Monday, February 15, 2010

Questioning the Olympics

I am writing this while waiting for, and then while watching some of, the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. While I was jogging earlier today I was thinking about the games starting today and began pondering some of the questions I have had about the Olympics for quite some time.
As a (rather moderate) sports fan, I certainly enjoy watching the tremendous skill(s) of the Olympic athletes, and the close competition make for a lot of interesting TV viewing. But there are lingering questions.
Although many, including my wife, disagree, it seems to me the Olympics fosters nationalism, and like most “isms,” that is not something needed in the world today. Of course, the Berlin Olympics of 1936 are infamous for strengthening the Nazi movement in Germany. By allowing only members of the Aryan race to compete for Germany, Hitler promoted his ideological belief of racial supremacy. That promotion was helped by the German athletes winning the most gold medals and the most total medals, by far.
A second is concern is the amount of time and resources that goes in to producing an Olympic medal winner. For the individual athlete, there is often such a concentration on the practicing of skills needed to exceed that it is difficult for them to develop a well-rounded life. Perhaps has been/is especially true in countries like the former Soviet Union and China where winning medals was/is often used for nationalistic propaganda.
As for the expenses involved, I recently read where a U.S. Olympic swimmer spent at least $100,000 a year preparing for the last summer Olympics. That is, no doubt, an extreme, but there are certainly great costs involved in training to be an Olympic athlete. And that is one of the reasons most medals are won by athletes from the most affluent countries in the world—or by athletes subsidized by public funds.
And then there is the problem of all countries, regardless of size or wealth, competing in the same contests. This seems to be unfair to the smaller and poorer countries. In interscholastic athletic competition, there are leagues largely based on the size of the schools. High schools with 200 students don’t compete with high schools of 2,000 students, and small colleges, like William Jewell here in Liberty with 1,000 students, don’t compete with the large state universities, like Missouri U. with 24,000 students. But in the Olympics, every country competes in the same contests. So, again, no wonder, most medals are won by the bigger countries.
For many other problems and issues, many particularly related to the current Olympic Games in Vancouver, see "Why We Resist the 2010 Winter Olympic" at


  1. I better make a comment or the divine powers will delete me...I agree Leroy and I am empowered by ther web site's list. I am still unhappy by the event in China with the human rights crap that China is putting on the people of Tibet and the minority Muslim population. I am a practicing Zen Buddhist so I am aware of the Dali lama's understanding of this whole thing in China. We are nto to do anything that will hurt the people of China, even though the Leaders are uninfformed and hateful. I heard him say recenly that the cultural and spiritual practice of the Tibetan people are important for all Chinese people and that many are taking up the practice. Of course we would not read of that in the state news. Thanks for this blog and this article. People need to be aware that even the Olympic movement has to be held accountable for the well being of all humankind. Hi June!

  2. I agree with some of your points. I too regret that for the most part it is the very well-financed athletes only who make it to this level. For that reason, I find some of the "original" sports, especially long distance running, to be among the the most satisfying to watch. There was always something magical about seeing that runner, who ran only across his native land, pulling away from the pack to leave them in the dust. It is for this very reason that I don't really agree with the idea of "leagues." The thrill to us, and to the athlete from a smaller nation, of being in there with the world's best is one of the greatest attractions of the Olympics, I believe.

  3. The Olympics does seem to promote a certain amount of nationalism. However, as somewhat of a purist, I do not place much stock in the "medal count" for countries. I am more interested in watching the performances of athletes (or teams) irrespective of their affiliations. Many of the athletes represent one country and live in another anyway.

  4. Bob, Dave, and DBB, thanks for your comments and for sharing interesting viewpoints worth pondering.

  5. The same TF who questioned the value of apologizing for the dead in regard to the previous posting also wrote,

    "Are you arguing that we should not have the Olympics? I’m quite a sports fan and have followed pro football and baseball from my youth. While the points you make about the Olympics are valid and much of the verbiage about them is blather or self-serving or both, it actually seems to me that they are better for our society and world than things like the Super Bowl and World Series (both of which I freely admit that I watch) and the World Cup (soccer) which I don’t.. At least there’s some attention paid to a set of values other than win or be fired and many of the more obscure sports get their 15 minutes of fame."

    In response to that e-mail message, I wrote back: "I am not sure whether the Olympics do more good than harm, but certainly there is good also. June remarked that I pointed out only the cons, but that was the point of the posting.

    "The main difference between the Olympics and the Super Bowl and World Series, which I also watch (more some years than others, depending who is playing), is that they neither foster nationalism. Of course, the World Cup is truly international, but I have so little interest in soccer I don't have much of an opinion about it.

    "I definitely think there is far too much hype over the Super Bowl, and am also of the opinion that the salaries paid to professional football and baseball stars is rather obscene. But, on the other hand, they are professional sports, not amateur games as the Olympics are (or have been). And U. S. professional football and baseball don't feed into nationalism--except, of course, when foreign players do so well, like Ichiro Suzuki of Japan, that they become the source of boasting for their home countries."

  6. Another Thinking Friend who has responded often by e-mail wrote:

    "Some sound thinking, Leroy. The nationalistic aspect is a problem in today's world, and the Olympics do seem unfair to smaller nations. And the cost is obscene. I've noticed, though, that many smaller nations take great pride in having even one winner. And a small nation like Kenya produces many of the outstanding long distance runners. On the positive side, I think they may gain some international notice that they would miss entirely otherwise."

  7. I was delighted to receive the following e-mail from Jean Daoust, who lives in Vancouver. And I am happy to say that he is my daughter's father-in-law.

    "Good Morning from Canada, Leroy,

    "At the risk of being ‘eliminated’, I thought this was a good opportunity to let you know we read your blog faithfully and appreciate your points of view.

    "We are right in the middle ‘living with the Olympics’. From the day Vancouver won the right to host the Winter Games, I felt ambivalent about the benefits the organizers were assuring us would inevitably accrue from this exercise. When all is said and done, anywhere from 3 to 6 billion dollars may be attributed to the cost of putting on the games. What portion the citizens of Canada and particularly BC will be left to repay remains to be seen.

    "Last Friday, opening day, the local "Vancouver Sun" newspaper headlines read: “10 Million dollars to be cut from Provincial Children and Family Development programs as of April 1, 2010“.

    "Meanwhile, the Olympic organizers to insure safety for athletes and visitors budget--just under 1 billion dollars. It is that kind of irrationality--along with the elitism, consumerism, and irrepressible boosterism (which we are told is required of everyone to insure the games’ success) that bothers me.

    "And yet--to watch Alexandre Bilodeau win Canada’s first ever gold medal (for mogul skiing) on Canadian soil was wonderful, his family story and his accession to the podium heartwarming.(See NYT, Greg Bishop, Feb. 14 / 2010--‘Wait ends as Canada wins Gold at Home’.)

    "So What do the Olympics cost? As we watch the thousands of Canadians rallying around the exploit of a great young athlete who seems totally deserving of the honour, what does national pride cost?

    "What we need is as much determination to solve critical problems-–poverty, funding shortfalls in education etc.--as we manage to find to put on the Olympic games.

    "Now our grandson [Carl, 2] has another nation and national hero to cheer for—-‘Go Canada‘ ‘Go Alexandre! ‘

    "Thank goodness for the multicultural world the Olympics opens up for all…."

  8. Oh, my! LKS is getting feisty. I don't really have an opinion about the Olympics, but I sure don't want to appear to be shirking my reading this wonderful blog.

    As much as I love athletic competition, I, too, think that there are all sorts of questionable moral implications of a city or state spending unreasonable amounts of money to host such an extravaganza. Why, just yesterday's KC Star announced the closing of half of Kansas City, Missouri's public schools due to a shortage of funding. That's half! Yet by golly no one would think of shutting down Kansas City's two losing professional athletic teams (that would be the Chiefs and the Royals). The argument is that they bring in revenue to the city, and I suppose the same argument is made about the Olympics. But, at what cost? What do cities like Kansas City have to sacrifice in tax incentives for these teams to remain here? Is it really as profitable for KC to have the teams here as the teams like to claim? Can the revenue gained really outweigh the cost to education in the city?

  9. I read the web site linked at the end of the main post. Some of the points about the history of the Olympics reflect more on the history of the societies involved, than on the inherent nature of the Olympics. Two issues, however, really stood out.

    First, in a context where major local issues are seriously unresolved, such a unilateral decision by a ruling elite to host the Olympics seems highly questionable. These types of actions can be bad enough within a more homogeneous population, but where a Western power elite exploits a Native population, it is just that much worse.

    Second, perhaps Vancouver was just too small a community to attempt such an effort. It may have lacked more than snow. Even for large metropolitan areas, hosting an Olympics can be challenging. Sometimes communities, and even nations, get carried away with over-reaching plans that look far better in theory than practice. But then, I just finished watching a "Frontline" on the deregulation mania that just about destroyed the world economy, so perhaps I am overly sensitive! (Or, was it the Nova National Geographic Special, just before that, about the looming disaster in melting world ice . . . )

  10. While the comments about the competitors, organizers, sponsors, etc. have some truth to them, I still believe the positives outweigh the negatives. I find the events to be entertaining due to the human element of competition. Athletes that have prepared for years make one mistake and miss out on their goal, while others achieve their goal due to that same preparation and a little luck.

    My biggest disappointment with the Olympics is while many countries can send athletes, few can host the games. With the political issues in today's world, most countries cannot afford the security requirements. Cities/countries are motivated to display legitimately attractive qualities, but then are rightly criticized when they go overboard trying to appear perfect.

    The costs are astronomical and justifying those costs are a leap of faith. However, Vancouver is now, and has been for a few years, an Olympics host, and there are tangible and intangible benefits. Just like Kansas City is a major league city, despite the "losing teams". While we joke about the teams, Kansas City would feel the loss in multiple ways if they left. It would be nice if there was some rational spending associated with sports. Unfortunately, the competition is not only on the field.

  11. Thanks MPH, Craig, and Dennis for your comments. I appreciate hearing the varying points of view, and I am sure other do as well.

  12. A few comments up, I posted the e-mail by my daughter's father-in-law, who lives in Vancouver. Here is what my daughter wrote after reading the posting and his comments:

    "I enjoyed reading both of your posts about the Olympics!

    "Rob & I have been talking about how everything surrounding the Olympics (including the type of commercials you see during the breaks) is pitched for a privileged, wealthy, first-world population."

  13. It seems to me that the only way the positives outweigh the negatives in life's many, many situations like this is if you're not one of the people previously living in those now gone "850 units of low-income housing", or one of the local women kidnapped for sexual exploitation, or even one of the black bears or salmon who got in the way.

    Maybe all out protesting isn't the answer for most people, but when watching the Olympics or attending a Chiefs/Royals game, let us remember those who have sacrificed for our "good times"...