One Way To Make the Post-Cold War Olympics Interesting

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Even hard-core fans of the Olympics (a group that includes yours truly) have to admit that of all the things that collapsed with the Berlin Wall, few fell harder than the Olympics. (To be sure, the growth of all-sports cable channels, the creation of actual world championships in track and field, the inclusion of open professionals in competition, etc., didn't help).

But once the Games stopped being a Cold War proxy battle they also became far less interesting: It's one thing to see "amateur" U.S. basketball team (that is, college scholarship athletes) lose a gold medal game to "amateur" Commies (that is, Soviet citizens who were also paid to play ball) while the Vietnam War was still going on. It's another, and altogether less-interesting, spectacle to see various Dream Teams drub Angola. And given the relative paucity of Middle Eastern Arab nations competing at the highest levels, don't expect the Olympics to become a proxy for the war on terrorism anytime soon.

In yesterday's Washington Post, Peter Carlson has an interesting story about the increase in nation-hopping athletes who gained citizenship in countries where they can make an Olympic team more easily and thus compete. For instance, 22 of 24 players on the Greek baseball team are actually American and Canadian; they're about as Greek as any of us who have chowed down on streetside gyros. And then there's the great Jamaican sprinter, Merlene Ottey, who first appeared in the 1980 Games. She's 44 years old but still competitive–and now running for Slovenia.

On the one hand, this phenomenon is an interesting metaphor for globalization and the increasing traffic in goods, services, and people among the nations of the world. And by giving more spaces to top competitors, it may even make the Olympics more interesting. This sort of thing is hardly new, but it seems to make sense in a wolrd that is far more integrated and cosmopolitan that it was in, say, 1896, the date of the first modern Games. Whole story here.

But it also represents a real challenge to the original aim of the modern Olympic movement, which was explicitly founded upon a deep-seated national pride; Olympics revivalist Pierre de Coubertin is widely understood to have resurrected the Games as a way of rebuilding French morale after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Certainly it is undeniable that the games were fed by (and helped to fuel) explicitly nationalist sentiments of the competing countries. The Games, like the world itself, may be more individualistic now. That they are also apparently less interesting (as evidenced by TV ratings, etc) seems a small price to pay for that positive development.

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  1. During the 96 games (I think), I watched the end of the Men’s High Jump. There were four athletes left: the two best high-jumpers in the world, who everyone knew were competing for the Gold, the next best high-jumper in the world, who everyone know would get the bronze, and some African guy who had already jumped way beyond his personal best, and somehow was still in the hunt. The bar was placed a couple inches higher than he had ever jumped before, and everyone knew he couldn’t make it.

    So he takes his first run, and knocks the bar off. He takes his second run, and knocks the bar off. He takes his third and final run, and knocks the bar off. He’s lying on his back on the pad, with the bar next to him.

    Then he pushed himself to his feet, raises his arms above his head, and the entire stadium erupts in a standing ovation.

    That’s why I love the Olympics.

  2. Seems like what we have now is more a matter of steroid-enhanced athletes flying flags of convenience thus proving the superiority of absolutely nothing at all.

    It proves the superiority of that individual in that sport, which is all that the Olympics ever proved to begin with. Nothing wrong with celebrating the excellence of those who have striven their entire lives and sacrificed so much for that one moment of glory. Give them the glory.

  3. Were there even teams in the original Olympics? I have, in the past, opined that athletes should compete as individuals, and that no individual sport should have an artificial “team championship” grafted onto it, as is done for gymnastics. In Track and Field (aka Athletics) there are the relays, which require actual teamwork, but why couldn’t four runners from different countries form a team? Basketball, hockey, baseball, soccer football etc. squads don’t need to be based on nationality, either. Fans do love the nationality aspect, as proved by the various World Cups’ success.

    Kevin

  4. Unlike G., I have never been a fan of the Olympics — finding the Cold War version one of having our steroid-enhanced athletes beat their steriod-enhanced athletes, thus proving the superiority of the American Way of Life. Seems like what we have now is more a matter of steroid-enhanced athletes flying flags of convenience thus proving the superiority of absolutely nothing at all. I see the faces of the 14-year old gymnasts, who have been training for this minute or so since the age of two, perhaps so they can get their face on a Wheaties box for the next six months. If THEY aren’t having any fun, how the hell can we???

  5. The middle easterner are actually very competitive in wrestling. That should be very enjoyable to watch as a “proxy to the war on terrorism”.

  6. Whatever glimmer of interest I had in the Olympics faded completely the other night as I watched DreamOn Team hugging each other and rolling on the floor after beating freaking *Germany*. When I first saw it, I was wondering if they had won a medal or something. That spectacle says more about the state of pro basketball than even the pasting they took at the hands of Italy.

    Jeebus, this is going to be a long two weeks…

  7. “The middle easterner are actually very competitive in wrestling. That should be very enjoyable to watch as a “proxy to the war on terrorism”.”

    I thought the whole thing was settled by Sgt. Slaughter’s stunning victory over the Iron Sheik.

  8. Grammar Police can now rest easy.

    RE: Wrestling. Note that I said “relative paucity” of top-notch Middle Eastern athletes. It’s true that Iran and Iraq have very strong wrestling traditions, but they’ve been weakened over the years by Islamist theocracy on the one hand and secularist thuggery on the other.

    Mr. Nice Guy might have stumbled on to the real reason they hate us.

  9. As they went up against the commies, it was a point of pride for me that our Olympic teams didn’t have government sponsorship. Is it still that way?

  10. Simple way to avoid flags of convenience is to enact a rule which states that, once you compete internationally for a given country, you may not represent another. Works great in soccer. Or, dump all the national team nonsense. In another 20 years it’s going to be Team adidas vs. Team Reebok vs. Team Nike, etc. anyway.

  11. It not just the Olympics, all organized professional sports are boring and a stupid waste of money.

    Well, I did like the national skateboarding championships on Saturday afternoon.

  12. Mr. Nice Guy wins the thread.

  13. 1984: everybody got a friggin ten in gymnastics.
    1988: roy jones jr. other boxing scandals. bryant gumbel
    1992: sailing (only spanish were allowed to train on the course – if there are other examples of this, add them here – including US examples.) or the agreement to call the dream team harsher than the other teams. (remember the “foul” on drexler against spain???)
    1996: atlanta and the seething hatred by the euros towards america. bombing. addition of tiddlywinks, chess, poker, and jacking off (although the cling-and-jerk (not clean and jerk) was exciting). i have heard that john tesh should be added, too.

    don’t watch the olympics. work hard to avoid them. except swimming. my only wish was that the most excellent individual, Byron Davis, made the team sometime between 88 and 00. he’s a class person and would have been the new benchmark for the positive ideals of the olympics for generations.

    plus, having seen olympics in 1992-1998 in various foreign countries (where i spoke the languages in question), i have yet to see coverage more jingoistic than the brit coverage. danish and german are close. norwegian winter coverage takes the cake for the winter games. the nationalistic fervor in 1994 among the austrians was kinda worrying, including people getting in the face, literaly, of a friend of mine who was “outed as an american” by the throngs. or the danish curling team in 1998. or the danish handball team in 1996. or the “fatlanta” series run by DR and ARD in 1996.

    it would be great for the basketball team if they didn’t make the medal round. save for the gloating europeans and gloating europhiles who think that a semester abroad is “living” in another country.

    so there.

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