Every fourth year there’s a summer Olympics, and as it approaches the news-media predictions for the host city’s prospects always are dire. London (2012) was supposed to have gone under because of traffic congestion, Beijing (2008) from air pollution, Athens (2004) from that’s city’s normal chaos. While there was more than a germ of truth behind all those forecasts, they stemmed mostly from the press’s predilection to predict problems—it’s what we news types do. But in fact all those Games came off pretty well, as did most of those before them.
Beginning Friday (Aug. 5) it’s Rio de Janeiro’s turn, and the naysayers have been more vociferous than ever. Rio is crime-ridden in the best of times and visitors had best beware, they say. The Brazilian economy is in the dumpster and the country’s political turmoil is at full moil. The bay where the sailing races are to take place doubles as a toilet. The mosquito-borne zika virus, the Hemisphere’s new scourge, lurks in every puddle.
I must admit that if I were planning to attend I’d be worried, especially about that last thing. I’d be worrieder yet if I were a woman of child-bearing age-- roughly between the ages of 16 and 40-- because the effects of zika are supposed to fall hardest on the children they produce, even though their own symptoms may be slight. That category, by the way, includes just about every female athlete who will compete, and males who are bitten will be at risk of infecting their young because the disease can be transmitted sexually.
Athlete dropouts have been few, however, and mostly limited to tennis and golf, sports for which the Olympics are not a high priority. In part that may be because of the special precautions being taken, such as the adoption of an official Olympic bug spray (Deet) and a plan to distribute 450,000 free condoms in the Olympic Village, three times the number passed out in London four years ago. With about 10,000 athletes expected to be involved, that works out to about 45 per for the two-week fest. It reminds of the story of the man who, having bought a gross of condoms on a Friday afternoon, was told by the druggist to have a nice weekend. Mostly, though, the jocks’ disdain of danger reflects their mindset that they are invulnerable—that illness and injury are things that happen to other people, not them. Some will be wrong about that, but let’s hope it’s only a few.
But while the Olympics are likely to proceed pretty much as planned, it’s also timely to ask if they’re worth the trouble. Yeah, I know, they aren’t going away, if only because their massive infrastructure, propped up by such corporate-giant sponsors as Coca Cola, Visa, P&G and General Electric, puts them in the “too big to fail” category. When billions of dollars are being passed around, many hands will reach for them.
Still, the Olympics’ foundation has shifted so many times over the years that it’s tough to pin down their reason for being besides the box-office one. Their modern version was begun in the late 19th century by European aristocrats who saw sport as a way in which they and their fellow upper-crusters could rub elbows; their standards of amateurism, which ruled the early Games, were used mainly to deny working people access to their fields of play.
As the Games evolved politics took on an ever-greater, and less-savory, role. The International Olympic Committee, the self-appointed group that runs the show behind the cover of lofty ideals, long has favored authoritarian regimes where the graft is conveniently centralized, allowing Nazi Germany to fly its swastikas over the 1936 summer edition and completing the original Axis of Evil by giving both the 1940 Summer and Winter Games to Imperial Japan and the 1944 Winter Games to Italy before World War II intervened. That practice has continued with the IOC’s largess toward the USSR/Russia and China, both multiple awardees from 1980.
Like everything else about sports, commercial considerations have ruled Olympic decision making in the post-WWII era. While the IOC insisted publicly on amateurism during the first three-plus decades of that span crypto-professionals were allowed to compete under various, winking guises. Now the O’s are mostly for pros, and the major ethical issue has changed to doping, but the IOC’s prioritizing of its show above all else continues.
This was illustrated in its handling of the overwhelming proof that Russia has engaged in a government-operated, long-running effort to dope its athletes and hide the evidence, one that thoroughly corrupted the 2014 Winter Games, which it hosted in Sochi, and maybe still continues. One sport—track and field—has banned from Rio 67 of the 68 Russian qualifiers, but rather than enacting a deserved total ban on the country the IOC kicked further sanctions back to its 27 other single-sport governing bodies, which vary widely in motivation and competence. (The honorary president of the Judo group is the odious Russian prez Vladimir Putin.) As of this week about 380 athletes will march under the Putin (oops, Russian) flag in Rio, down only about 100 from the original list.
The five-ring circus is a great show, and like most of us I’ll be watching it. It’s a showcase for sports I enjoy that get short shrift in our crowded sports calendar. But each of those sports has an annual or biannual world’s championship that provides a similar forum without the Olympics’ baggage. In a better world those would suffice, but we’re stuck with the world we’ve got, O Games and all.