[17 February 2014]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
An institution once associated with class, heroism, athletic superiority, equality and, of course, proud patriotism has been deduced to yet another pawn in the ongoing game of international passive-aggression.
In 1901, Viktor Gustaf Balck, often referred to as “the father of Swedish sports”, organized something he called the Nordic Games. At the time, he was friends with the Dude Who Founded The Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin. In a moment of supposed brilliance, Balck began floating the idea of adding a few events to the summer Games. Those events included, among other suggestions, a handful of figure skating competitions.
From there, plans were made to add a week of winter-related sports to the Olympic slate, but silly things such as world wars and petty disagreements got in the way. It wasn’t until 1925 that the International Olympic Committee began recognizing what we now know today as the Winter Olympics, though that distinction was thrown on an event that occurred a year earlier. Thus, history now reads as such: The 1924 “International Winter Sports Week”, as it were, was the first-ever Winter Olympics extravaganza and the Nordic Games, for all the good they did and all the roads they paved, eventually faded away by the end of 1926.
In December 2013, Barack Obama, the President of the United States of America, announced he would send tennis great Billie Jean King and other openly gay American athletes to represent his country at the 24th installment of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, as a way to criticize the host country’s decision to pass a law banning gay “propaganda” to minors earlier that year. A tad “stick it to ‘em”? Maybe. Heart in the right place? Of course. Mildly humorous? You bet. Essential in a world still obsessed with adhering to absurdly archaic values rooted in both hypocrisy and small minds, not to mention unjustifiable hate and ridiculous prejudice that can not be justified by any possible train of thought centered around anything remotely related to fair and/or logical precepts?
Yes. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, yes.
Such dichotomy between the event’s origin and its current day status, however, illustrates precisely why the Winter Olympics don’t—and can’t—hold any weight in contemporary society: It’s outdated. An institution once associated with class, heroism, athletic superiority, equality and, of course, proud patriotism has been deduced to yet another pawn in the ongoing game of international relations passive-aggression. Sure, the spirit behind President Obama’s move was admirable beyond words, but now, two months later, as the Winter Olympics hit their full stride, we are afforded an amount of perspective best summed up by the use of one sarcastic utterance: Really?
The most surprising outcome from America’s stance isn’t that the US stood up for what’s right, all partisanship be damned; rather, it’s the fact that somebody thought the Winter Olympics would be relevant enough to use as a platform to battle injustice in the first place. I mean, my God. If the good, ol’ United States of America truly wanted to throw weight behind an equal rights stance, then maybe the majority of its most popular professional sports league (the NFL) wouldn’t be littering the roads with these alarming “anonymous” quotes discouraging a gay college kid who was brave enough to come out of the closet before he may (or now may not?) be drafted into their ever-lucrative organization.
But I digress. Back to the point.
In more than a century of competition, the Winter Olympics are the most irrelevant they’ve ever been, and that’s not an accident. In fact, as stories about dog genocide, constant threats of terrorism and undrinkable water continue to surface, it could be argued that the event now does more harm than good. Don’t believe me? Take it from Vice:
“While disagreeing on how to effectively send Russian lawmakers a message—whether through an all-out boycott, individual acts of protest at the games, or moving the event to a different country—both sides of the debate began by condemning Russia’s criminalization of homosexuality as the egregious assault on human rights that it is. But this conversation fails to consider the ways in which the Olympic Games violate human rights everywhere they are held,” Michael Toledano wrote in August. “Many of the loudest voices in this debate have argued that Russia’s antigay legislation is antithetical to the unifying and egalitarian spirit of Olympic competition… Although it’s nice to imagine the Olympics as a beacon of peace and equality in a world rife with discrimination, the history of the Games has proven statements like these to be problematic and hollow. So really, Olympic egalitarianism is a dumb, stupid myth.” (“There are so many other reasons to hate the Olympics”)
But why? Why is it that after all these years—and a well-earned, unparalleled amount of both athletic tradition and heritage behind them—have the Winter Olympics felt so out of touch, so… inconsequential? Sure, it used to be the type of grand stage where political statements such as Obama’s could be considered with a gigantic amount of headiness (hello, Jesse Owens), but how did we get to a point in sports history where even if someone did decide to move forward with a display of political or humanitarian protest while competing in Sochi, its effect on everything from popular culture to policy making would be minimal at best, or outright ignored at worst?
Explanations for as much begin and end with evolution. With ebbing and with flowing. More than any other athletic competition in the world, the Olympics are a product of tradition, an event based upon merit. Gone are the days when becoming an Olympic champion was the ultimate goal of any individual hoping to one-day be paid for their performance in sport. In are outlandishly lucrative and enormously attractive professional leagues that not only celebrate physical achievement, but also—and this is important in the context of such a discussion—stardom.
It’s now increasingly rare to become a bona fide celebrity through the Olympic platform. This reality has driven would-be medal-holders to pursue other avenues through which they could be compensated for their athletic gifts. And be compensated well. Really, really well. Think about it: If you’re a 12-year-old deciding on which sport you might want to practice, how much time would you honestly spend checking out the bobsled over a basketball? How many small-town young athletes do you think would choose the glamorous life of a luger over the pomp and popularity of a developmental deal with a Major League Baseball team?
And this isn’t just America, either. As certain sports grow stateside, a global reach has become imperative. Much like international soccer players tour the US to an ever-increasing fan base, everything from American football to American basketball now capitalizes on a growing international market with constant worldwide appearances and even (in the NFL’s case) regular season games. This isn’t 1960, when completing the biathlon was such a widely accepted lifetime achievement, nor is it even 1924, when curling could presumably provide a viable form of year-round income for the competitor (though the latter, in particular, has admittedly enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in popularity in recent years, albeit somewhat ironically, of course).
A change in value, a change in emphasis, a change in perception—these are all at least partially responsible for the public relations hit the Olympics, most notably the Winter Olympics, have endured over the last handful of decades. The world doesn’t view this stuff with as much esteem anymore. Why? Because there’s infinitely more esteem to pass around today than there was 100 years ago. It’s a different climate with different expectations and different perspectives. The IOC can push to engage a younger demographic with as many X-Games knock-off events as it can conjure up, but with a blueprint first dreamed up more than a century ago, such pandering looks more pathetic than provocative. “Let’s go now from ice dancing to the half-pipe!” simply doesn’t have that iconoclastic ring with which the Olympics have previously been correlated.
Plus, the Games, for all their supposed tradition and glory and prestige, have essentially been reduced to nothing more than a TV show. And a delayed, out-of-date TV show at that. Competition results aren’t anymore important in the modern day than the ratings number NBC can (or cannot) pull. And as we all know by now, the only thing worse than watching uninteresting, antiquated athletic competitions featuring athletes of which we’ve never even heard is, well, watching uninteresting, antiquated athletic competitions featuring athletes of which we’ve never even heard—for which we already know the results.
And about those results ...
“I hate them,” Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider said when asked about the Olympics by The Associated Press. “It’s ridiculous, the whole thing is ridiculous. I don’t care if it was in Philadelphia, I wouldn’t want to break up the league. I think it’s ridiculous to take three weeks off, or however long it is, in the middle of the season. It screws up everything. How can anybody be happy breaking up their season? No other league does it, why should we? There’s no benefit to us whatsoever. If anything, I can only see negatives.” (“Flyers Owner Ed Snider On Winter Olympics: I Hate Them”, by Nicholas Goss, 7 February 2014)
Why would Snider say that? Because with the Olympic hockey competition that takes place right in the middle of the NHL’s regular season, the league is forced to suspend play for nearly a month because its stars are off competing for their countries. Outside of being an enormous inconvenience for the organizations involved, it also complicates the validity of a season as a whole. Momentum is ruined. Injuries can occur. The possibility of having great success before the break, only to be followed by dip in play and subsequent collapse after the Games (and vice-versa) is much too real for comfort.
Which ultimately leads me to the biggest, most subliminal reason the Winter Olympics are a hopeless cause: Most hockey enthusiasts would rather see these players compete within the confines of the sixth-most popular sports league in the United States of America (according to a recent Harris poll) than they would on an international, all-or-nothing, for-the-love-of-my-country stage. Now, if that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about the waning popularity of this so-called athletic institution…
It all adds up to this: In the grand scheme of humanity, the Winter Olympics do not hold a particularly lengthy pedigree. A hundred years is quite the run, yes, but that doesn’t mean it should continue to exist based solely on an adherence to tradition. The world is a different place now. It’s much more contentious, much more immediate and much more reactionary.
Or, in short, it’s nothing like it was when Balck introduced the universe to the Nordic Games in 1901, and for that matter, nor is it anything like it was when the Greeks initially fired up the first ancient Olympic Games in eighth century B.C. It’s awfully difficult to think that either party could have, in their wildest imaginations, predicted what the event has become today: Corrupt, outdated, uninteresting and, most sadly of all, a platform so irrelevant in the modern day that even a president’s overtly blatant political shot at another world leader now feels more hollow than it does heroic.
Actually, those two H-words best sum up the distance between where the event once was and where it now stands. And now, if the IOC or any other governing body that cares at all about the legacy of the competition has any brains, it will start concentrating on how to find another notion that somewhat ironically begins what the same eighth letter of the English alphabet: Help. Because unless the Winter Olympics somehow receive a gigantic heap of it sooner rather than later, it may be frozen out of the populous’ conscious once and for all.