The Olympics features the world’s best athletes competing against each other with billions of people watching. Why is it so terrible? Most boil the Olympics’ problems down to commercialization ruining the game’s original idealism. There’s something to this, but until 1972, the International Olympic Committee pretty much resisted money from corporate sponsors, and before that the games weren’t all that good then either.
Too many critiques that come from the left are like that anyway. Progressives, at least the food co-op and urban garden-variety, always ask what messages and signifiers the games are communicating, rather than the crass aesthetic question, “Are they fun to watch?”
That’s stupid, since the focus on how the Olympics reinforce consumer culture or bring out the worst in human nature misses what’s good about sports—the spectacle. The problem with the games isn’t that they’re too big; it’s that they’re too small. And in the process of making them more entertaining to watch, we’ll make them more egalitarian.
For starters, a point from Mark Perryman: We should be using the biggest possible venues to maximize the number of spectators and to lower ticket prices. Wembley has a capacity of 92,000, Twickenham and the Emirates are huge stadiums, too. Why the fuck did London need an Olympic Stadium? Why not just go down the road?
Another idea is to get rid of bad events. Namely, yachting and sailing, and all that equestrian shit. Only a few countries compete, and only a few rich countries medal. It’s completely counter to the IOC’s criteria that the games played be universal and accessible. It’s not even that these events have a “Western” bias. Most of us didn’t grow up hanging out in Cape Cod wearing dull pastels, blah, blah, I’m not really sure what rich white people are up to, but they should take comfort in the fact that they have yachts and horses and other cool stuff, and shouldn’t expect medals for it.
Sports with judges need to go, too. Real competition should have empirical standards. The loser shouldn’t be able to just blame that “one Russian judge” for screwing up.
Also, why is there beach volleyball? It’s a glorified peep show, and not even a very good one, because you don’t actually see any nudity. There’s simply no other reason why this exists as an event other than to boost television ratings. Up until this year bikinis were required for the women. The uniforms were literally designed to focus attention on the athletes’ bodies.
I’m not a grumpy puritan; I just think there are other events that deserve TV coverage. And seriously, if you’re watching beach volleyball to see sandy, sweat-covered, athletic bodies and the off-chance of a nip-slip, you should really invest in broadband and discover the everlasting joys of internet pornography. If there are sites that cater to scatological midget fetishes, there’s probably something out there just made for you. We should replace lousy events like this with better sports. Namely, baseball. (Yeah, beach volleyball and water polo are in, but baseball is out for now.)
Finally, we should pay the athletes. Apparently, being the resident radical who wants to give famous people money is my new VICE-shtick. But paying participants and paying them well is not only fair—these people train and risk injuries to entertain us—it also diminishes athlete dependence on corporate sponsors. While athletic amateurism might seem like a quaint and sweet ideal, in many ways professionalism is the more progressive development. Without pay in sports, the edge would go to gentile elites that had the time and money to train. Didn’t all the guys in Chariots of Fire go to Cambridge?
Who should actually do the paying? We should. Make the salaries publicly funded. Taxpayers are the most important sponsors of the Olympics anyway and the teams competing are national. The minimum salary should be fairly low, $30,000 or so per athlete, but lifetime health insurance and a scholarship program should be available, too.
In other words, stop asking synchronized swimmers to synchronize swim for the love of synchronized swimming. Plus, having taxpayers pay every athlete’s way will lead to uncomfortable questions like, “Why exactly are we paying synchronized swimmers?” which could mean significantly less synchronized swimming. Just a thought.
So there we have it, the Olympics made slightly less worse.
Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin and a staff writer at In These Times.