Bloated as they are, the Olympics have room for another sport: Forecasting doom for the Olympics.
Skeptics from all participating nations already have a deep bench for the proposed sport. Each can choose from many critics to pursue many heckle points: Too big. Too expensive. Too corrupt. Too irrelevant to global crises. Too NBC. Too American. Too rhythmic gymnastics.
This year’s version that concluded Sunday in Tokyo had even more pre-Games condemnations.
Not only did COVID-19 force a one-year postponement, the re-start was threatened by a re-start of a fresh wave of infections. Demands for a cancellation came from all parts, especially within Japan, where a big majority of polled residents figured the 32nd Olympiad would become known as Superspreader One.
The Tokyo Organizing Committee made a tactical change: After earlier banning all international Olympics tourists, they declared a state of emergency in order to lock the stadium/arena/pool gates to Japanese fans too.
The apex moments of human athletic achievement would be contested without their supportive humanity. No hands clapping.
Dreadful, dubious and dull as the void made some events seem, the Games nevertheless were completed.
All 339 events in 33 sports came off and a record 92 nations won medals among the record 205 participating countries — 206, if you include the skanky Russians, whose home-court cheating in the 2014 Sochi Games was so brazen and massive that Russia should have been banned until President Putin’s term expires in 2066.
The numbers of sports, nations and athletes continue to grow positively, something that can be said about exactly zero other current endeavors requiring global cooperation that are worthwhile (that excludes you, authortarians).
The ability to hand in a completed assignment without further disruption is a massive tribute to the workers, paid and unpaid, in Japan, as well as all the athletes and other principals who sacrificed to help pull off the deed a year late and many dollars short.
At last report via the Japan Times, the number of reported positive covid cases by the organizing body among Olympics athletes, coaches, support personnel, workers, media and volunteers was 404 over the 39 days since July 1. That’s a teensy amount of the nearly 40,000 credential-wearers in the controlled Olympics environment.
But the need to mask what are typically the world’s happiest youthful faces was an incontrovertible downer, starting with an almost austere Opening Ceremony. NBC paid more than $1 billion to run 7,000 hours of games coverage across all of its broadcasting and streaming channels, and ratings were off nearly 50 percent from the 2016 Games in Rio. That U.S. audience averaged 29 million a night, and the Tokyo draw averaged 16.8 million.
Eye moisture for NBC is hard to come by. It has insurance for ratings flops, and it typically offers free future ad time to advertisers to make good any shortfalls. The network also has a huge stockpile of cash from previous pandemic-free Olympics. Besides, they’re lucky enough to employ Mike Tirico, possibly the smoothest/smartest sports broadcaster ever.
But sighs can be heaved in the direction of the Tokyo organizing committee, the host cities and many contractors and vendors who were counting on hundreds of thousands of mostly wealthy tourists to pay some of the enormous run-up costs. They were stiffed. Then again, that happens with nearly every Olympics host, pandemic or not.
That brings up the biennial question: Have the Olympics out-lived their usefulness?
Cities going into the bid process know they will undertake great expense to build things that may get little or no future uses. The totalitarian regimes of China, Russia and Brazil don’t have to care. But those of us in the threatened supply of Western democracies are supposed to prioritize public welfare too.
As Atlanta in 1996 was criticized for displacing thousands of low-income people and homes to make room for new Olympics facilities, Tokyo came under severe internal criticism for misplaced priorities, even though the 1964 Games there were a big success.
Cities like Tokyo, London, Los Angeles and Paris are pythons that more easily can swallow the Olympics pig. As someone who has worked nine Olympics, my experience was that two places should be the permanent homes for the Games: Sydney for summer (which is winter Down Under) and Lillehammer, Norway, for winter.
Why reinvent the wheel when those two places made it perfectly round? But no.
At least the International Olympic Committee reformed itself in 2014, changing the process so that cities no longer make extravagant bid presentations, which traditionally included bribes, to IOC voters.
Until the IOC runs out of willing cities, the Olympics, despite shortcomings, will continue to trot the planet and have a global value. Especially now, when the political fractures run so deep, and not just in the U.S.
Apart from the sports drama itself, time after time over two weeks athletes demonstrated an international spirit of engagement and respect. In my experience, it has always been so. What’s changed is the surrounding world, where demagogues look to divide by demonizing outsiders with messages of fear. To see it happening in America only adds to the urgency to preserve a global tradition, where working together under the same rules toward the same goals is an accepted norm that enhances all.
Fercripesakes, we’re supposed to be doing that with vaccines.
Suppose the IOC says, “It’s too hard. The hell with it.” The bad guys win.
It’s an easy argument to make that the Olympics are a dilettante endeavor that enhances corporate bottom lines because we in the audience are easy marks for sappy, against-all-odds sagas. But there is simply no other global cultural platform that demonstrates there are far fewer things that separate us than bring us together, and allows us to celebrate the success of other nationalities without perceiving a threat.
Whether via TV or in person, experiencing a few Olympics helps inoculate people against jerkism.
Not long after after I had put away my clothes and and gear for the first day my tiny dorm room in Calgary for the Winter Games in 1988, I heard noises next door. First mumbles, then shouts in a language unfamiliar, then some banging.
After a few minutes, I decided it was going to be a longer two weeks if I didn’t make a case for quiet. I knocked on the next door. A dour, red-faced guy answered. He had minimal English skills, and after glancing at his media credential attached to his lanyard, I knew I had no Bulgarian language skills.
After a few moments doing the International Dance of the Awkward, I determined that he was mad that his desktop cable-TV wasn’t working — “snow,” to you older kids — which is a big deal for reporters who have to track different events on different channels in different languages.
I fiddled with the remote, looked at the the cable connections in the back and the wall. Seeing nothing wrong, I went to my TV, which was working. I looked at my set-up and realized his cable was hooked up incorrectly. I switched it, and . . . a ski-jumper was clattering to an inelegant stop.
My new Bulgarian friend lit up at my brilliant American ingenuity. He studied my credential.
Artoorteel!” he said loudly. “Zank you.” He fetched from a bag some gooey confection he brought from Sofia and insisted I enjoy it. I did.
On the occasions when I am annoyed with failure, and no longer my effervescent, Gilbert & Sullivan-singing self, I recall that random little episode. Once you get zanked by a desperate Bulgarian, the Olympics as a mood elevator can never be dismissed.