The Summer Olympics in London will be here before we know it, and it’s distinctly possible that I couldn’t care less. It wasn’t always like that for me. Though I’ve never been a sports fan, as a child and teenager I used to enjoy watching the Olympics on television.
The Summer Olympics in London will be here before we know it, and it’s distinctly possible that I couldn’t care less.
It wasn’t always like that for me. Though I’ve never been a sports fan, as a child and teenager I used to enjoy watching the Olympics on television.
The rite of the lighting of the Olympic torch, and the impressive pageantry of the opening and closing ceremonies, probably made a positive impression. So did the famous anthem composed for the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Canada.
In fact, the 1976 games were the first time the Olympics registered on my consciousness. That was when Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci won her first three gold medals and scored her perfect 10s.
That would be enough to make almost anyone pay attention, but in my family her remarkable achievement also sparked, well, not exactly ethnic pride, but certainly we felt some curiosity and maybe a sense of identity, because our dad’s parents had been ethnic Romanians. Knowing next to nothing about our Romanian heritage, and with the barrier of the Iron Curtain contributing to our separation from that heritage, the televised Olympics offered at least a glimpse of a people to which we had some tenuous, mysterious connection.
The noble ideal of the modern Olympics, of nations gathering to face off against each other athletically rather than militarily, was particularly inspiring to me as a teen. The intrusion of international politics, the occasional national boycotts and murderous terrorist attacks, and the backdrop of the Cold War conflict between the free West and the enslaved East — none of those things prevented me from seeing the value in that high ideal.
Quite simply, the modern revival of the Olympics was a Good Idea — one of the few good ideas of our modern era that has conceived of so very many truly horrible ideas.
So what happened? How did the Olympic Games sink in my estimation from something I anticipated and enjoyed to at best a matter of indifference to me?
It really comes down to three things. First was the decision after the 1988 games to allow professional athletes to compete.
As originally conceived, the modern Olympics were intended to be an international competition in sports simply for their own sake — not to win prize money or attract lucrative sponsorships, but merely to find out who will be the best, as John Denver sang in his Olympics anthem, “The Gold and Beyond.”
Lamentably, that idealistic vision was lost, and the commitment to amateurism fell victim to Cold War concerns. In communist countries, where everyone is a government employee and takes whatever job the state chooses for you, the line between amateur and professional is blurred or altogether absent. Communist pseudo-amateurs frequently beat our true amateurs, and unhappiness with that unfairness created pressure to abandon the old ban on professional athletes.
I understand why the rule was changed, but I still disagree with it, because it has fundamentally changed the Olympics. They’re no longer celebrations of pure sportsmanship and athletic prowess for their own sake — they’re now slightly glorified world championship competitions.
Two other things ruined the Olympics for me. One was the decision that, starting in 1994, the Summer and Winter Olympics would alternate every two years instead of both coming every four years. Partly my disdain comes from a purist, traditionalist streak — the ancient Olympiads on which the modern games were based were four years in length — but mainly it has to do with the way commercialism has corrupted the games.
The change was made because it was thought to make good business sense. In other words, people and corporate sponsors would make more money if we had the Olympics every two years instead of every four years. Yes, the summer games still come every four years, and the winter games still come every four years, but that cheat doesn’t fool me.
The last straw for me was the decision no longer to commission a new anthem for each new Olympiad. Instead, the 1976 theme (indisputably majestic and stirring) is lazily and cynically recycled — an undisguised ploy to save money while exploiting nostalgia.
The Olympics has sold its soul. I’m personally boycotting the Olympics until somebody buys it back.
Jared Olar may be reached at email@example.com.