The Head And The Heart, Olympics Edition

The Rio Olympics have now been in the rear-view mirror for over a week. That’s enough time to make an assessment–or, perhaps, a reassessment–of the Games from a dispassionate distance in time: still recent enough to have a clear remembrance of the event, but with enough days passed to gaze at the thing with a less biased eye.

Embed from Getty Images

Neymar and the Brazilian fans: a gold medal made of joy.

Certainly, going into the Games, I would have had to cop to a heavy bias against the Olympics–a position I made perfectly clear in my pre-event assessment in this space.

However, I did at a certain point overcome my skepticism enough to start watching some of the events. And in doing so, I found myself confronted again and again by the most powerful refutation of every damnation one can muster against the modern Olympic movement: joy.

The DFR: Sports BusinessNaturally, it was Usain Bolt who brought me to watching the Olympics this time. Though I spent most of the Olympiad’s first week ignoring the events in Rio as best I could, there was simply no way I could resist the magnetic pull of Bolt and his run for all-time glory in the 100 meter.

Watching Bolt’s electric performance on that Sunday evening–streamed live, of course; I hate the tape delayed stuff and tried as hard as I could to only watch live events–softened me up for viewing other events: water polo, volleyball, other track and field events, even the men’s soccer final (a ginormous concession from your futbol-loathing correspondent).

“To get rid of the Olympics entirely? The price would be simply too high.”

In every instance–especially when watching finals, where gold medal hopes were on the line–the thing that came shining through again and again was the joy of the participants. (Mongolian wrestling coaches excepted.) This was particularly so, but even those who lost–or perhaps “lost” is better, as most everyone who participates at the Olympics had to win something just to get there–often showed an admirable amount of joy just from competing, as much from competing against themselves and the long odds they had to overcome to get to the Games.

Such an emotional signature to the Olympics, and my somewhat surprisingly empathetic reaction to those emotions, spawned within my mind an argument-counterargument debate on the true worth of the Olympics–a sort of Jeffersonian “Head and Heart” contest on whether or not my previous cynicism about the Games was justified.

For instance, it’s all well and good that the participants in the Games feel joy at their achievements. Does that overcome the costs and dubious promises of benefits that the Games impose upon their host cities and nations? Does the one thing have anything to do with the other, and should it?

The answer to the second question is probably, no, the athletes’ joy doesn’t have any connection to the larger issues that surround the games. Clearly, it does nothing to deny the worth of the Olympics. But does such joy–abundant, luminous, and shared with many–affirm the Games’ worth?

One can argue that athletes and their ability to compete on the highest levels of their sports does not necessitate the Olympics per se. Any and every sport can hold some form of World Championship without and separate from the Olympics. Most, in fact, do. Surely, athletes can know the joy of competing, of achieving, of winning, by participating in their sport’s given World Championship, independently of any actual Olympic Games. Such joy–and its contagious positive effects and influences on people beyond the athletes themselves–need not have the Olympic stamp of approval in order to be a real and active force in the world around us. Right?

Ah, but there’s the rub: in many cases, the Olympics are necessary for that positive influence.

For one thing, a great deal of that joy surely comes from the fact that the Olympics are, and have been for a while now, the generally agreed upon pinnacle of athletic competition throughout the world of sports. The delight the winners take from their performances is very much a product of the fact that they have reached the absolute summit of their sport’s achievements–something that the Olympics validates in a way that no other organized competition can.

As it is for the winners, so it is–even more so–for the athletes who finish further back in the ranks. Only at the Olympics can you see competitors who are delighted by a 16th place finish–most likely because that is the best showing that anyone from that athlete’s nation has ever achieved in world competition. Indeed, it’s worth noting that, for many of those competitors from non-powerhouse nations, the only reason they are there in the field of competitors is because it’s the Olympics. For some smaller, poorer nations, if a World Championships was all their athletes had to shoot for, they probably wouldn’t even bother. It is the prestige of the Olympics that draws athletes from every nation in the world (and even a few who have no “official” nation at the moment). Limit the stage to a World Championships–as important, definitive, and representative as that sort of event may be–and many of those athletes whose individual triumphs make the Olympics what they are would never make it past the borders of their lands.

Do away with the Olympics, then, and you do away with much of the spirit of joy that a great many of the participants would ever know on the field of competition.

This is just one component of the overall argument that can be made in favor of the Olympics. Similar points can be made about the perception of the Games by the non-participants–that is, the audience–throughout the world; the positive effect of bringing athletes and fans from different sports together in the same place; and even the now seemingly tired and worn out notions of the prestige and possible future economic benefits of hosting the Games (which could be made the truth with some serious and targeted reforms)–all of these arguments can be marshaled to greater or lesser effect as proofs of the worth of the Olympics.

Reluctantly, then, I must reject my own argument from several weeks back: the Games should not be killed off.

I say ‘reluctantly’ because most of the negative arguments against the Olympics remain factual realities. They are too expensive for the host cities and countries. They are replete with corruption. And they do seem to attract or threaten to attract a whole host of ancillary problems, from potential terrorism to the threat of releasing a ghastly pandemic upon the world (which, in Rio’s case, seems not to have happened…yet). The Olympic Movement desperately needs reform and a healthy dose of common sense governance.

But to get rid of the Olympics entirely? The price would be simply too high. In a world such as this, we need to see that joy every two years. Best to keep going with this movement and hope to see it improve, so that we don’t lose the best thing about it. Hopefully, by the time we reach Pyeongchang, South Korea and Tokyo, Japan, lessons will be learned and improvements will be made. If not, then at least we’ll have the joy to look forward to, again.


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