The Olympics: Time for Some Rethinking

August 14, 2016 4:00 pm Last Updated: August 16, 2016 6:00 pm

“Citius, Altius, Fortius”—Olympic motto

The Latin Olympic motto, translated in English as “faster, higher, stronger,” could, unfortunately, be supplemented by the addition of “ever more corrupt.”

Indeed, the Olympic ideal of competition between uncompensated amateurs (other than with a laurel wreath for the victor) is not even a polite fiction on the level of the individual athlete. All involved compete for local/national endorsements, financial support, and high-tech training facilities.

The issue of the drug-enhanced athlete seems to be a competition between the athlete with the best pharmacy and those whose illegal drugs are detected by sophisticated testing. And when the competition was opened to fully paid professionals, for instance, basketball and tennis, the ideal of amateurism totally disappeared.

The distortion of the Olympics on the individual level is trivial when compared with the international competition to hold the games.

But the distortion of the Olympics on the individual level is trivial when compared with the international competition to hold the games, summer and winter, in national capitals. The results of these competitions are reflected in new levels of wretched excess in construction costs. And concurrent corruption.

The Beijing Summer Games (2008; $42.58 billion) and the Russian (Sochi 2014; $49.96 billion) Winter Games generated publicized costs substantially beyond the GNPs of many countries.

Consequently, the effort by the winning country to host such games becomes disproportionate to any benefit that might accrue from the hosting honors. Only a relatively prosperous dictatorship can afford the “show” (and tell their population to “shut up”) as a reflection of their power and authority internationally. Essentially, cost has no consequence.

We are now in the final throes of the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. It is clear that Brazil over-bid, over-promised (and under-performed in its execution of preparations).

Although nobody could have predicted the ongoing political upheaval or the mosquito-borne Zika virus outbreak, other inadequacies are striking.

Most egregious is the ongoing failure of sewerage treatment, leaving athletes who encounter Guanabara Bay’s waters at risk for a wide variety of disease. Crime is rampant, poverty outside the charmed circle of the Olympic Village is pitiful, and security against terrorism verges on dangerous amateurism. Brazil has paid an estimated $20 billion in Olympic costs for its two weeks of NBC time.

And what is next? PyeongChang, Winter Games, 2018 South Korea (three bidders); Tokyo, Summer Games, 2020 (three bidders); and Beijing, Winter Games, 2022 (only two bidders).

Enough already.

When there are massive, unrecoverable expenses and minimal interest in hosting the games, it is time to return to basics.

A Roman copy of Myron's Discobolus, or "Discus Thrower," displayed during a press preview at the British Museum in central London on March 24, 2015. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)
A Roman copy of Myron’s “Discobolus,” or “Discus Thrower.” When there are massive, unrecoverable expenses and minimal interest in hosting the Olympic games, it is time to return to basics. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

Essentially, the Summer Olympics should be permanently held in Athens—its traditional site. Infrastructure from the 2004 Olympics can be rehabbed at far less cost than building new facilities. To accentuate national pride and global participation, individual countries can “sponsor” the games far more cheaply than full construction.

An official national sponsor would, for example, get pride of place in the opening ceremonies, marching after the Greek team, provide the opening night music/dance/demonstrations, and orchestrate the closing ceremonies; select the games’ “mascot”; and be prominent in public relations media development. Moreover, it can construct facilities for specific events should new ones be necessary and expand/construct the “Olympic Village”—all with appropriate identification of its contributions.

The advantages of a single venue are obvious. Bluntly, it would substantially eliminate the massive corruption associated with both the awarding of the games and the create-from-the-bottom-up often one-time facilities for Olympic events.

Moreover, Athens is a major metropolis with highly developed facilities/infrastructure for managing visitors and travelers, ranging from hotels to airport. An every-four-year influx of Olympics-prompted tourists and athletes would not cause a ripple in Greek travel management.

The venues would be known to potential athletes who would be competing in familiar circumstances and conditions (no worry about mile-high Mexico City, exotic diseases, or daunting pollution).

Security would be easier; there would be a cadre of security officials familiar with and expert in antiterrorism precautions (and no need for emergency hiring of security staff as at Rio). There would be core staff directed toward maintenance of the existing facilities and overseeing any new construction.

And, while it is more controversial, one might take a close look at the relevance of the “sports” included in the games. Is synchronized platform diving worthy of global attention? Beach volleyball (other than to look at “babes” in bikinis)? Trampoline? The games should give greater prominence to the decathlon, returning it to prominence with the winner being heralded as the world’s greatest athlete rather than a second thought in media coverage.

The Winter Olympics deserves separate attention.

David T. Jones

David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn From Each Other.”

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