The Olympics purport to show the best of the human race. But the current version of the quadrennial five ring circus is a mammoth exercise in hypocrisy, showcasing two of the world’s most destructive forces, nationalism and greed, in an extraordinary waste of human and financial capital.
The scandal over security for the London games underscores how far the Olympics have strayed from the ideal of friendly competition in the spirit of peace and cooperation. Hidden in plain sight is the regrettable truth that this event now demands tens of thousands of security guards to ensure its safety. Overwhelming security has become de rigueur at every Olympic event since 1972, when athletes and coaches were kidnapped and killed, not because of who they were or what they did, but because they competed under the wrong flag.
The row over the US Olympic team’s made in China apparel highlights how the Olympics divide people rather than bring them together. Wrap up any competition in national flags, identify participants by nation, and what you do expect? I can’t wait for India and Pakistan to meet in water polo, so I can bet the under-over on drownings.
National flags don’t make anyone swifter, higher or stronger. Nationalism boosts support and appeal for a bunch of sports no one would watch otherwise. Honestly, have you ever attended a track meet or wrestling match without loved one competing? Dressing up athletes in flags and pumping up passions with medal counting by nation are a lousy formula for world peace but a convenient way to build interest and broadcast ratings to keep sponsors happy.
The Olympics are about more than national pride, though. The games are a monument to selfishness.
The story that best illustrates today’s Olympic spirit isn’t Pheidippides, the original Marathon runner, but ice skating rivals Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Harding went the extra mile to win her place at the Olympics; she arranged for a thug to take a tire iron to Kerrigan’s knee.
But it was Kerrigan who embodied the true meaning of the Olympics today. Immediately after the attack, crumpled on the ground, clutching her knee in agony, her Olympic dream seemingly shattered, a tearful Kerrigan wailed, “Why me?” After all, you can’t spell Olympic medal without M-E.
As you watch these elite athletes flaunt their skills, preening and posing every step of the way, think of the years, perhaps decades, of extraordinary toil they’ve endured and oceans of sweat they’ve expended to perfect their craft. Imagine a world where rather than youngsters, parents, coaches and sponsors committing their energies to twirling around a bar or running in circles, they dedicated their efforts to cure cancer, bring peace to the Middle East, or create an alternative to the internal combustion engine.
In the old days of so-called amateur athletes exclusively in the Olympics, there was a least a patina of athletic purity, competition for love of sport, not the desire for fame and fortune. There was inspiring example of Al Oerter, who worked full-time in data processing management then dropped his slide rule long enough to win four gold medals in discus. These days, with every athlete a professional, there’s nothing heroic about what they do. There are as many millionaires on the Olympic track these days as there are on your average pro ballfield.
Athletes don’t have a monopoly on Olympian greed. The International Olympic Committee is a US$$1 billion a year business run by a ragtag bunch of royalty and international bureaucrats from its tax-shielded Swiss bunker. The privileged pedigrees and positions of the IOC and its members make the committee’s high handed demands, strong-arm tactics and sticky fingered history no surprise.
As seen in Beijing four years ago, a key function of the IOC is to give an imprimatur of global approval to the host government, regardless of its legitimacy and rights policies. In turn, the IOC buys the host government’s protection to limit free speech at or near Olympic venues and to enforce its draconian trademark protection standards. Watch out for the brand police on the streets of London.
The IOC says its objectives for its sponsorship include: “To enlist the support of Olympic marketing partners in the promotion of the Olympic ideals.” Yet those treasured partners that the IOC coddles include global leviathans antithetical to those very Olympic ideals. Sponsors in the food and beverage categories include Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Cadbury and Heineken. These purveyors of low nutrition fats, carbs and calories pay tens of millions of dollars to be associated with an event that’s meant to epitomize youthful good health and vigor.
It’s not just food sponsors that violate Olympic ideals. Credit card sponsor Visa last month agreed to pay authorities US$4.4 billion, the lion’s share of the settlement cash in what lawyers call the largest anti-competition case ever. Visa, MasterCard and major banks allegedly queered the pitch, conspiring to fix the rates they charge to merchants. Korean conglomerate Samsung, Chinese computer maker Lenovo and Japanese electronics giant Panasonic are among Olympic global sponsors that have benefited from governments giving them an uneven playing field in their home market to thwart foreign challengers. It carried over the badminton court, where Chinese, South Korean and Indonesia teams played to lose, not win, to better their quarterfinal draws. So much for the Olympic ideal of fair play.
There’s something simple you can do to help stop the Olympic madness: tune out. Don’t watch, don’t care, and don’t buy from sponsors. If you happen to be a shareholder in an Olympic marketing partner, tell them you object to their contributions this corrupt and pointless enterprise. Then, after getting worked up, work out. The true Olympic spirit begins at home.
Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.