Olympic Apathy

Max Boot asks, “It’s the Olympics, but Do You Really Care?”

To get into the Olympic spirit, I recently watched “Miracle,” a Disney docudrama about the American hockey team’s improbable victory over the reigning Soviet champions at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980. It didn’t work. All it did was make clear the vast chasm between the exciting events depicted in the movie and the bloated, cheerless extravaganza due to start Friday. The stakes couldn’t have been higher in 1980 — or lower today. Back then, the contest on ice was, quite literally, a “cold war” between two superpowers. Something similar happened at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which Hitler staged as a tribute to the Aryan ubermensch, only to be shown up by the prowess of African American sprinter Jesse Owens.

There might be equally high drama today if our current enemies chose to compete in sporting events. Unfortunately, if Al Qaeda fielded an Olympic team it would be made up entirely of airplane divers and bomb tossers. All things considered, let’s hope they boycott the Games. But in their absence, it’s hard to get worked up about the U.S. medal count versus Russia, China or any other nation. Ironically, the very fact that most countries are engaged in peaceful competition — the Olympic ideal — renders this Olympics uninteresting.

Given the dearth of geopolitical competition, we are left to contemplate the actual competition on the field. Unfortunately, it’s impossible for this couch potato — I can’t speak for any other spud — to care who wins the 400-meter hurdles, the long jump or the hammer throw. And those are all part of the “marquee” event, track and field. Imagine shouting yourself hoarse over the outcome of table tennis or epee fencing.

I have nothing but admiration for the fortitude and grit of all Olympic competitors, especially in the more obscure events where there is no pecuniary reward. I also have nothing but respect for what scientists and doctors do. But that doesn’t mean I want to watch them in action.

Sports like football, baseball and basketball have intrinsic appeal to millions of people because their fans follow them all the time and know the players. We see most Olympic events only once every four years. It’s like meeting some long-lost cousin. Are you going to gush over her? It’s true that all the Olympic sports are contested year in, year out, but few receive any coverage, at least in this country. Yet every four years we’re supposed to get worked up over who does and who does not snare a gold medal.

It has been a while since I found the Olympics interesting. Boot and I aren’t alone, as Kevin Drum, Brian Weatherson, and their commenters demonstrate.

The reasons are manifold. I enjoy spectator sports but need a rooting interest to be more than casually interested. That was easy in 1980, when the U.S. was fielding teams of amateurs against the evil, cheating commies with their professional-in-name-only teams. Since then, it has gotten more difficult. The 1980 Moscow summer games were ruined by Jimmy Carter’s boycott, which was reciprocated by a boycott of our games in Los Angeles in 1984. The Seoul Games in 1988 restored legitimate competition but never quite recaptured the magic. None of the games since have mattered to me. Frankly, I simply expect the U.S. team to win every worthwhile event, since we’re the biggest, richest nation competing. Where’s the sport in whipping up on Lithuania?

Greed and poor marketing decisions on the part of the Olympic organizers and their partners in crime at NBC have also made the games less appealing. Somewhere along the lines, they decided that no one really cared about the events but rather wanted girly soap opera stories. Rather than show sporting competition, we started getting treated to docudramas on the Bulgarian luge specialist who lost an arm, his left eye, and his dog Boris in a horrible childhood accident but struggled to overcome these odds and become the 493rd best luger in all the world.

They no longer show events “live,” instead broadcasting edited summaries of them long after the results have been on the Internet and SportsCenter. And they don’t even handle this honestly, instead staging a phony dramatic event like the women’s gymnastics team in 1996 and little Kari Shrug’s twisted ankle. Oh, if she could only stick her landing despite the agony she was in, the team could win gold! In fact, her vault was meaningless, as the team had already assured themselves of first place minutes earlier. The television audience didn’t know that, though, so, through the magic of tape delay–and this was an Olympics held in Atlanta, not halfway around the world–we got treated to a staged lie.

Kevin Drum is right:

There’s really no sense of genuine sport anymore; it’s like watching a highlight reel. What’s worse, since they often only show heats in which Americans have done well, it’s a highlight reel where you frequently have a pretty good idea how it’s going to turn out.

Part of the essential ambience of watching a sporting event, I think, is seeing the whole thing, even the boring bits where nothing much is happening. When you edit a 4-hour event down to 30 minutes of pure action, it may be exciting but it just isn’t sports anymore. It’s a video game.

And not even a good video game.

The Olympics have been cheapened in other ways. The once-quadrennial event got watered down when someone decided to alternate the winter and summer games, so we now have them every two years. The result is that the Olympics are no longer novel.

While amateurism had long been a sham, the infusion of true professionals into the Games has also diminished them. The Dream Team was fun in 1992, simply because it made a point that needed making, but all subsequent iterations have been meaningless. Our top NBA players, understandably, don’t want to go and live in an Olympic village somewhere after a grueling season of 82 regular season and 612 playoff games, especially when a gold medal is the only acceptable result. Ditto Olympic hockey with NHL players, professional tennis players, and all the rest. If an Olympic gold medal isn’t the signature achievement in the sport, it shouldn’t be an Olympic sport.

Speaking of things that shouldn’t be Olympic sports, what are synchronised swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, archery, badminton, canoeing, horse riding, and so many other events doing in the Olympics?! If it’s not about speed, strength, or some other human athletic achievement, who cares? What’s next, Olympic poker? An Olympic dog show?

Also, while it was probably mythological, there was something interesting about the idea that our athletes were clean amateurs while the commies were all professionals doped up on illegal substances. Now, most of our athletes seem to be cheating as well. There’s something sad about cheating to win at a sport that no one cares about 1447 days out of every 1461.

Update: Robert Tagorda and Donald Sensing disagree. They even watched the opening ceremonies.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Well, I admit to being a fool for everything competitive. If you put cock fighting on ESPN2 with the proper color commentary, I’d probably watch that, too.

  2. I think that there have been movements to get Bridge aand poker into the Games.

  3. John Doe says:

    The canoeing event sounds lame, but is as athletic as any other rowing event. It can be criticized as superfluous, but certainly requires strength and endurance.

    And it’s obvious you’ve never played competitive badminton before.

  4. Dodd says:

    Kevin Drum is right:

    Now there’s something you don’t hear every day.