Before the Sochi Games started, former American luger, Samantha Retrosi wrote a piece for The Nation titled, Why the Olympics are a Lot Like ‘The Hunger Games‘. Long time readers of this blog are probably familiar with my disappointment in the Olympics for a number of reasons, which means that I LOVED Retrosi’s piece. In her article she acknowledges that “Privatization, deregulation and austerity politics have overtaken the world of sports, just as they have all other aspects of the global economy” and discusses the problematic nature of treating athletes like commodities.
Fit and Feminist posted the article on social media and commented that despite all of the ugly that comes with the Olympics, what would a different/better version of the Olympics look like? It’s a great question and while I admittedly have no master plan, I do have some ideas. I doubt anyone on the corporate side is going to like these suggestions, and probably a lot of athletes won’t agree either but if there is anything I have learned being a team building facilitator it’s that sometimes the most radical ideas are the best places to start.
1) STOP MOVING THEM AROUND! I get it, they are supposed to be a global event and moving them around gives different countries the opportunity to show off (or in Russia’s case – underwhelm us) and they can bring economic growth to different areas. Unfortunately, no one who has ever researched the economic impact of the games (who hasn’t had an economic stake in them) has ever said that ‘investing’ in the Games was a good idea. They are a fiscal liability to the host city and are ridiculously environmentally unsustainable requiring each city to create new venues that rarely become the legacy they are sold as.
My proposal would be to select a set number of cities to host the Games, for example 4 different cities for the Summer Games and 4 other cities for the Winter Games. They would be selected based on factors such as geographical location, environmental footprint, human resources, and existing infrastructure. This would enhance the “job creation” sell because it would actually create long term employment. We need to let go of the notion that the Olympics showcase the host city because the fact remains that almost every city that has ever hosted the Olympics has been an existing tourist city (e.g. Paris, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Sydney, Tokyo, Barcelona, Seoul, Rome etc.). Well, what about Albertville, France or Lillehammer, Norway you ask? Sure, maybe these cities weren’t on everyone’s radar before they hosted an Olympics but neither France nor Norway are really hurting for prestige.
The new IOC President, Thomas Bach, is looking to overhaul the bidding process in order to expand the chance for less economically powerful countries to host the Games. However, he still insists on approaching it from the perspective of a business transaction. Bach wants potential candidates “to study how Olympic Games would fit into their long-term city and regional and country development…[and] could contribute to sustainable development in their environment”, but looking at a one-off event as part of a long-term plan is like saying drinking out of an Evian bottle is a long-term hydration plan. Both the Olympics and disposable water bottles are designed for limited consumption yet they perpetuate their own longevity.
2) Create and enforce a competitor age limit: Currently, there is no required age limit for athlete. The Olympic Charter (p.79) merely states that the IOC leaves this responsibility to each individual sports federation. Retrosi explains in her article that she was 11-years-old when she was first plastered with Verizon logos, her reward for being touted as an up-and-coming commodity athlete. Thus, at an age when children should be learning about fractions, our most talented athletes learn about contracts, sponsorships, expectations, and media requests.
Some argue there should be no age restrictions because it prevents some from competing at their best. This argument is best exhibited by Nadia Comaneci who won a gold medal in gymnastics at the age of 14. Particularly in sports where flexibility is key, competitors who have not yet gone through puberty are at a competitive advantage. So why don’t we put everyone at the same disadvantage? If we believe that children and adolescents are unable to handle certain decisions/situations such as driving, voting, and sexual consent until they have reached some level of cognitive, psychological and physical maturation then why should international competition be any different? Because there is money to be had?
I wonder how the Olympics would change if the minimum age restriction was 21. In other words, until you can vote for an elected representative (I’m looking at you here America) you will be unable to represent your country in the Olympic Games. There are age limits to play certain board games and watch movies but evidently intense physical competition with billions of dollars at stake is open to infants and the elderly alike.
3) Get rid of the professionals: Personally, I would argue that every athlete in today’s conception of the Olympics is a ‘professional’ because they get paid via sponsorships but I am particularly pointing the finger at sports where the Olympics are anything BUT the pinnacle of that sport’s schedule.
For example, NHL hockey players, professional tennis players and NBA basketball players do not need the Olympics. While the term amateur comes with a long and contentious history the inclusion of ‘professionals’ in the Olympics greatly changes the dynamic. For a sport such as ski jumping or speed walking the Olympics is their Stanley Cup/Grand Slam/Superbowl; it represents the highest achievement in their sport.
‘True’ Olympic athletes train on 4 year cycles, while ‘professional’ athletes merely take time out of their already busy schedules to fit the Olympics in. This would hopefully help spread some of the development money to other athletes and divert the focus from celebrity athletes to equitable opportunities.
4) Tone down the opening and closing ceremonies: Or maybe we should just get rid of them all together. Just as Haymitch tells Peeta and Katniss in Catching Fire that their “job is to be a distraction. So people forget what the real problems are”, so too are the Olympics. Retrosi writes:
The grandeur of the opening ceremonies of The Hunger Games is designed to mask the cruelty of the competition itself. The Olympic opening ceremonies serve a similar purpose. Like the kids representing the districts of Panem, each nation’s athletes are trotted around a massive arena like prize ponies, shrouded in the patriotic glory of their particular flag. The carefully orchestrated pageantry is misleading, telling us that the Olympics are a celebration of the human capacity to achieve, to overcome obstacles, and that the world’s best athletes represent something bigger than themselves.
While the opening ceremonies trumpet the excellence of the athletes competing they also whisper the exclusive nature of sports. It is no coincidence that the largest athlete delegations come from the most prosperous countries. What we should notice about the opening ceremonies are not the outfits or the athletes but everyone who is missing. Which countries are NOT present? And why are the Paralympic athletes not part of the festivities? Are they not also Olympians?
Which leads me to my next suggestion…
5) Combine the Olympic event with the Paralympic event: Talk about the sideshow to the main circus. The Paralympic event always follows the hoopla of the OLYMPICS, which means that the ‘general’ crowd will have unpacked their suitcases before the Paralympians have even had their opening ceremony. Even Jeremy Hunt of the London 2012 Summer Olympics admits that the Paralympics are an afterthought. Combining the events would be a huge statement towards equality. And if running the events simultaneously is logistically too complex then there should be a way that the athletes can share in the same (toned down) ceremonies. The wheelchair tennis events occur on the same tennis courts during the same Grand Slams, granted with zero television coverage, but at least they are considered competitors in the same event.
above: Great Britain’s David Weir. Photo from The Guardian.
What I would really like to change about the Olympics is what happens away from the global spotlight. Retrosi explains “Amateur status is mandatory for any Olympics hopeful, but athletic training at the elite level is a full-time job.” The Michael Phelps’ of this world and other well sponsored athletes don’t have to worry so much about making ends meet but for others they have day jobs, some have more than one. As an example, the Canadian women’s hockey team sells out Olympic match ups but back here in Canada when it’s not Olympic time you can’t give away tickets and some of the players work three jobs to cover their training expenses:
[In 2010], 10.3 million people tuned into watch these women [Lori Dupuis, Jayna Hefford, Cherie Piper] play for Olympics glory. The 16, 805 fans who packed Canada Hockey Place paid upwards of $325 per ticket. Scalpers charged double. Meaghan Mikkelson, Gillian Apps, [Cherie] Piper and [Jayna] Hefford won gold for Canada. But tonight at Brampton’s Cassie Campbell Community Centre, only a smattering of fans are here to see some of the best female hockey players on the planet. Tonight, tickets cost $8, and not even four rows of seats are full. (The Rabbit Hole)
This scenario extends beyond women’s hockey in Canada. We ask too much of ‘amateur’ Olympic athletes without providing enough in return. We stand up and wave the flag for them every four years, but in between those years often stand on their own.