Thursday, April 4

Olympic Dreams

Ah! The dream latent in every human breast to control the universe. In my case, I would settle for being put in charge of the Olympic Games and the Academy Awards. I care very little about the results of the latter, which give the venerable genre of farce a bad name, but I know that I could condense the show itself into a dignified, hour and a half production. I will spare you the details of that plan, but, if you will indulge me, the following are my humble suggestions for the Olympics.

The skating scandal that dominated the past Olympics (and which is the subject of my column elsewhere in this issue) is only the latest manifestation of a problem that threatens many of the Summer and Winter Olympic Games’ most popular events: subjective judging. Judged events, which hardly merit the appellation “sports,” are the bane of right-thinking viewers everywhere, but are manna to the non-sports fans whom NBC must court in order to justify charging the exorbitant advertising fees necessary to recoup the 3.57 billion dollars it spent for the right to televise the Olympics until 2008. The credulity and general lack of any interest whatsoever in the minutiae of competition, which characterize this audience, are also responsible for such reportorial abominations as tape delayed broadcasts, commercial breaks during live play of hockey games, interminable chatter throughout actual competition and time-wasting human interest stories between them, when NBC could be showing less popular but live events.
One local commentator has aptly compared the Olympic movement’s sordid relationship with NBC to that of a drug-addicted whore to her johns: “Do with me what you will, as long as you pay me.” And the violations that NBC commits every two years to the compliant body of the Olympic Games do not, unfortunately, stop at the telecasts. The preferences of NBC and its viewers have also played a large part in seducing the IOC into transforming the games into a live version of a Gen-Y videogame.
The IOC has allowed its Games to grow fat with pseudo-sports (most of them, not surprisingly, judged events) like snowboarding, aerial skiing, and Title IX-inspired events like ladies’ ice hockey and bobsled. While the X-Games-inspired events are unmitigated embarrassments, the inclusion of new ladies’ events is more difficult to criticize. The IOC should be applauded for its efforts to encourage ladies’ sports around the world, but the inclusion of events in which only a handful of countries (or, in the case of ice hockey, where Canada and the United States have only ever lost to each other, two countries) have any chance whatsoever of winning, seems antithetical to the spirit of the Olympics. There would, rightly, be a hue and cry worthy of the poor souls on left hand of God at the Final Reckoning if American Football were added to the Summer Olympics.
These new events are problematic for the Winter Games, which are struggling to retain some traces of their historic intimacy; in the Summer Games, which are already bloated to mastadonic proportions, they are a serious matter indeed. It is no wonder that the IOC has recently appointed long-time Vice-President Dick Pound (no, that’s not just a gay porn sobriquet) to head a commission to suggest ways of cutting the size and cost of the Olympic Games. With this goal in mind, I hereby submit my humble recommendations, none of which stands the slightest chance of ever approaching consideration.

1. Immediately cap the number of events at the present level and forget about adding any new ones. There must be no further nonsense about adding any more non-sports to the Games. Ballroom dancers, ski ballerinas, I’m looking at you. Events included in previous Olympics, but currently out of favor, are exempt from this provision (more on them later).

2. Integrate as many events as possible. Until Atlanta, in 1996, ladies competed against gentlemen in the shooting events; now they compete separately. No more. Shooting, curling, and archery should henceforth join equestrian events as co-ed sports.

3. Events requiring the participation of large teams should be kept to a minimum. One way to eliminate some of these events would be to require the participation of the best athletes in the world in order for the sport to be included in the Olympics. Immediately, dropping baseball and soccer (which is really a modified Under-23 tourney) would pare several hundred athletes from the Summer Games roster. The Olympics is no place for merely good athletes; it is for the very best of the very best. The passing into history of the noble ideal of the gentleman amateur is a deplorable matter, but now that the best athletes in the world have chosen to sacrifice that ideal on the altar of Mammon, the Games has chosen to accommodate them rather than to disavow its claim to be the ultimate athletic competition. A corollary of this decision, which cannot be gainsaid, is that there is no place in the Olympic Games for any but the best athletes.

4. Sports with too many sub-events should be cut down to size. In 1932, there were four shooting events; today there are seventeen. Four is more than enough. The same goes for Sailing, where eleven classes could be profitably reduced to two or three. (This might be a tough sell to IOC President Jacques Rogge, a former Olympic yachtsman, but even he might sanction the elimination of boardsailing.) As a core sport, and essential to the Summer Olympics, Athletics (or Track and Field to Americans) should be spared this process of reduction.

5. Ideally, Gymnastics, Rhythmic Gymnastics, Figure Skating, Ice Dancing, Boxing, Diving, and all other similarly subjective events should be eliminated. This will never happen, of course, but I would settle for exscinding the subjective, judged components of Ski Jumping and Moguls. In the former event, the longest jump should win. Period. As in the long jump, style in ski jumping should be measured by the result of the jump, not vice versa. In moguls, the “tricks” make a mockery of what is otherwise a pure, downhill race.

6. There should be a return to pure sports. By pure, I mean athlete-determined (as opposed to judge-determined) events that rely on athletic ability or sporting skill rather than artistic merit. The level of fitness, strength and agility required in events like gymnastics and figure skating is truly admirable, but neither of these events is any more a sport than is ballet, which requires a similar combination of athleticism and artistry. An example of a laudable recent addition to the Games is triathlon, which debuted in Sydney and should be a regular event in future Summer Games. For more such pure events, the IOC would do well to look to the history of the Games. Tug-o-war (included six times between 1900 and 1920) seems an obvious and potentially riotously successful candidate for re-inclusion. Pigeon shoots and Polo would also make lively additions to the Summer Games.

Of course, none of these changes will come to pass. The Olympic movement’s downward descent, accelerated by NBC’s extortionate pressure, appears irreversible. It is almost certain that we will live to see the day when a scrofulous teen, unfit to lace the sainted Paavo Nurmi’s spikes, is awarded the first gold medal for skateboarding. At that moment, the rout of Baron de Coubertin’s glorious vision will be complete. The revolution will be televised, on tape delay.