Time to reconsider the Olympics?

In 1987 Bill Bradley, at the time a United States Senator from New Jersey, contributed an eloquent commentary for a book titled “Tales of Gold: An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games told by America’s Gold Medal Winners.” Many of the thoughts expressed in that essay are still worth heeding today. A gold medal winner himself with the 1964 US men’s basketball team, Bradley, after an unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2000, turned down an offer to head the United States Olympic Committee. He wasn’t (and presumably still isn’t) a foaming, win-at-all-costs advocate of proving national superiority through sports, nor is he an un-ambitious opponent of athletic competition.

While praising the ideals of the original Olympic Games, Bradley also observed, “Unfortunately, in practice the modern Games have been unable to emulate the ancients’ ability to honor sport by subordinating war and politics. Nor have they been successful in encouraging a sense of oneness and mutual understanding among the world’s people.” He added, “Many people have called for the abolition of the Olympics, claiming they have become too expensive, too political, and too dangerous. I believe that the Olympics should be continued, but only with drastic modification.”

Among Bradley’s proposals: “I think we should abandon team sports in the Olympics because they too easily simulate war games,” citing memorable tilts like the Hungarian- Soviet water polo match of 1956 and the USSR-Czechoslovakia hockey game of 1968 as examples of matches that went, “…well beyond friendly competition.”

He further suggested, “But we also need to champion individuals other than just the fastest, the strongest, and the most agile among us. Why not extend the Olympics to two months and also recognize creative, intellectual, and artistic ability? A film festival, poetry readings, concerts, cultural shows, and athletic events might even run simultaneously at an expanded Olympics.”

Maybe it is time to re-think the Olympics.

This Friday marks the start of the XXXI Olympiad.

For those unfamiliar with Roman numerals, the opening ceremonies will officially start the 31st Summer Olympics, the first ever to be contested entirely in the host community’s winter season, not to mention the first ever held in a South American country and/or a Portuguese- speaking nation.

For traditionalists, CCVII countries will be represented at the 2016 games, which will include CCCVI events in XXVIII sports. That’s a far cry from the first modern Olympiad, which took place CXX years ago in Athens, Greece. Back in MDCCCXCVI only XIV nations were represented, and none of the CCXLI competitors were women.

Many of the world’s top athletes are gathering in Brazil, although some who got caught using non-approved drugs to gain a competitive advantage will be absent. Others are passing on participating for fear of contracting the Zika virus, and still more have opted to compete in their chosen field of endeavor somewhere else this month. Professional athletes whose top priority is gaining material wealth can hardly be blamed for pursuing other opportunities between August 5th and 21st. For example, the top finisher at the John Deere Classic PGA Golf Tournament, which will be held in Silvis, Illinois from August 11th through 14th, will take home $864,000. The prize for winning the men’s Olympic golf competition, which takes place on those same four days, is a medal made of sterling silver covered by no less than six grams of pure gold. It’s unclear exactly what genuine gold currently sells for, but a good guess is it’s something less than $144,000 per gram.

For Americans who habitually sit staring at video screens these Olympics are arriving right on time. TV viewers need a respite from all-too-frequent high-profile incidents of overreactions by police with lethal consequences for dark-skinned males in the wrong place at the wrong time, retaliatory assassinations of dedicated, decent peace officers, mass shootings perpetrated by unhinged individuals with all-too-easy access to assault weapons, and increasingly frequent terrorist attacks overseas. Add a bombastic presidential candidate seemingly rooting for continued unrest as part of his party’s ongoing effort to make his opponent look even more unsuitable for the presidency than he is and it’s no wonder viewers are looking for something different. All the turmoil, divisiveness, and growing fatigue over an exceptionally ugly campaign that still has three months to go can make even synchronized swimming watchable.

The Olympics’ original intent was to bring people together and celebrate the human spirit through friendly competition, not promote rabid nationalism while fomenting suspicion and distrust between nations. Today’s games are in reality one long commercial for the host nation; their primary focus is generating profits for corporate sponsors. The current difference between the stated Olympic ideal and the actual effect of the Games is, as it was three decades ago, an all-too-stark one.

Andy Young
July 31, 2016

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