The first modern Olympic Games sponsored by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) was held in Athens, Greece, in 1896. There were 14 nations represented, with a total of 241 athletes competing. A graceful, modest undertaking. Jumping ahead 112 years to the 2008 Olympics, held in Beijing, China, there were 204 countries represented, with some 11,000 athletes competing.
I admit that the reference to 204 countries initially confused me because I'd always thought there were only 196 countries in the entire world, including South Sudan, which became independent in July, 2011. In fact, I had alluded to that 196 figure many times, in both conversation and written material, and never had anyone question it.
Although we're all aware of China's reputation for resourcefulness and ingenuity, squeezing 204 countries out of 196 seemed close to miraculous, even for the Chinese. Then it was made clear to me that territories ("non-countries") had been allowed to compete in Beijing, meaning that Aruba, Guam, and the Cayman Islands, among others, had sent teams. Mystery solved.
Numbers aside, let's consider the Games themselves. The goal of the Olympics was, originally, to promote goodwill, harmony, and greater understanding through competition. The idea was to remove the politics and self-interests, remove the prejudices and social barriers, put aside the bad blood and adversarial histories, and allow the nations of the world to create the kind of mutual respect and understanding that can only be produced via contests of pure athleticism.
Obviously, not only has that noble goal not been achieved, a cynic might even suggest that it has badly backfired. Since 1896, there have been two monumental World Wars, atomic bombs, various genocides, pogroms and systematic annihilations, dozens of "lesser" wars, as well as hundreds of instances of military adventurism and butchery. So much for world harmony.
Indeed, the case can be made that the century following the inaugural 1896 Olympics was the most violent century in the history of the world. So if peace and goodwill were its desired goals, the Olympics have failed utterly. In truth, one wonders if the notion of a "big track meet" acting as a catalyst for world peace wasn't more or less absurd to begin with.
Geographically, much has changed. Although the Olympics may have made sense when it took two or three weeks to cross the Atlantic, jet travel and cyberspace have combined to shrink the world dramatically. Anyone wishing to engage a foreign citizen need only fire up his computer. So magical is the Internet, you can transport yourself to a foreign culture with only a few keystrokes (and with only a few more you can view its home-grown pornography).
Then there's the money. Almost every country who has hosted a Summer Olympics has incurred debilitating debt. That's because the cost of staging one of these things is staggering. And the tired old argument that hosting the Games brings a country instant "prestige" and credibility is pure hogwash, as is the argument that the event "helps" the local economy. In fact, that economic argument is not only grossly misleading, it's a cruel joke.
Typically, hotels, saloons, restaurants and taxi services benefit from the Olympics, while the rest of the population is left holding the bag. The New York Times reported that in preparation for the 2016 Games, Rio de Janeiro is going to raze several slums, displacing thousands of the country's poorest people, all for the sake of increasing national "prestige."
Speaking of money, NBC has spent a ton of it. Not only did they shell out a reported $2 billion for rights to the 2010 Winter Olympics and the 2012 London Games, they reportedly paid $4.4 billion for the next four Olympics -- the 2014 Winter Games, the 2016 Games in Rio, the 2018 Winter Games, and the 2020 Summer Games. Of course, the result of that huge expenditure will be a veritable avalanche of TV commercials. How else do you think a network gets its money back?
The Olympics have become a bloated, gaudy, over-hyped anachronism. Those who complain that they would miss it should be reminded that they can see track meets, gymnastic meets, swimming meets and wrestling matches any time they like at local high schools and colleges. But those events regularly draw miniscule crowds. Why? Because without the phony hype and hoopla of the Olympics, nobody seems to care.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com.