Modern sports tournaments, particularly international ones, are always doused with a cliched, mushy sentimentality that’s saccharine to the point of sickliness. Sport is framed as this unifying force that has the power to overcome seemingly-irreconcilable differences; a beacon of inspiration that proves how every obstacle, regardless of size, withers when faced with the irrepressible force of the human will. Anything is possible, all you need is unwavering determination… and these Nike running tights – because no one achieved Olympic glory without an official sponsor’s merchandise.
On this front, the Olympic Games are probably the worst offender. Maybe it’s because it’s the second biggest event in the sporting calendar, dwarfed only by the World Cup, a runner-up status that totally plays into this narrative: football, dominated by over-paid, self-serving mercenaries and their sleazy agents, is tinged with cynicism. The Olympics, meanwhile, is a platform for all those other sports that nobody really cares about in the 206 weeks that separate each installment. It generates this sort of soft patriotism where we’re all in it together with our fellow countrymen, cheering on these selfless athletes who aren’t really competing for personal glory – no, they’re doing it for the collective glory of our nation; they’re doing it for us. Inspirational, right? Sure, but it’s about as sincere as a commercial.
The reality is that the International Olympic Committee, the games’ organizers, are a corrupt, morally bankrupt organization with a scandal-strewn history of cozying up to dictators, and the Games’ soppy narrative is nothing more than a front. This year’s iteration hasn’t even gotten underway yet and it has already descended into calamity after the IOC refused to issue a blanket ban for Russian athletes after evidence emerged of the country’s massive state-backed doping program.
Instead, the 28 individual sports federations which make up the summer Olympics were free to decide the fate of Russians on an individual case-by-case basis, a leniency that some suspect may have something to do with the warm relationship that IOC president, Thomas Bach, enjoys with Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. Either way, it sends a clear message that there’s plenty of wiggle room for corrupt states that want to mess with global sporting events.
Putin isn’t the only despot chummy with the IOC. Last year, the European Olympic Committee launched the inaugural European Games, a blatant money-grabbing exercise peddled as a Euro-centric cousin of the Olympics. The host country was none other than the gas-rich central Asian autocracy of Azerbaijan, best known for hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012 and for a complete and total contempt for human rights and democracy.
Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan at 162 out of 180 countries for press freedom. Leading up to the games, local critics of the country’s nepotistic president, Ilham Aliyev, were arrested; local journalists were threatened with decade-long prison sentences; international news organizations such as The Guardian were barred from entering the country during the games as a way of suppressing bad press; the Human Rights Watch has described the run up to the games as “the worst crackdown the country has seen in the post-Soviet era.”
It’s ironic that sports organizations like the Olympic Committee and FIFA often bemoan the politicization of sport, yet by courting horrible dictators like Aliyev and giving them a platform to nurture their global profile (just as Hitler did with the 1936 Olympics) while ignoring their fascistic tendencies, they are making a very clear political decision: that money triumphs over morals.
All of this collaborating with oppressive regimes seems to have rubbed off on the Olympic Committee itself, who have moved to ban any brand that hasn’t handed them a sack of money from even mentioning the games. ESPN recently received a letter from the U.S. Olympic Committee that bars any brand that isn’t an official sponsor of the games from posting about them on social media.
According to the letter, penned by USOC chief marketing officer Lisa Baird, “Commercial entities may not post about the Trials or Games on their corporate social media accounts. This restriction includes the use of USOC’s trademarks in hashtags such as #Rio2016 or #TeamUSA.” You can add “Olympic,” “Olympian,” and “Go For Gold” to that list as well, as the committee owns all of them.
Everything that I’ve outlined so far is utterly contemptible, but the cherry on the cake really has to be what’s referred to as “the Olympic legacy” – the lingering hangover of the games and all the useless sporting infrastructures that they leave behind.
Each edition of the games inevitably demands the construction of all sorts of new stadiums and venues to play all of these sports like dressage and archery that the average person never even thinks about in the intervening years between each Olympics. This infrastructure is incredibly expensive and demands a sizable amount of taxpayer money, often with little return, not to mention that plenty of people and businesses end up being forced out by wrecking balls, as their homes and workplaces stand in the way of the Olympics construction plan.
Some of these venues end up being so useless that they come to be referred to as “white elephants,” and leading up to the London Olympics there was a lot of talk how these impractical vanity projects can be avoided – especially since the last European host of the games, Greece, went into financial meltdown not long after, due, in part, to the Olympics that it hosted in 2004 at a public expense of €7 billion at the time (some $7.8 billion today). Nowadays, those venues rot away because no one uses them and the Greek government is too bankrupt to maintain them.
The 2000 Sydney Olympics cost, in Australian dollars, some $6.6 billion, with an estimated $1.7 -$2.4 billion falling on the taxpayer. The leftover infrastructure failed to earn enough to pay for its own maintenance, and it has been estimated that some AUS$2.1 billion was cut from public spending, primarily on education and health programs, to prevent Olympic infrastructure from crumbling into disrepair.
London’s Olympic stadium will, as of the beginning of the new Premier League season, be occupied by West Ham United Football Club. It was originally intended to be used as an athletics ground, but not enough people are actually interested in athletics for it to be financially viable, so West Ham was brought in as a tenant. Converting it into a football stadium cost some $360 million, with the club contributing only 5.5% of the cost. The rest was paid for with taxpayer money in an era of financial crisis, all while the ruling Conservative government slashed public services in the name of money-saving austerity. And what was it all for? For basic people to engage in some soft-patriotism, waving plastic flags as sports that few of them are truly interested in play in the background on bar TVs for two weeks. Bravo.
And this is the greatest irony of all: despite all of that sentimental bullshit of how the Olympics unites nations and broader humanity in the name of sport, or whatever it is that they’re supposed to do, they actually divert tax dollars away from things that truly matter – hospitals, schools, youth centers and so on. The sporting triumphs of individual athletes are sold as victories for entire nations while national infrastructure crumbles. But forget about that; let’s just wave some flags while we watch the badminton, shall we?
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
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