Celebrate Your Right To Ignore (or Watch) the Olympics
Born in nationalism, the Olympic games are fading into a niche entertainment option.
Viewership for the Olympics is down (way down) from 2018, to an audience for the 2022 opening ceremonies that was 43 percent smaller than that which watched the winter games in 2018. But that still leaves millions of Americans choosing to watch the international contest, which is fine. Unlike the situation in many other countries, U.S. Olympic teams are supported by those who spend of their own accord, so everybody is free to glue themselves to the screen, to tune in on occasion, or to totally ignore the event without being compelled to fund the proceedings against their will. And that's as it should be.
"Unlike nearly every national Olympic Committee in the world, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee's Olympic programs receive no federal government support," the Olympic Committee's Team USA Fund notes on its website. "Thus the U.S. relies on private resources to help fund America's elite athletes as they focus on their pursuit of excellence at the games."
Maybe I'm imagining a slightly outraged tone in that begging note, but the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee should be happy that people continue to be willing to voluntarily hand over sufficient funds for the committee to purchase airfare and ski wax for athletes. Organization of these international contests is a boondoggle that lets insecure governments spend vast amounts on propaganda they could have purchased for much less with a few Facebook ads. If you're curious as to why China got to host this year's games (with some events in the middle of what appears to be an industrial park), it's because every slightly reputable contender balked at the dubious honor.
"Oslo is dropping out of bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics, leaving Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing as the only remaining cities seeking to host the event," Slate reported in 2014. "Why? One reason is that people are starting to realize that spending mega-money to build sporting venues that may not ever be used again doesn't make economic sense. Another is that the International Olympic Committee is a notoriously ridiculous organization run by grifters and hereditary aristocrats. Norwegian citizens were particularly amused/outraged (amuseraged) by the IOC's diva-like demands for luxury treatment during the hypothetical Games."
Aren't you glad you get to decide whether or not to financially support the Olympic games?
The choice of proudly dystopian China as this year's Olympic venue contributed in no small part to peeling away viewership for figure skating, luge, and that eternal crowd-pleaser, curling.
"40% of those who said they don't plan to watch cited opposition to the Games being held in China as a factor," Morning Consult found in a poll published before the start of this year's games. But it's not all about politics! More respondents said they would ignore the games because they're not interested in the events (65 percent), not interested in the athletes (57 percent), or just flat-out bored with the Olympics (48 percent). The fact is that there are all sorts of overlapping reasons to refrain from tuning in to the sight of big air skiing in front of concrete cooling towers.
As Nick Gillespie observed in a 2016 piece on the declining relevance of the Olympic games, they are "explicitly nationalistic in a world that is moving toward greater individualism." That's always been one of the weirder aspect of the games, with athletes competing not just on their own behalf, or for teams, but as representatives of countries (even if they've chosen whose colors to wear). The defining moment of the Olympics from my youth was the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" when the underdog Americans upset the favored Soviet team and went on to win the gold medal for hockey. It's difficult to imagine fractured, mutually hostile modern Americans coming together in a vast, flag-waving celebration of a victory in a sporting event as if they all had a hand in the win.
That's for the best, given the silliness, corruption, and expense that goes into efforts to have your community disrupted by these quadrennial(ish) competitions. The bidding process for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City "resulted in 15 counts of fraud, conspiracy and racketeering," though the charges were later thrown out, the Deseret News reported. It was an allegedly reformed and supposedly contrite International Olympic Committee that offended Norwegians roughly a decade later with demands for designated highway lanes, free booze, and meetings with the king. Frankly, it's astonishing that Oslo considered hosting the games at all.
"The $51 billion price tag associated with the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, has scared everyone off," the AP noted that year. Before Oslo pulled out, Stockholm; Krakow, Poland; and Lviv, Ukraine had already withdrawn from consideration over concerns about the cost.
Once again, aren't you glad you get to decide whether or not to financially support the Olympic games?
Of course, bids for the games are separate from the price tag for supporting Olympic teams. But as the dwindling ranks of contenders for the "honor" of hosting the games suggest, places where the residents have any sort of say have largely lost interest in shouldering the expense. Voters in Munich and St. Moritz, Switzerland, explicitly ruled out bids for the 2022 games in referenda on the issue. The Olympics are well on their way to being nothing more than wildly expensive propaganda campaigns for autocratic regimes that don't have to worry about public opinion.
China's government perfectly fits that description. The country is a dictatorship under the rule of the Communist Party. When China hosted the Olympic games in 2008, it displaced 1.5 million people to make room for the events. The 2022 Winter Olympics take place under the shadow cast by concerns over serious human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims, including torture and concentration camps. And, while their situation doesn't begin to rise to that level of awfulness, the athletes themselves complain of abusive treatment, including pandemic measures that conveniently exclude them from competition. If the future of the Olympic games consists entirely of authoritarian regimes taking turns glossing their turds, they richly deserve the dwindling audience that tunes in to view the spectacle.
But maybe some people will choose to continue supporting the Olympic teams and watching them compete in stadiums built for the glory of various unsavory states. So long as that's their decision to make and others are free to turn away in disinterest or revulsion, so be it. Born in nationalism, it's appropriate that the Olympics are withering away to just one option among many available to a niche fanbase.
So, remember the Team USA Fund's advice that "the U.S. relies on private resources to help fund America's elite athletes." Give, or not, as you please, and celebrate the gold-medal fact that it's your decision to make.