Why Bother With the Olympics?

Illustration by Dan Goldman

Later this week, we will all become huge luge fans. Biathlon nuts. Cheering sections for sports so inexplicable that, save for two weeks out of every four years, we forget they even exist. (It’s not as if you’ve ever heard Hank Williams Jr. urgently inquiring, “Are you ready for some short-track speed skating?”) Yes, it’s once again time for that exercise in athletic affirmative action known as the Winter Olympics.

To be sure, when I say affirmative action, I don’t mean to disparage the astonishing feats of the Olympians themselves. But one of the great things about sports is not just that they are a meritocracy in terms of who wins, but that they’re also a meritocracy in terms of which sports are popular. Basketball and football beat table tennis and bowling because they’re more compelling to watch. And yet, the Olympics circumvent these rules of what people actually like by committing what is, essentially, fraud—peddling the idea that if we don’t cheer on our country’s ice dancers, we’re not only unpatriotic, we’re against world peace.

The notion that a sporting event becomes more interesting simply because it involves nations—rather than individuals or teams—competing against one another is absurd. After all, it’s not as if the collection of basketball players currently stinking up Madison Square Garden would suddenly become more watchable if—putting aside, for the moment, the obstacle of Danilo Gallinari’s Italian citizenship—they traded in their Knicks jerseys for USA ones. But that’s exactly what happens with the Olympics. Curling becomes geopolitical.

Besides, do people really think that Johnny Weir—he of the fox-fur costumes and the reality-TV show—will be skating for anyone other than himself (and his endorsement career) when he takes the ice “for” the U.S.? Or just check out the cover of Sports Illustrated, where Lindsey Vonn—billed as “America’s Best Woman Skier Ever”—posed in an outfit that makes it clear she mostly represents Red Bull. Meanwhile, is it really fair to saddle Marjan Kalhor, who’ll be skiing in the slalom and giant slalom, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s baggage just because she happens to be from Iran? In the end, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat should and must belong to those who compete, not their governments.

Which brings me to the Olympics’ second fraudulent premise: that they are about more than mere sports. To hear Olympics boosters tell it, the games are, as former International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch once proclaimed, the world’s “most important contemporary social movement.” The “Olympic movement” works, the current IOC president Jacques Rogge declared, “by throwing a bridge over continents, by standing above differences of race, social regime, or political system,” which “can bring hope and togetherness so often and so deeply torn apart.”

But when was the last time any country—much less a non-state actor like Al Qaeda—honored the so-called “Olympic Truce” by ceasing their Predator strikes or suicide bombings? Indeed, the only worldwide sporting event that has ever proven capable of ending wars (at least temporarily) is the World Cup, but that’s because soccer requires no affirmative action. People just like playing it and watching it. In other words, warring factions in Africa and the Middle East have laid down their arms during the World Cup because they wanted to watch soccer rather than fight. Alas, that’s not something you’ll ever be able to say about the bobsleigh.

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Why Bother With the Olympics?