POLITICS FEBRUARY 15, 1999
In the wake of the recent revelations about Olympic corruption, there’s been no shortage of proposals to clean up the games. The International Olympic Committee, trying to stay one step ahead of the lynch mob, has offered to change its selection process for choosing host cities—entrusting the job to a 15-person committee instead of the membership at large—so that cities will no longer feel the need to spend millions of dollars wooing the more than 100 IOC members for their votes. Some outside the IOC, perhaps worrying that it will still be expensive to win the votes of the 15-person committee, have suggested holding the Olympics in a permanent location, like Switzerland, thus scrapping the selection process. And really radical types have called for taking the games away from the IOC altogether and turning them over to a more responsible and accountable international body like UNESCO.
But none of these reforms gets at the real problem with today’s Olympics. The scandal involving Salt Lake City’s bid to host the 2002 Winter Games—and the similar scandals being uncovered by the day in other cities—are hardly surprising when you consider how much money is now wrapped up in the Olympics. The IOC estimates that each set of Summer and Winter Games is worth $10 billion. Whereas the Olympics were once a money-losing enterprise and stood for the ideal of human excellence, today they are a moneymaking opportunity and stand for human greed. Indeed, the Olympics are already so far gone that there’s really only one surefire way to fix them: abolish them.
The decline of the Olympics traces back to two key decisions the IOC made in the early ’80s. The first decision came in a 1981 meeting in Baden-Baden, Germany, when the IOC, under the leadership of its new president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, granted the individual international sports federations the right to determine which athletes were eligible for the Olympics. Whereas the IOC had once restricted participation in the games to amateurs, the individual sports federations had different ideas.
And, as the individual federations began to allow professional athletes to compete in their respective Olympic events, the games’ tenor changed dramatically—both in and out of competition. Away from the playing fields, almost all of the Olympic athletes had once shared the bonding experience of living together in the Olympic Village. But, with the introduction of professionals, the Olympic Villages emptied out somewhat. Sure, the athletes who played low-profile sports maintaining amateur requirements—curling, team handball, and so on—roughed it in the glorified college dorms. But a number of the professional athletes, who could afford better accommodations, stayed in luxury hotels.
Moreover, the professional athletes brought their professional attitudes to the competition itself. The French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who revived the games in 1896, once declared, "The important thing at the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part; for the essential thing in life is not to conquer but to struggle well." But "struggling well" doesn’t bring in endorsement dollars, and it wasn’t long before winning began to take on added importance. That importance, not surprisingly, has led to an increase in the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Whereas that sort of cheating had once been confined to the athletes who performed at the behest of Eastern bloc regimes hell-bent on victory over their Western rivals, today doping knows no ideological or geographical boundaries. Indeed, some experts estimate that more than 30 percent of Olympic athletes use performance-enhancing drugs.
The second critical decision came in 1983, when Samaranch and the IOC made a move that turned the Olympics into a moneymaking machine. With the creation of its New Sources of Finance Commission, the IOC looked to capitalize on what its marketing expert dubbed "the most valuable unexploited symbol in the world"—the Olympic Rings. Before Samaranch, the IOC had a Commission for the Protection of the Olympic Emblems that was charged with preventing corporations from misusing the rings in advertisements. But the New Sources of Finance Commission performed the opposite service, signing up corporate sponsors left and right.
For the 1988 Olympics, nine multinational companies forked over a total of $100 million to the IOC for worldwide marketing rights to the Olympics. The 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta netted a total of $400 million for those rights. And that’s on top of the television rights: NBC paid $3.5 billion to broadcast the five Olympic Games between 2000 and 2008. Indeed, in just 15 years Samaranch increased the IOC’s assets from $241,000 to more than $100 million.
This would be absolutely fine, if it weren’t for the fact that all of this money is being made off of the Olympics’ reputation for being a benevolent force of good in the world. The Olympics, you see, have become a total sham. They are a sporting spectacle masquerading as a social movement. For all of the talk about promoting peace and bringing people of the world together— Samaranch has humbly proclaimed the Olympics the world’s "most important contemporary social movement"—the Olympics are really no different from the Super Bowl or any other ostentatious sporting display. Except for the fact that the Olympics aren’t as exciting (see the previous reference to curling and team handball).
Of course, there will be those who argue that doing away with the Olympics is unconscionable. Sports enthusiasts will say that the Olympics provide valuable exposure to underappreciated sports. But, if a sport can’t make it on its own merit, maybe there’s a good reason. Besides, would it be so bad if women’s gymnastics—with its preternaturally prepubescent girls performing body-damaging pirouettes—went away? As for the games’ much-touted benevolent effects, well, something tells me that the world will get along just fine without them. After all, it’s not like the Olympics, revived just before the end of the last century, did much to prevent the bloodshed and evil of this one.
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at The New Republic.