Words & Banter

The Olympics – Memories & Money

Photo by Mawardibahar on iStock

I used to love the Olympics. It was all about, as the introduction to ABC’s Wide World of Sports would say, “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.” But it was so much more. As one of my favorite parts of the Olympic coverage was when Olympic host Jim McKay (I’m showing my age) would profile athletes, bringing their backstories to life, making the events more personal, touching, and, often, dramatic.

And today? Well, at the risk of sounding like an old person and the yearning for “the good ‘ole days” when the Olympics were about sports, athletes, and medal counts, it now seems like the word “politics” has cast its ugly shadow on the Games. The “backstories” of the Beijing Games are about protecting our athletes (not just from COVID, but from China hacking cell phones) and whether we should even be competing because of China’s human rights abuses. An Olympics with diplomatic boycotts, and China and Russia using the opening ceremony to declare a “partnership”.

All of which I found myself saying to Black, then making the innocent (or so I thought) comment of wondering why the Olympics just can’t be the way it used to be. For the record, it was a rhetorical question. I didn’t want an answer, I wanted to stroll down memory lane. But Black, of course, felt the need to reply,

Follow the money. The Olympics is big money, with sponsorships generating billions of dollars of revenue and global corporate sponsors spending hundreds of millions of dollars. When we were growing up, it was a sporting event that unified the world, if only for a few weeks. (Plus, there were only a handful of television networks – no cable, no streaming, no social media). Now, it is a commercial event. “Wanting to win” used to be about national pride, now it seems to be about market share.

I knew what she meant and thought about all the “marketing” behind the companies like Ralph Lauren dressing the U.S. Olympic team, but preferred to think about the athletes talking about how they felt when they wore the team uniforms. A feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves, a culmination of years of hard work and dedication, about doing their best for their country. About pride.

But what about when there are moral implications? I know the athletes don’t get to decide where the games are held, but when the host country is one that we have serious humanity issues with, shouldn’t the Olympics and its sponsors stand up for what they believe. I couldn’t help but ask Black, this time hoping for answers, but instead got questions,

If you are the International Olympic Committee with so much money on the line, plus so few countries willing to go to the expense of hosting, especially given the complications due to COIVD, what do you do? If you are a sponsor, who “claims” to value social responsibility (companies are even rated by environmental, social, and governance criteria), how do you make decisions about a country like China that is such a huge business opportunity, even if it is politically intolerant? How many people, let alone companies, do you think have the guts to stand up and do what is right versus what is profitable? And, is there a longer-term price that will be paid?

Maybe I’m being an ostrich, but I didn’t want to think about the future of the Olympics. Instead, I thought about the millions of fans worldwide who love the Olympics and need them more than ever before as they look to them for diversion and inspiration. For me, I’ll look forward to the backstories of this year’s athletes and enjoy my memories of past Olympics vs. wishing that I could change the realities of today.

Photo by OnTheRunPhoto for iStock

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