The Olympics Just Aren’t That Important

I just read a recent report that the Australian Olympic Team will not be staying in their Rio Olympic Village accommodations due to electrical and plumbing issues, and an apparent robbery. Another point on the “What’s wrong with Rio” list along with water cleanliness issues, Zika virus, and human rights infringements. Due to these issues and other pending career decisions, many notable athletes have chosen not to participate in the Rio games. Among these include basketball star LeBron James, golfers Jason Day and Vijay Singh, and cyclist Tejay van Garderen.
Athlete participation isn’t the only concern of the International Olympic Committee. There’s an ever-increasing movement in the developed world that opposes hosting the Olympic games due to tax increases, increased traffic congestion, and likelihood that the Games will put the city in punishing debt –especially with the Games adding new events requiring elaborate facilities (e.g. golf). The prestige of hosting the games no longer outweighs the burden of the taxpayer. The Toronto City Council recently voted to not pursue a bid for the 2024 Summer Games, a city that nearly won the bids for the 1996 and 2008 games finishing 3rd and 2nd respectively.  This puts ever more pressure on the developing world to carry the burden of hosting which comes with an entire new set of baggage. Quick Google searches for the Beijing, Sochi, and Rio games reveal the struggles that developing countries have in hosting. Not to mention the struggles that Greece is facing since hosting in 2004.

How do we solve these problems. Despite my trashing of the Olympics here, let it be known that I freaking love the Olympics, and I want it to continue in a sustainable way.

There are two issues at play here: the first is that the Olympics is failing to draw the best athletes in all its events to its games. The second is that the games are too expensive to host and the expectations of the host are too high which leads to shady business deals and shoddy facilities. The easiest way to cut the Games down to size is to eliminate certain events. It’s a tough pill to swallow.

The usual event selection process criteria involve IOC recognition, presence of an international federation of the sport, value added to the Games, and the internationality of the event (i.e. is the sport played around the world). Despite these criteria, the Olympics fail to draw the top athletes from each sport, especially from the lucrative sports such as basketball, tennis, and golf. I think IOC ought to create another selection criterion: how an Olympic gold medal stacks up against a sport’s top championship.

I was recently listening to a show on TSN 1050 with decorated Canadian Olympic kayaker Adam van Koeverden. He explained that despite all of the challenges that Rio 2016 is facing, there was no question as to whether he would be competing. An Olympic gold medal represents the pinnacle achievement in his sport. If he chose not to go, that’s 4 years of training down the drain as well as sponsorships that allow him to eat. He can’t afford to miss an Olympics. He will be there Zika or not. This is especially salient since we have just learned that athletes are advised not to put their heads under water (good luck to the triathletes, kayakers,and sailors).

Assessing some other olympic sports, there isn’t the same “play or perish” mentality tied to participating in the Olympics. I think it’s because those athletes have income sources that are not tied to Olympic participation, and because the championships in their respective sports are more prestigious than an Olympic gold medal, such as:

– Men’s Basketball (NBA Championship)

– Men’s and Women’s Tennis (Wimbledon)

– Men’s cycling  (Tour de France)

– Men’s Golf (The Master’s and British Open Championship)

– Women’s Golf (The US Open)

– Men’s Football (The World Cup, Euro Cup, Copa America, European Champion’s League, Copa Libertadores)

– Women’s football (FIFA Women’s World Cup)

– Baseball (The World Series) *Men’s baseball and Women’s softball were just reinstated for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

These are just sports I thought of off the top of my head. There might be more. My point is why put pressure on athletes to compete in competitions that they don’t want to be in? The IOC does not have a corner on sport prestige and achievement and shouldn’t pretend that it does. To LeBron James, an Olympic medal just isn’t that important. To Usain Bolt, it is incredibly important.

The IOC needs to be honest with itself and accept the fact that not every top athlete is going to go through hell and high water to compete at the Olympic Games. Rio 2016 proves this. Therefore, give the Olympics to the athletes that want it most, and cut the events that the sports’ athletes don’t care about. This is one way that the Olympics can keep its events competitive, worthwhile, and frankly, watchable. This will also mean fewer athletes to house, and fewer playing facilities to build, and better TV coverage for the sports that matter to the athletes.

Final thought: Is an Olympic gold medal really valid when 5 of the top 10 athletes in the sport are choosing not to compete? Absolutely not.