I have watched the Olympics ever since I can remember. I love sports, I love theatrics, and I love competition. What better fusion of all three is there than the Olympics? However, this year I have not bothered with the Olympics much at all. Sure, I have been raptured by the domination of the American men’s basketball team, and been riveted by the spectacular contest between Usain Bolt and James Blake. I also tuned in and was pleasantly surprised by the Opening Ceremony. But, apart from that I have just not bothered. There are a many reasons for this, the odd time zone for example. But I think the main reason, is that the reality of the Olympics has finally dawned on me. Winning at the Olympics is less about pure sporting ability, than it is about luck, money and bureaucracy.
The penny dropped on the sixth of August, when Kevan Gosper (Australia’s senior representative to the International Olympic Committee) told ABC Radio: “the team has done extremely well at the silver medal level but that is the difference; the money is the difference between silver and gold.” This came in the wake of Australia’s dismal performance in the opening stages of the games. Many of the medals Australia “expected” to win, it didn’t, and it was falling far short of previous performance benchmarks. Here we had a senior official in the Australian sporting world giving an explanation. Gosper is claiming that a lack of government money was at least partially to blame for the lack of success. What’s more, earlier in the week the Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates made a complementary statement: “I think there is enough money in the system, they’re just not necessarily spending it wisely”. Could it possibly be more blunt than that? What we must take away from the statements made by these two gentlemen is that the amount of money, and the allocation of money are very important in the relative success and failure of athletes at the Olympic games. The Olympic games are not just a competition between sportsmen. It is also a competition between wallet size and bureaucracy. Now, I must ask, does this not cheapen the whole exercise?
This morning my scepticism was bolstered just a little bit more this morning. In an article on The Punch, David Penberthy noted: “the fact that at the London Games more than two-thirds of the gold medals have been won by just seven countries does not mean that those countries have some kind of monopoly on athletic talent or a heightened desire to win.” I had not really thought of this before, but it is true. Seven countries have completely dominated these games. And, what’s more, those seven countries are the usual suspects. Further on in the piece Penberthy noticed that the United States had won as many gold medals as twenty-four other countries combined. This led him to ask the question: “does this mean that the United States is better at sport than all these other countries combined?” He answered the question almost immediately: “no. It means the United States is better at spending money on sport.” Here we have yet another correlation between Money and sports. It does seem striking that those that win big at the Olympic games, and win big regularly at the Olympic games, are the ones with the big wallets and somewhat effective bureaucracies. They are all members of the economic elite. It seems, barring a few outliers like the Jamaican runners, economic dominance leads to athletic dominance. Now, I ask again, does this not cheapen the whole exercise?
I love sport because I love competition. My favourite athlete is the basketball player Kevin Garnett. Not because he is the best, unfortunately those days have long past, but because when you look in his eyes, you see raw will power and determination. He simply refuses to lose. It is a look that can also be found in the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods and many others like them. For me, that determination and will power is what makes competition enjoyable. It means there is going to be a fight. There will be serious competition. But fights are not fair or fun, and it isn’t really a competition, when one size has an outsized advantage. Especially an advantage that has nothing to do with one’s supremacy of skill or athleticism but comes from something foreign. This is why I largely find Baseball boring. It is the teams with the biggest wallets that win. This is why I don’t enjoy Formula 1 as a sport, but as spectacle of engineering and science. Because it is the established teams with great business plans or outside subsidies that generally win. And this is why I have lost interest in the Olympics. Because winning at the Olympics isn’t really about pure sporting ability. It is about luck (you must be born in a country where your talents can be nurtured), money (the country must be willing and able to pay) and bureaucracy (the money must be funnelled around efficiently).
Originally posted @ Sakalabujan Magazine