It's time to start evaluating the 2012 London Olympic Games. Are there any social or global benefits to the Games? Will the world a better place after the closing ceremony? Do the competing nations feel better about their relationship with America and with others? Should we even care about all these touchy-feely issues? Should we just enjoy watching amazing athletes compete for two weeks and move on with our lives?
The modern Olympic Games began over a century ago as a friendly worldwide competition among nations. For decades, only amateurs were allowed to compete. Over the years, the distinction between professional and amateur athletics narrowed, and now, athletes who earn fees for competing and from endorsing products are a significant part of the Games.
Two world wars and the Cold War had a significant impact on the Games; both athletes and spectators have became very nationalistic. Many foreign leaders actively support this sense of country, and so, millions of dollars are spent on training facilities, coaches and living allowances to improve the performance of athletes.
Some states have even encouraged the use of performance enhancing drugs. The sexuality of the East German women in the mid 20thCentury was always under suspicion; but they won medals by the box-load. Today, Olympic officials test athletes to ensure that none are using performance-enhancing substances. But, cases still arise from time to time.
The reputation of a nation is supposedly enhanced by either hosting the Games or by increasing the number of medals it wins. In the first situation, billions of dollars are spent to erect beautiful new stadiums that impress viewers around the world. These expenditures increase commerce for the host nation and give them a reason to rebuild infrastructure.
Commerce increases, but only momentarily, and infrastructure requires maintenance into the future. I’m sure Greece would like to have back some of the billions it spent for the Athens Games. And in London, the jury is still out. While I was in town for the Games, the streets were relatively quiet and the restaurants were only half-filled.
Winning medals has always been the most important objective and a source of great national pride. The Chinese have actively made winning a high priority as they built their athletic programs and hosted the 2008 Summer Games. They have been winning medals at an inordinate rate during the past few years. Other nations have followed suit as their medal counts have suffered.
The way the Olympics are presented by the media is critical. It can package the Games in a way that emphasizes winning, or some other important objectives. Presumably, earning as much money from advertising will greatly impact media decisions. The opening and closing ceremonies are the principal moments when we celebrate the competition between all nations, including the ones that do not win. During the other 12 days, winning and losing is paramount. The result of this is quite important, as we see the same countries competing and winning most of the medals. When was the last time you saw an athlete from Bhutan or Togo on TV?
So, what is the bottom line? Are the Olympics conducted for profit and national pride, or do they have some other positive effects. Consider the following:
1. Amateurism. This concept is dead. Almost all of the athletes that win medals are compensated in one way or another. Some are professionals who are paid. Some get endorsements from corporations. Some receive stipends from the their governments. How can you work in a factory for eight hours a day and still have enough time to practice and win an Olympic medal?
2. Professionalism. It is absurd that the U.S. sends its professional basketball players to compete. Does anyone really enjoy watching Lebron and Kobe win by 30 or 40 points in most games? (Note: Some of the games have been closer in this Olympics.) The issue of professionalism vs. amateurism needs to be reconsidered by the Olympic Committee.
3. Sportsmanship. There are moments of great sportsmanship and also moments of self- aggrandizement. I love watching Bolt race, but I hate his stupid posing machinations after he wins. Frankly, it is insulting to the other competitors. And then, there was a moment when an amputee running on springs traded his number with the winner of his heat.
4. Nationalism. There is no solution to this ever-growing trend. We all want our athletes to win and do not appreciate great performances by others when our boys and girls get beat.
5. TV. NBC, or whichever network televises the Olympics, has a great responsibility to emphasize something other than winning. It is an opportunity to learn more about athletes from other countries and the obstacles they face in their efforts to participate in the Olympics.
6. Winning. Winning is the most important objective, but competing and sportsmanship are close seconds. Perhaps medals for courage and overcoming long odds should be awarded to athletes.
7. The Cost. While people are starving to death in many places throughout the world, some nations are spending billions on the Games. The Olympic Committee should require a registration fee, based upon the number of athletes competing, that can be used to fund a worthy cause. And, TV producers should solicit funds from viewers for worthy global causes. After all, in the U.S., it costs nothing to watch the Games.
The Olympics are a great sporting event. It is a very exciting moment that happens every two years. But, it can be improved. The Olympic Committee should work with advertisers to increase the social benefits of the Games and to decrease its commercialization and support of professional athletes.