’s worked in reverse. Since 1896, there have been two monumental World Wars, atomic bombs, various genocides, pogroms and systematic annihilations, dozens of “lesser” wars, as well as hundreds of instances of military adventurism and butchery.
The case can even be made that the century following the inaugural 1896 Olympics was the most violent century in the history of the world. So if peace and goodwill were the desired goals, the Olympics have failed utterly. In truth, it causes one to wonder if that notion of a “big track meet” acting as a catalyst for world peace wasn’t wildly naïve to begin with.
Geographically, much has changed. While the Olympics may have made sense when it took two or three weeks to cross the Atlantic, jet travel and cyberspace have combined to shrink the world dramatically. Anyone wishing to engage a foreign citizen need only fire up his computer. So magical is the Internet, you can transport yourself to a foreign culture with only a few keystrokes (and with only a few more you can view its pornography).
Then there’s the money. Virtually every country to host an Olympics has incurred debilitating debt. The cost of staging one of these things is positively staggering. And that tired old argument claiming that hosting the Olympics brings a country instant “prestige” is pure propaganda, and the one claiming that the Games “help” the local economy is not only misleading, it’s a cruel joke.
Hotels, saloons, restaurants and taxi services benefit, but the rest of the population is left holding the bag. The New York Times reported that in preparation for the 2016 Games, Rio de Janeiro is going to raze several slums, displacing thousands of the country’s poorest people, all for the sake of increasing national “prestige.”
Speaking of money, NBC spent a ton of it. Not only did they shell out a reported $2 billion for rights to the 2010 Winter Olympics and the 2012 London Games, they reportedly paid $4.4 billion for the next four Olympics—the 2014 Winter Games, the 2016 Games in Rio, the 2018 Winter Games, and the 2020 Summer Games. Of course, the result of that huge expenditure will be a veritable avalanche of TV commercials. How else do you think a network gets its money back?
The Olympics have become a bloated, gaudy, over-hyped anachronism. Those who complain that they would miss it should be reminded that they can see track meets, gymnastic meets, swimming meets and wrestling matches any time they like at local high schools and colleges. But those events regularly draw miniscule crowds. Why? Because without the phony hype and hoopla of the Olympics, nobody cares.