So the "Games of the XXXI Olympiad" have their official opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro tonight, around 7:30 P.M. ET on NBC.
If you grew up digging off-beat sports and are of a certain age (read: my age), this was the day you waited four fricking years for. Finally, a chance to see sports that network broadcasters couldn't be bothered to cover on any sort of regular basis (track and field, rowing, archery, soccer, table tennis, etc), get introduced to a weird, attractive cast of characters from Europe, Africa, and elsewhere (that tragic John Akii-Bua was one fast motherfucker!), and watch Cold War proxy battles up the wazoo (America's '70s decline started here)! God bless you, Jim McKay, you glorious, yellow-jacketed anchorman whose poise and occasional breakdowns guided us through the tragic and the triumphant like nobody before or since.
But that was then—and by then, I mean any time prior to the Atlanta games, which featured terrorist violence and the absolutely shittiest mascot of any sports-related event ever (see image to right of Whatizit or "Izzy"). Over the past several decades, the Olympics (both Summer and Winter) have faded as a meaningful arena of athletic competition and spectacle. In this, they are like many artifacts of the long 20th century—World's Fairs, say, and beauty contests—that have outlived their heydays. The World Cup is gaining in strength, while the Olympics…well, it was nice knowing you.
Here are some of the many reasons why (relatively speaking) nobody gives a shit about the Olympics anymore, and why that's not a bad thing at all.
- The end of the mostly-fake-but-still-compelling fiction that participants were "amateurs" who competed out of mere love of the game.
- A fuller understanding of just how much cheating went on among the athletes. First, it was the massive revelations about juicing by Iron Curtain teams but post-Cold War, it became clear that many Western athletes (Ben Johnson! FloJo! Marion Jones!) who won our hearts were faking it too (except for Carl Lewis, the greatest track and field Olympian yet one who was never fully embraced by the crowds, either). [*]: See below for more explanation.
- The mainstreaming of sports TV and the ability of less-popular sports to gain an audience independent of the Olympics.
- The disturbing spectacle of the Games being hosted by tyrannical and/or bankrupt countries and cities that wasted huge amounts of money on conspicuous consumption (Beijing, Moscow and Sochi, and Athens obviously, but let's never forget Montreal too!).
- An endless stream of scandals implicating national-level Olympic Committees but also the IOC itself in just terrible, terrible behavior.
- The growth in cosmopolitanism around the globe, meaning that we are no longer as mesmerized by "exotic" athletes from foreign countries.
- Oscar Pistorius.
- Bob Costas.
- Rick Wakeman's 1976 soundtrack to the Innsbruck Winter Games, White Rock.
- Brazil's political instability, Zika problems, and inability to control sewage.
- The long, acrid hangover from the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, during which the Palestinian terrorist group Black September killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches. In the wake of the murders, the head of the IOC, American Avery Brundage, famously declared that "the Games must go on," despite "two savage attacks." For Brundage, a lifelong racist and personal friend of Adolf Hitler (as head of the USOC during the '36 Games in Berlin, Brundage watch track and field competitions from der Fuhrer's box and pressured the American track coach to sideline Jewish runners), the second "attack" during the '72 Games was a threatened boycott of the Olympics by African nations if apartheid Rhodesia was allowed to compete. Beyond all that, endless boycotts for this or that reason, usually tied to politics, not athletics.
- The Olympics, designed as a means by which France might avenge its loss in the Franco-Prussian War, is explicitly nationalistic in a world that is moving toward greater individualism.
- "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." And the rise of an actual "refugee team."
- The IOC's insane attempt to control and regiment all aspects of the Games on the Internet, including a prohibition on GIFS, Vines, and other home-brewed content. Apart from all the scandals, the IOC is the athletic equivalent of Metallica, busting the balls of its most-fervent fans in the hope of squeezing a few more nickels out of a dying franchise.
[*] Updated, August 7: A number of people in the comments and on social media have asked a variation on the question: What's wrong with using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs)? Longtime readers of my work know that I'm generally in favor of PEDs and I refuse to draw any sort of bright line between training regimens and drugs. Each are unnatural in their own ways and each is designed to give competitors an advantage; each also might help but also might not. In some sports—Major League Baseball and the NFL come to mind—acknowledgement of the widespread use of PEDs have had little to no effect on attendance and interest. Indeed, for baseball and football, individual players might get bad press but the fans have kept on coming because they like the overall results. In other sports, though, the exposure has caused an evacuation of spectators. Professional cycling has always used PEDs—early Tour de France riders used booze, strychnine, and caffeine—but revelations about Lance Armstrong and others severely damaged interest in the sport in the United States. I'd argue that something similar happened with the Olympics too, where the producers of the events were constantly bombarding us with rhetoric about how high-minded the goals of the Games are. This isn't a moral position, it's simply an observation: When fans feel like they're being lied to, they often (though not always) will head for the exits.