The Olympics is a monster.
Part of me wishes it can be killed off.
There are so many reasons to dislike the Olympics. I’ll start with the smaller-bore problems.
I don’t like listening to athletes prattling on and on about doing it “for their country.” I’m sure they’re capable of patriotic thoughts, but most who get to the top are pretty solipsistic in most circumstances, adding nationalism to their egocentricity seems to whitewash their extreme selfishness, and seems to give them greater license to be monstrous.
Then, there are the people who sue to get their spots on the Olympic team. I’m all for having rules–after all, without rules, there is no sport–but if one needs to go to court against one’s national or Olympic federation, and the suits are usually because coaches are given discretion to choose rather than relying on a formula that only accounts for results, it seems inevitable that the relationship with the national team will be anything but poisoned after that. ‘I’m so for my country that I’ll sue to get on the team, even though the people running federation don’t think I’m capable.’ In fairness, people doing the suing have often said they have a problem with the system, a charge that often seems to have merit, as the selection rules are often set up to give selectors lots of leeway, leeway they often abuse, and the athletes have little recourse. But in 2016, a discretionary pick won the gold medal.
Then, there are the selection procedures themselves. There need to be procedures and they absolutely need to be followed, but allowing coaches to select the team members, which most athletic federations seem to want, is hardly democratic or fair. And it seems that the selection suits of 2016 had an impact on USA Cycling. I understand the desire to have coaches select the team; it can, in the abstract, allow for greater performance as the athletes are chosen because they’re focused on doing well at the Olympics as their goal, not winning their spot as the goal. When the selection is up to the discretion of officials, politics inevitably are involved. But in sports, as with many pursuits, the means should justify the ends. Having godlike selectors choose athletes in an otherwise democratic society seems to undermine democratic ideals.
For 2021, the US MTB Olympic Team had six selection criteria for filling up three men’s slots and three women’s slots. The first five involved scoring results in international races. The sixth, which would only come into play if all slots weren’t filled by specific results, involves discretion from the USA Cycling Selection committee. The US BMX Teams also went by results and rankings. The US Track team has eight critieria, a mix of results and coaches’ discretion, but with specific guidelines for each discipline. The road team has results criteria, but those are pretty steep, top three of the 2019 Individual Time Trial World Championships, so the “long team” is there for coaches to choose from, though it gets smaller as several athletes seem to take themselves out of the running, often because they have conflicting professional goals.
Then there are the guidelines for what countries can participate in the cycling events. It’s not as simple as each country gets an allotment of up to X spots per event, though that used to take place. In the men’s road race, for example, there was a time when every nation got to start up to a set number of riders. It was three per nation in 1988, and that was with 136 starters representing 54 nations.
Now, there’s a system of rankings to determine what countries can even compete. In the men’s road race for 2021, five nations get to start five riders apiece, eight nations get four starters, 11 nations get to start two apiece, and 22 get one. That’s 44 nations in total, and a scheme that already favors the powerful.
This seems pretty explicitly like a violation of “Olympic values.” The International Olympic Committee (IOC) goes so far as to have a webpage devoted to such a declaration.
Here’s how it starts: “The three values of Olympism are excellence, friendship and respect.”
Then goes on to claim:
“Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”
I’m having trouble squaring the declared Olympic values with the reality of athletic participation. They probably want to emphasize “excellence” because they think that draws eyeballs, though Eddie The Eagle indicates otherwise.
But I guess, to be fair, I should point out that Olympic values and reality have probably always had a chasm between them. In the beginning, the Olympics were probably only contested by “gentlemen,” the kind of people who could afford to focus on sport without working. (Maybe it was true for the Tug of War teams, as well) While the idea of “amateurism,” people who participate out of love, is powerful, the reality was probably always a sham, either participants in the Olympics could afford not to work, or were secretly profiting off of their athletic endeavors. And keeping the fiction of amateurism (and racism) probably cost Jim Thorpe his medals and set a precedent for Olympic athletes.
Since they advertise their ideals, it’s even harder to square them with the IOC in general and the circus surrounding The Games. The corrupt vote rigging for the site selection process, the boondoggle expenditures on building out the host sites that end up quickly falling into disrepair, the crass commercialism surrounding the marketing of the games. There’s the giving a non-judgemental platform to autocratic, anti-democratic regimes and whitewashing their crimes. I guess, for some, it can all disappear with some magical performances and the stories that go along with. I’m not holding my breath for magic, or tuning in live to anything. I think there’s more honesty surrounding lesser events.
Since I don’t think they can go away, I’d love to see The Olympics reformed. The problem is there are too many vested interests, too many bureaucracies, keeping the scheme going. Guess I’m voting for starting at the athlete level and moving up.
Yes, Anna Kiesenhofer’s success is one exception. Richard Carapaz’ another. Their successes doesn’t overshadow the ugly monster the Olympics have become. A monster that if it can’t be slayed, should be tamed.