Why the games don't matter any more-and why that's a good thing
So the Summer Olympics—sorry, the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad (dum, dum, de dum, dum, dum, dum)—are just about over. Among the myriad maudlin, soft-focus "human interest" profiles of various athletes on NBC, we've been treated to stunning and even inspirational gold medal performances by the likes of swimmer Michael Phelps, gymnast Paul Hamm, and beach volleyball duo Kerri Walsh and Misty May (May injected a tremendous, welcome, and almost certainly unprecedented level of great American freak factor into the competition by carrying a vial of her dead mother's ashes in her courtside valise).
But really, who gives a shit?
Once arguably the world's premier sporting spectacle, the games, in both their winter and summer versions, no longer command the cultural attention they once enjoyed. Ratings in the U.S. may be up from the Sydney games, but it's clear that the Olympics, like so much else in a world characterized by cultural proliferation, an ever-growing list of options for expression and enjoyment, just don't matter the way they used to. As recently as 20 years ago, it seemed as if the world stopped to watch the Olympics. But no more.
Put another way, Michael Phelps will never be as famous as Mark Spitz remains 32 years after his unprecedented triumph, and not simply because the big winner in Athens failed in his quest to surpass Munich's wonder boy in accumulating gold (even as Phelps set a record for medals in a single games). The stakes of Olympic competition just ain't what they used to be, which means the games' champions will never again loom so large in our hearts and minds.
There are many reasons for this, virtually all of them positive. Time was when the Olympics were the only place U.S. viewers could catch all-too-rare glimpses not simply of exotic sports but of exotic competitors. Other than the games (and the odd, fleeting segment on the old Wide World of Sports), you'd never see weightlifting, much less bicycling sprints, archery, Greco-Roman wrestling, you name it, on television. If you were a track-and-field enthusiast, you had to be content with occasional short pieces in Sports Illustrated unless you were lucky enough to know about tiny circulation mags such as Track and Field News.
The Olympics were to regular sports coverage what Howard Johnson, with its dazzling 28 flavors, was to the old vanilla-only Dairy Queen. The Olympics literally paraded in front of Americans a procession of strange, wonderful athletes from faraway lands, people with strange names, faces, and talents. Figures such as the barefooted Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia, say, the first runner to win two Olympic marathons; Klaus Dibiasi, the legendary Italian diver who was the first to win three successive golds in his field; and Nadia Comenici, the Romanian gymnast who pulled no fewer than seven perfect scores during the '76 Games (that she scored one to the strains of the theme from the soap opera The Young & the Restless makes her accomplishment that much more impressive).
But in an increasingly globalized world, one in which goods and people migrate without a second thought, such variety and such mixing is an everyday occurrence. An ever-growing number of niche cable channels deliver ever-more tailored sports content and the World Wide Web caters to every possible fetish, in sports every bit as much as porn. Compared to 30 years ago, it's a much smaller globe—and a far more interesting world. But in such a setting, the Olympics lose a good deal of what the ad men would call their "unique selling proposition."
Even more important, the great geopolitical struggles that energized the Olympics have almost completely vanished. First and foremost among these, of course, was the Cold War. Every bit as much as Korea, Vietnam, and Berlin, the Olympics were one of the great proxy battles of the Cold War, pitting the Free World vs. the Iron Curtain, Western Europe vs. Eastern Europe, the U.S.A. vs. the U.S.S.R. Bruce Jenner's 1976 triumph in the decathlon was not simply about shattering a world record; it also represented a slapdown of the 1972 champion, Nikolai Avilov, the Soviet "man machine" who struggled to bronze in Montreal. Nor was the Cold War the only political subtext to enliven the Olympics. Almost as compelling was the rise to athletic dominance of former colonies such as Kenya in track and India and Pakistan in field hockey.
Every Summer Olympics from 1968 through 1984 occasioned some sort of major protest or boycott. The '68 Mexico City Games saw a variety of student protests and, from the winner's stand in the men's 200 meter sprint, black power salutes from the U.S. athletes Tommy Smith and John Carlos (they were answered by heavyweight boxer George Foreman's waving an American flag after punching his way to gold). Most black African nations boycotted the '76 games in Montreal to protest New Zealand's participation. (The Kiwi national rugby team had played against South Africa, which was banned from Olympic competition; through rugby was not an Olympic sport, the African nations demanded New Zealand's exclusion before they would participate.) The United States boycotted the Moscow Games in 1980 to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Soviets returned the favor four years later, refusing to attend the Los Angeles games, citing "security concerns."
The most disturbing of the political controversies was undoubtedly the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich games by the Palestinian group Black September. The terrorists' violence was compounded by the speech given by International Olympics Committee head Avery Brundage. Brundage declared that the games would continue—a controversial if defensible position. But in saying that the games "must go on," Brundage, who had enjoyed a warm relationship with Adolf Hitler during the '36 Munich Games, refused to plainly mention the killings. Rather, he bemoaned the fact that the Olympics had suffered "two savage attacks," a euphemistic reference to the murders and a campaign underway to expel Rhodesia, then a white-supremacist nation, from participating in the games.
The political struggles undermined the level of athletic competition. In 1976, for instance, they robbed spectators of seeing the great Tanzanian miler Filbert Bayi square off against New Zealand's John Walker in the men's 1500 meters, arguably the most highly anticipated track race of the past 50 years. But geopolitics nevertheless made the Olympics important in a way that they never again will be. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the colonial period have (thankfully) seen to that. Whatever else one might say about it, the rise of militant Islam and the ongoing war on terrorism (or whatever you want to call it) is unlikely to intersect with the Olympics in ways similar to the last half of the 20th century.
In short, the Olympics matter less because we live in a better world, one filled with innumerable options for leisure and one mostly—though by no means completely—free from the most onerous aspects of geopolitical strife. We live in a world where nations matter less than individuals, a reality that is mirrored by the increasing number of "nation-hopping" Olympians.
If this all takes away some of the luster to the medals won in Athens, that's a price even the most ardent sports fans are likely happy to pay.