Many cities bid for the Olympics because they have something to prove to the world. Seoul, for example, wanted the 1988 Olympics to showcase an economy that had become a powerhouse and to end an image still mired in the Korean War. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 will demonstrate that China has shed its Marxist-Leninist ways, at least economically. And Johannesburg was given the 2012 games to reward South Africa for rejecting apartheid and to trumpet Africa’s best hope for the future.
Greece, a country that lives off tourism, is no Asian tiger. Hubris, not economic prowess, was behind Athens’ bid for the games. The Greeks really wanted the 1996 Olympics, something they considered a birthright, and lobbied mightily for those centennial games, but were passed over in favor of Atlanta. They were incensed and pressed the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with a vengeance until it gave them the 2004 games.
Now that the Greeks have what they wished for, they are poised to fall flat on their faces as the opening ceremony looms.
The games have changed dramatically since Greece hosted the first modern Olympiad in 1896. Little, however, has changed in Greece. And therein lies the problem.
The games of ’96 were like those of antiquity. A simple stadium with an oval track was all that was needed to stage them. And the ancients would have felt right at home.
Since the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the games have become entwined with economies, and are as much about economic prowess as they are about athletic prowess. Every emerging nation with a big city wants to host the Olympics because this means it has arrived. And hosting the games has become de rigueur for Asian economies, too. The opportunity was bestowed first on Tokyo, and then on Seoul. Now it’s Beijing’s turn to impress the world.
One of the burdens of hosting the Olympics is to surpass what the previous host country had done. But trying to better the hugely successful 2000 Sydney Olympics has overwhelmed little Greece. In fact, construction for the various venues was so far behind a few years ago that the IOC threatened to replace Athens with, among possible cities, Seoul. That did not happen. But it does not mean all is ready on Mount Olympus. There is, for example, a plan to place huge canvasses of classical scenes in front of the many unfinished construction projects around Athens, turning it into a Potemkin village.
The only thing on schedule so far is the Olympic torch relay (sponsored by Samsun), and this is going on outside of Greece. The relay is a vindication of the Americans. For the Greeks, keepers of the eternal flame at Olympia, vilified the Americans for crass commercialism when the people running the Atlanta Olympics decided a torch relay around America would be a good way to generate interest in the gamess, and to generate money as well. The acolytes at Olympia even threatened to withhold the flame from the opening ceremony in Atlanta. But the Australians, four years later, reckoned a torch relay was a jolly good idea, running one around their own continent before the torch entered the 2000 Sydney Olympic Stadium and ignited its cauldron. Now the Greeks are keen on the relay, sending their torch all over the globe.
Rather than trying to stage yet another Olympic spectacular that will leave the taxpayer with an economic hangover for years to come, the Greeks have the moral authority to buck a system that has pursued crass commercialism and to refocus the games on the classical ideals that created them.
That could be done by de-emphasizing team and exotic sports which have nothing in common with the ancient Olympics, were not included in the first modern games and are why today’s games are so bloated and financially prohibitive to stage. Do we really need soccer and basketball in the Olympics when we have World Cup and sundry other soccer Cups, and the National Basketball Association playoffs and the World Basketball Championship? Ditto for baseball, volleyball, field hockey and all the rest. And do we really need tennis and cycling when we have Davis Cup and four tennis Grand Slams, and the Tour d’ France and other cycling Tours? I expect a lot of people don’t even know that yachting is an Olympic sport, or could care less.
Yet all those team and exotic sports are what bloated the Olympics, sending the price tag for staging them sky high -- Athens will cost $7.5 billion -- while diminishing the prestige of classical events.
The Olympics should be about track & field, gymnastics, boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling and the Marathon, classical sports whose athletes dwell in obscurity for years, and often live penuriously, while training for the games in the hope of basking in Olympic glory for a few short weeks. The Marathon, for example, has been overshadowed by sports that didn’t even exist in the time of the ancient games.
Ticket sales were hardly enough to offset the price of staging the ever-expanding games, which had become dependant on money from American TV networks. By 1992, the astronomical price for hosting the bloated Barcelona Olympics was, in large part, paid for by the exorbitant fee the NBC TV network had to pay the IOC for exclusive rights to the games. NBC, in turn, wanted a return on its investment and evaluated the marquee events that it expected would rivet the attention of millions of American viewers and, therefore, put millions of advertising dollars into its own coffers. But the possibility of a repeat of the Seoul Olympics, when the American team for the first time failed to play in the gold medal basketball game, was troubling NBC. For a gold medal game without the Americans was a product the sponsors were not buying.
That paved the way for the Dream Team -- the cream of the NBA, and the most famous team, ever -- to play for the USA.
I was never a fan of the Dream Team. And if I had been President of the United States in 1992, the Dream team never would have gotten on the plane for Barcelona. They did because America’s pride was piqued over not qualifying for the gold medal game in Seoul. Although teams of all-American college boys were highly competitive, winning the gold medal against European national teams composed of quasi professionals who had been playing together for years was daunting. Rather than accept that international players had caught up and that the Olympic basketball court was now level, the USA decided to regain supremacy by using professionals from the NBA.
That was a selfish decision that took the competitiveness out of Olympic basketball, turning it into a one-team show -- the Dream Team.
NBC, of course, was quick to jump on the Dream Team’s bandwagon when debate arose over whether the USA should field a team of NBA professionals, an idea that had never been popular with Americans, who viewed their college boys as a vestige of true Olympic amateurism. Indeed, allowing professionals to play for the USA had been considered a betrayal of the Olympic movement. As far as NBC was concerned, the Dream Team was money in the bank.
Now everyone was happy. The IOC got its money from NBC, and the TV network had exclusive rights to the biggest event since the revival of the Olympics in 1896 ? the arrival of the Dream Team in Barcelona.
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