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Thoughts on the Olympics

August 11, 2012

[J.P.'s Moment of Common Sense on Broad View, KBZZ 1270 AM and 96.1 FM in Reno. Listen to Broad View live Saturdays at 2:00 PM Pacific Time.]

The Olympics are almost done and as usual there’s something distasteful about the whole spectacle. I want to enjoy the Olympics. I love sports and share the idealistic notion that forms the basis of the Olympics. But something happens between the notion and the reality, something inimical and trashy.

Maybe it’s the national medal counts, maybe it’s the drug scandals, maybe it’s the silly rules enforced by silly bureaucrats – let’s face it: there’s a lot of crappy frosting ruining the taste of the Olympic cake.

First of all, the International Olympic Committee is constantly mired in controversy and scandal for taking bribes from cities that want to host. For this year’s games, it came down to a close contest between Paris and London, which of course have a long history of rivalry. When London won – this was back in 2005 – the mayor of Paris publicly accused British Prime Minister Tony Blair of skullduggery. Cynics were thinking, “You’re just bitter because London offered bigger bribes than you did.”

The bribery issue is important because both Qatar and Dubai are in the running for 2024, and they have lots of oil money available for bribes. God help us if the summer Olympics end up in the Arabian Desert – the average daytime temperature in Qatar during the summer is 106 degrees. Long distance runners will be dropping like flies in that kind of heat.

The Olympics are simply too big. Instead of being about sports, it’s become a giant bureaucratic monstrosity that requires an army of security personnel and complete transformation of whatever city ends up hosting. This year, almost 400 events are spread out across the countryside from London all the way to Scotland, and even out in the ocean where the sailing events are held. Gold, silver, and bronze medals are awarded for each event and since many are team events the total number of physical medals required is in the thousands. It’s ridiculous.

The first Olympics, held in ancient Greece three thousand years ago, lasted one day. There was one event, a foot race of about 200 yards. The Greeks later added wrestling, jumping, more foot races, and finally, to keep the NASCAR types happy, chariot races.

Speaking of adding events, can you imagine the snickering from those ancient Greeks if they saw synchronized swimming? Nothing better represents the ludicrous proliferation of stupid Olympic events better than synchronized swimming. C’mon, people. It’s pretty, it’s physically demanding, and it’s... well, it’s pretty, but it’s not a sport. Go to a wedding reception and watch people do the hustle if you like that sort of thing.

I’ve got two suggestions for paring down the Olympics to a more reasonable size: first, get rid of any event that has judges deciding who won. By definition, those aren’t sports. They’re entertainment. They’re fun to watch maybe, and they’d be great acts for a circus, but they’re not sports, and somebody, usually one of the communist countries, is always bribing the judges anyway. Especially the boxing judges. You can’t trust an Olympic boxing judge any further than you can throw him. As for “artistic” events like gymnastics and diving, sports should never be about who looks the best doing something. Does anybody care what the long jumpers look like? Hell no! They’re waving their arms and kicking their legs and landing on their butts.

Forty four years ago at the 1968 Olympics held in Mexico City, a high jumper named Dick Fosbury ran a big curve, then went backwards and upside down over the bar. It looked really stupid but it worked. Now, all the high jumpers do it. It’s called the Fosbury Flop. That’s the difference between gymnastics and sports – in gymnastics they wouldn’t allow a new idea like the Fosbury Flop because it’s ugly.

By the way, did you know the diving judges watch the amount of splash? The more the divers splash, the more the judges mark them down. That’s why the Chinese have a 79-pound diver. She hits the water like a leaf falling into a pond. Of course she doesn’t make a splash – she barely weighs enough to break the surface of the water for crying out loud! Here’s a better idea for the diving platform: have the divers play King of the Platform and try to throw each other off. Let’s see how long the 79-pound Chinese diver lasts then.

My second suggestion: get rid of the sports that require people to bring personal equipment. That means all the bicycle events, all the boating events, all the horse riding events. If everybody uses the same equipment, like in shotputting or basketball, that’s fine. The Olympics should be about who’s the best athlete, not who can afford the best horse, right? And a poor villager from the far reaches of the Congo should have the same chance as a rich horse owner from the Hamptons.

Oh wait, here’s a third suggestion: the next time a Muslim team says they won’t participate with an Israeli team, send the Muslims home on the first plane out of town. And don’t let them come back. Ever. Constructively criticizing like I’m doing is one thing – urinating all over the spirit of the Olympics like the Lebanese judo team did is inexcusable.

So here’s the irritating part about the Olympics for a cynic like me: every night, there I am, just like everybody else, riveted to my television, rooting for my favorites, tears in my eyes when they win or lose, and generally getting sucked into the maelstrom of emotion... because, let’s be honest, with all its flaws, there is no show on Earth quite so wonderful and emblematic of the human spirit as the Olympics. I have a crush on women’s 200 meter winner Allyson Felix, I was glued to the TV when Kirani James won the 400 meters to give Grenada (total population less than 100,000) its first medal ever, and I sincerely think Usain Bolt might be the greatest athlete in human history.

The ancient Greeks would have loved Usain Bolt. He runs that one event from the first Olympics and he runs it better than anybody else ever did.

That's... today’s dose of common sense.

"The focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror." – Hans-Georg Gadamer

"I distinguish, between nationalism and patriotism." – Michael Ignatieff


From Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA       


Followup 1:

September 3, 2012

When I wrote about the Olympics three weeks ago, I suggested all events requiring personal equipment be eliminated. Obviously that means boating events, bicycling events, horse riding events, etc., but it also means Oscar Pistorius shouldn't be in the Olympics.

Oscar Pistorius is the South African sprinter who doesn't have legs and runs atop futuristic "Cheetah Flex-Foot" carbon fiber transtibial artificial limbs that act as springs to propel him down the track. For many people his is an emotional story garnering sympathy, but for me it's about this: if any venue is supposed to be about pure athleticism, it's the Olympics. When equipment determines winners and losers, the Olympic ideal is twisted beyond recognition.

Mr. Pistorius weaseled his way into the Games by convincing Olympic officials that his blades give no competetive advantage. Apparently Mr. Pistorius was lying. After competing in the Olympics, he moved on to the Paralympics. This past weekend, he was beaten by another double amputee, Brazilian Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira, whose artificial limbs are longer. Pistorius reacted furiously, telling the TV cameras in his post-race interview that "we aren't racing a fair race" because the Brazilian had longer prostheses.

So Mr. Pistorius has gone from claiming that his carbon fiber limbs give him no advantage, to claiming that somebody else's do. Let's keep the artificial limbs in the Paralympics where they can decide how to regulate them, and keep the Olympics pure and free of equipment.
August 11, 2012 - For me, the most poignant thing about the modern Olympics is the way it's been perverted into a contest among the nations. The Greek city-states founded the Olympics for two reasons: as a tribute to the gods, and as a reason to take a break from their perpetual internecine warfare. The contestants in those games weren't even identified as coming from this or that city-state.
Modern governments, too full of themselves to permit a popular international event free of any hint of their arrogance, simply can't have that. Why, next the rubes might demand genuinely free markets and trade, or actual peace, or (gasp) individual freedom! How would the self-appointed "leaders" of the world exercise their wisdom then? - F.P., New York
J.P. replies: Good to see you back, Francis.

August 11, 2012 - Am I reading this right? You want boxing out of the Olympics? - M.L., Michigan
J.P. replies: How many scandals involving Olympic boxing judges do we need before we wise up?



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