The controversial Sochi Olympics are over and this makes me very sad. After 2+ weeks of feverishly checking medal counts and goggling at interminable ski races and falls on hard ice and wondering if NHL teammates on opposing national squads take out repressed rage on each other during the semifinals, I’m now left with… a desire and no time to go snowboarding again and a lot of residual guilt over not hitting the gym often enough.
I should not love the Olympics. But I do.
Let’s face facts: the modern Olympic Games are a huge boondoggle. Billions of dollars are spent on white elephant facilities that rarely get used after the torch leaves town, leaving thousands of displaced families and, in the case of Sochi, dead animals and severely-beaten gay people in their wake. The IOC is a corrupt organization that tries to sweep human rights concerns under the rug in the name of being “non-political,” there are judging scandals, doping scandals, horrible time-shifted NBC coverage that manages to skew everything toward the Americans so hard it seems like they want you to forget other countries exist, and you will almost never see victors from outside a handful of dominant countries.
I watched every day of it.
Part of it’s because the games (the Winter Olympics, particularly) give exposure to sports I actually care about. Growing up at the south end of the Rockies, I took to skiing and later snowboarding rather that football, baseball, or basketball (I did okay basketball for a year and while it was fun I wasn’t really interested in pursuing it).
As a hobbyist skier or boarder, it really doesn’t matter if you’re good. I never landed a jump or a trick and I fell a lot, but I didn’t care. It was just an awesome feeling, and once you have that feeling, it becomes even more impressive to watch the best athletes in the world take it to an extreme. Even beyond the mountain sports, bobsled looks like a hoot, the skeleton seems like a thing I’d like to try at least once, and the luge is just hilarious (and terrifying). And were it not for the Olympics, I probably wouldn’t even be aware that any of these things existed.
I feel more fondly about the winter games than the summer ones, probably because the only summer sport I ever tried and sucked at was swimming, but you’d have found me glued to London 2012, too, and doubtless will to Rio 2016.
Maybe I hold to some platonic ideal of what the Olympics are: a festival of camaraderie and international fellowship where all the nations of the world come together to… bash each other in the face or fall down on ice while razor-sharp foot-knives speed past our faces. Maybe it’s because many of the athletes are literally every day schmoes who work at banks and as carpenters and who get Dogecoin to finance their trips. Even the professional NHL players who make more money than I’ll see in my entire life don’t seem to be total douches, and I struggle with which individual Bruin to root for since none of them are on the US team.
Maybe it’s because, despite the dominance of the USA, Russia, or China, I sometimes get to see a lone skater from Kazakhstan or an Ethiopian pole-vaulter get awarded a medal on an obvious international stage. I really don’t what how the Olympics has managed this charm offensive, but I am a victim.
I should not love this. I really shouldn’t. If the US had cut the funding for Atlanta 1996 or SLC 2002 in half, we could have given every person below the poverty line ten thousand free dollars each. From a social justice standpoint, I think you can make a decent case for eliminating the whole thing entirely. I wish you couldn’t.
One wonders, then, why the spectacle should continue, when the spectacle appears to be its only redeeming value. Once the any Games close, it’s business as usual in the host country. If you think Cossacks aren’t going to beating the hell out of those they suspect of “non-traditional sexual relations” or that Pussy Riot isn’t in danger of going back to jail, think again. In the runup to the Sochi games, much was made of pulling the games from Russia for violating the Olympic spirit, a proposal that got laughed out of the room before it was finished. If putting on one games was a boondoggle, what would stopping one ramp-up halfway through and starting another spectacle be? Instead, the games went on with a little mumbling and went off with nary a hitch.
I don’t want the Sochi games to be over, and while the spectacle is all done, the spotlight should not leave. Now, while Putin is basking in the glow of a successful games, while people still remember that Sochi was a thing, is the time to focus on the many injustices of the regime that put them on so successfully. Now is also the time to reassess the way the Olympic works, to refocus on the sports aspect and away from the money, so that the next time the IOC screws up and awards the games to another authoritarian regime (remember, this is the same organization that gave not just 1936 to Nazi Germany, but also scheduled the 1940 Summer and Winter Games in Imperial Japan and the 1944 Winter Games in Mussolini’s Italy), international protest is actually feasible option. Making your own Olympics (with blackjack! And hookers!) should be on the table if the host country takes a turn for the dickish.
The Olympics aren’t just sport without politics. On the contrary, they’re all about politics, and if the event itself is to serve any purpose, it should be to use the spotlight it shines on the heinousness associated with it, because that’s not a spotlight injustice often gets.