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Monday, February 10, 2014

The second-rate Olympics

The modern Olympic Games were first revived in 1896; the first Winter Olympics were held in 1924. They were instituted at the behest of the Europeans, especially the Scandinavian and Alpine countries, for whom winter sports loom large.

The original Olympic Games were staged by the Greeks every two years, and went on for an amazing 1176 years. They included running, jumping, a javelin throw and a discus throw, boxing, and wrestling. All events required speed, strength, stamina, or a combination of the three.

The current track and field events come close to the spirit of the original Olympics. There are now more running distances contested, and a shot put as well as the discus and javelin throws, but all measure the same sort of athleticism. Likewise, boxing and wrestling carry on the tradition of the ancient Greeks.

The modern Olympics have gotten further and further away from this ideal. The Summer Games now include yachting and equestrian events, which are essentially a gift to the rich friends and relatives of the aristocrats who have traditionally run the International Olympic Committee.

Generally, the fancier the equipment used, the less the original Olympic spirit is invoked. The Winter Games now include skiing, skating, bobsledding, luge, and shooting. And there seem to be more winter sports than summer sports which involve fancy equipment.

The more expensive the equipment, the less universal a sport is. Virtually every child has at one point run a foot race against another child. The fastest ones usually go on to at least test themselves in larger competitions at some point in their lives. Thus, when Usain Bolt wins the Olympic gold medal in the 100 meter dash, he stands atop a very large pyramid -- comprised of roughly seven billion people.

How many people do you personally know who have competed in running or swimming events? Now, how many do you know who have competed in bobsledding, or luge?

For me, the most fun part of watching an Olympics is to see athletes who perform feats I couldn't dream of doing. When I see a sprinter run 100 meters in under ten seconds, or a weight lifter snatch 300 pounds, I know I could never have done those things, and marvel at the athleticism involved. I can even watch a ping pong match and marvel at the reflexes of the players (even as I don't think ping pong should be an Olympic sport). When was the last time you watched a curling match and thought, wow -- what magnificent studs!

(What is the closest summer equivalent to curling: shuffleboard, or bowling?)

There are winter sports which embody the traditional spirit of an Olympic sport, even if they have fewer worldwide participants: speed skating, downhill skiing, and cross country skiing.

But because the Winter Olympics have fewer of those types of sports, they simply have more room for extraneous sports, like snowboarding. Skate boarding is essentially the same sport as snowboarding, yet no one has seriously thought to put it in the Summer Games. Why not? It involves the same sort of coordination and balance, and the feats that top skateboarders perform can be equally impressive.

If there were as much room for such extraneous Xtreme-style sports at the Summer Olympics, they might include a sky diving event. And cliff diving. And mountain climbing. And free rock climbing. And wind surfing. And hang gliding. And parasailing. All of these involve athleticism and daring as well.

And as long as bobsledding is included in the Winter Games, why not include a tandem bicycling event in the Summer Games? Or auto racing, for that matter? And while I marvel at the athleticism of the figure skaters, I might similarly marvel at the athleticism of ballet dancers at the Summer Olympics.

To be fair, the Summer Olympics have recently included their share of nontraditional sports, such as BMX cycling, trampoline, beach volleyball, and rhythmic gymnastics.

But the Winter Games seem to have a higher percentage of such sports. For that reason, and because most winter sports have far fewer worldwide participants, whenever the Winter Olympics roll around, I can't help but feel that they are the lesser Games.


Gilbert Ratchet said...

And they don't participate in the nude either!

A minor quibble: the original Olympics featured a chariot race.

John Craig said...

Gilbert --
You're absolutely right; and they also had a race which involved wearing armor and carrying a shield, which combined weighed fifty to sixty pounds. I thought of mentioning those, and explaining how the original Olympics were more martially-oriented, but decided it would make for too long of a post and didn't get into it.

As far as competing in the nude, the Olympics were also all male back in the day; I decided not to get into that, either.

Anonymous said...

I can't watch the Olympics anymore. Too many events are decided by judges' opinions. True athletic competitions should be judged on speed, strength and stamina -- qualities that would help win a battle. Does anyone think future wars will be settled by "Stomp The Yard/You Got Served" dance competitions? Olympic boxing is a joke now, but judging has also ruined professional boxing. It may sound barbaric, but all fights should end only when one fighter is unable to continue -- not whether 3 judges "think" one guy landed more/better punches.

John Craig said...

Anon --
I'm totally with you on the judging. I've always referred sports which were decided by stopwatches, or measuring tapes. In fact in the first draft of this post I was going to talk about how the Winter Olympics had more sports which are decided by judging, but then I realized that the Summer Olympics have gymnastics, diving, etc.

The fact that the Olympics have gotten away from their military origins bothers me less. No future wars will be decided by whose Army has a faster 800 meter runner, either, and certainly not by who has faster swimmers. But at least those sports are in keeping with the "Citius, Altius, Fortius" motto of the Games. Any sport decided on the basis of how prettily the judges think you did it is not.