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It's the Olympics, but Do You Really Care?

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
August 12, 2004
Los Angeles Times

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To get into the Olympic spirit, I recently watched "Miracle," a Disney docudrama about the American hockey team's improbable victory over the reigning Soviet champions at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980. It didn't work. All it did was make clear the vast chasm between the exciting events depicted in the movie and the bloated, cheerless extravaganza due to start Friday.

The stakes couldn't have been higher in 1980 -- or lower today. Back then, the contest on ice was, quite literally, a "cold war" between two superpowers. Something similar happened at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which Hitler staged as a tribute to the Aryan ubermensch, only to be shown up by the prowess of African American sprinter Jesse Owens.

There might be equally high drama today if our current enemies chose to compete in sporting events. Unfortunately, if Al Qaeda fielded an Olympic team it would be made up entirely of airplane divers and bomb tossers. All things considered, let's hope they boycott the Games. But in their absence, it's hard to get worked up about the U.S. medal count versus Russia, China or any other nation. Ironically, the very fact that most countries are engaged in peaceful competition -- the Olympic ideal -- renders this Olympics uninteresting.

Given the dearth of geopolitical competition, we are left to contemplate the actual competition on the field. Unfortunately, it's impossible for this couch potato -- I can't speak for any other spud -- to care who wins the 400-meter hurdles, the long jump or the hammer throw. And those are all part of the "marquee" event, track and field. Imagine shouting yourself hoarse over the outcome of table tennis or epee fencing.

I have nothing but admiration for the fortitude and grit of all Olympic competitors, especially in the more obscure events where there is no pecuniary reward. I also have nothing but respect for what scientists and doctors do. But that doesn't mean I want to watch them in action.

Sports like football, baseball and basketball have intrinsic appeal to millions of people because their fans follow them all the time and know the players. We see most Olympic events only once every four years. It's like meeting some long-lost cousin. Are you going to gush over her? It's true that all the Olympic sports are contested year in, year out, but few receive any coverage, at least in this country. Yet every four years we're supposed to get worked up over who does and who does not snare a gold medal.

NBC, which has sunk the equivalent of several countries' GDP into televising the Games, is acutely aware of this problem. To lure viewers to its wildly excessive 1,210 hours of coverage this year, it will once again turn this into "Days of Our (Athletic) Lives" or "As the (Sports) World Turns."

Snippets of actual competition will be sandwiched by long, weepy infomercials that seek to humanize the athletes. No hint of adversity will go unexploited. We will learn, according to NBC's website, that as a baby, American boxer Ron Siler "slept in a dresser drawer near his father's bed," that Jamaican runner Asafa Powell has lost two brothers ("one was shot and the other passed away of natural causes") and that Sada Jacobson, "America's fencing darling," considers her sister her toughest competitor. Fascinating. But I'd still rather see what quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Michael Vick are up to, and all I want to know about them is how many plays they make.

Please note that my complaint about the Games is not the usual whining about excessive commercialism and professionalism. As a thoroughgoing capitalist, I have nothing against athletes being paid to play. (If only there were some way for me to market my tennis skills. Maybe some cable channel would like to fill its 2 a.m. slot with a selection of my greatest double faults?)

My favorite sport -- professional football -- is far more guilty of crass exploitation than the Olympics. But at least the NFL is honest about what it's up to: entertainment. Olympic abuses, ranging from steroid use to bribery, are harder to swallow because they come coated with insufferable malarkey about bettering humanity.

The International Olympic Committee may be the most scandal-ridden organization this side of the United Nations' oil-for-food program, but it continues to justify its existence with the need to spread the "Olympic spirit." Which is what, exactly? That you should pass up no opportunity for a payoff?

Ultimately, I would be willing to overlook the Olympics' moral failings, as I do with sports that I like, if I were interested in the outcome. But I'm not. While the rest of the world tunes in to this five-ring circus, I'll be watching something more exciting. Like CSPAN II's coverage of the House subcommittee on specialty crops and foreign agriculture programs.


Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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