Slim down the Games

The Olympic Games, which are being called in spite of their pandemic-related postponement to 2021, have formally begun. In the past, Olympic Games have often been quite unpopular in their home countries and cities, which are called upon to shoulder an enormous expense for the privilege of being hosts. But this time around, the Games are unpopular in Japan because they are considered a public health risk in a country that remains at relatively low levels of vaccination. Yet perhaps there would have been less concern if the Olympics were not such a bloated and excessive spectacle. It is not only.....
The Olympic Games, which are being called in spite of their pandemic-related postponement to 2021, have formally begun. In the past, Olympic Games have often been quite unpopular in their home countries and cities, which are called upon to shoulder an enormous expense for the privilege of being hosts. But this time around, the Games are unpopular in Japan because they are considered a public health risk in a country that remains at relatively low levels of vaccination. Yet perhaps there would have been less concern if the Olympics were not such a bloated and excessive spectacle. It is not only the desire to build showpiece stadiums that are barely used a few short years after the Games end. It is also that the multiplicity of sports on offer dilutes their spirit so much that many observers wind up seeing them not as the ultimate test of athleticism, but as just another attempt to corral jaded eyeballs online or on television.

Tokyo 2020’s opening ceremony, conducted in a largely dark and empty stadium, presented a glimpse of Japan as quirky and cool — not quite the traditional image of the country. One such skit in the ceremony, however, was indirectly revealing of the problems of bloat that the Olympics face. It was a tribute to the familiar pictograms that represent sports at the Olympics — and, now, at almost all such multi-sports extravaganzas. These pictograms had first been introduced the last time that Tokyo hosted the Olympics, in 1964 — presumably to help out local spectators unfamiliar with the Roman script. The skit, in which low-tech live-action acrobatics managed to somehow resemble stop-motion photography, was one of the highlights of the ceremony — but everyone noted that it went on surprisingly long, given that there were 50 such pictograms to be represented.

Tokyo 2020 has 34 such sports, of which nine consist of multiple disciplines, such as freestyle and Graeco-Roman wrestling. The need for many of these sports to be showcased at the Olympics is puzzling. There is no reason, for example, that tennis should be one of the sports, as it has been since 1988, when Steffi Graf won a “golden grand slam”. Who remembers outside Scotland that Andy Murray is a two-time gold medallist for a sport that is only interested in Grand Slams? Besides karate — which is an unsurprising addition, given the Games’ hosts — five new sports have been introduced this year, perhaps in order to pretend that the Olympics are relevant to younger generations: Skateboarding, three-on-three basketball, BMX freestyle or stunt bicycling, surfing, and “sport climbing”, the competitive version of rock climbing. The last Games, Rio 2016, had gone in the opposite direction, introducing games more popular with older audiences: Golf and rugby sevens. Golf is another sport — as are soccer, baseball, and basketball — that has such a powerful and popular regular circuit that there is no real reason for it to be at the Olympics, distracting public attention. At the first Olympic Games, only nine sports were contested, highlighting the burden that the 21st-century Olympics are supposed to bear. The ancient Olympic Games, by comparison, introduced only 19 new sports over almost six centuries.

To save the Olympics and render them relevant again, it is necessary to reduce the number of sports to those that are in keeping with the Games’ traditions, and which have few other outlets of such reach. The tag of “Olympic champion” should be the pinnacle of an athlete’s career, not an afterthought to “NBA MVP” or “World Cup winner”. Slimming the games down will render them cheaper to host, more engaging for the audience — and more rewarding for participants.



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