Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The shame of the Olympic Games

Several years ago on a trip to Greece, we visited Olympia, and I stood on the ancient site where the first athletes wrestled. This was my sport in high school and college, and I felt a sense of awe as I stood on the hallowed ground. Excuse the cliches, but I feel like I was touching a great part of the history of civilization.

So, now to today's gripe, which has been building up for some time. The New York Times had a front page story in today's sports section about a teenager training for this summer's London Games on his BMX bicycle. Yes, this is an Olympic sport, and one with a tradition of about fifteen minutes compared with something like tossing a discus, a javelin, and wrestling.

I'm a realist and a progressive, and I understand the need to keep the games modern, commercial, and in touch with our times. But the money and the TV and subsequent professionalization of the athletes have so completely overwhelmed the spirit of the games and competition that I've finally had enough. I'm not even going to watch the classic events. I'm gone as a viewer, and I don't really care which country, which athletes, win gold or otherwise.

The politics of which sport gets in and which does not have really killed my taste for this quadrennial spectacle. Softball is now gone. But BMX biking is in. Why? Well, it's telegenic, it gets sponsorship, it means money and spectators, so it's like letting a kiddie version of NASCAR inside the gates. Softball, alas, does not do all that.

The tradition has long been eroding, but now it is completely gone. A sport like squash racquets, which (full disclosure -- I play for fun and exercise) has been around for 120 years or so. Squash officials have been petitioning the Olympic committee for entry into the games for several years now. They are continually denied. The sport has world class athletes in several countries -- including, Pakistan, the UK, and Australia -- and is widely played in dozens of countries which would attract a viewership. I know, I know. There's no money in squash. There is in tennis, and that's why tennis is in the Olympics.

I once read an article about a marathoner who was training for the Games, and he was quoted as saying that the long-distance runners were a different kind of fraternity, one where there was a real fondness for their fellow competitors. He said that the uniforms and numbers didn't even matter. They would all run in white T-shirts and shorts and they'd know who was who. It was all about character and the journey, and not about the medals, and certainly not about money and the TV rights.

We've certainly come along way since those early days in Greece, haven't we. Unfortunately, the distance we've traveled hasn't amounted to much.