we are used to the spectacle
The modern Olympics were once heralded as the event that brought together people of different nations, cultures and religions. In the twenty-first century, however, when we have technology, all-pervasive pop culture and international government organisations, how necessary is an event like the Olympics? Further, are the Olympics not only obsolete but actually detrimental to various countries and athletes around the world?
I remember, as a small child, watching the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games on TV in the early hours of the morning. I would wake early, my father would make me Milo and we would watch events that we had little knowledge of, like gymnastics, just to revel in the expertise and sportsmanship of the athletes, just to be part of the atmosphere. As I got older, Australian swimmers like Ian Thorpe and Susie O’Neill dominated the world stage in their chosen sport and I respected that. Sydney had the opportunity to play host to the international community and I was there, spectating, part of the buzz. Cathy Freeman had the opportunity to be recognised not just as an Australian but also as a proud Aboriginal woman and the fastest 400-metre runner in the world.
I know a lot of children, and not one of them is excited about the Olympics. Most of them, when I asked this week, couldn’t even tell me who they were being hosted by this year. The millions of dollars of advertising by the Brazilian government and Channel 7 have clearly been a waste. Viewers, internationally, are just not as engaged as they once were. Take the recent Opening Ceremony in Rio; the television viewing, worldwide, was down 28% from the last Olympics. Despite the promise of colour, samba, glamour and ubiquitous sequins (think Carnival without the sexual allure), the international community just could not get into it.
Maybe it was the looming presence of Christ the Redeemer? More likely, it is that we are used to spectacle. We have seen Carnival televised. We have seen dancers on So You Think You Can Dance perform samba after sequined samba. We’ve seen Brazil’s gigantic soccer stadiums when they recently hosted the World Cup. Not only are viewers apathetic, they are easily bored by things that are not constantly new and updated. They expected ‘same old’ from the Opening Ceremony and so they did not even bother switching it on. They also know that it goes for hours. Literally. Hours. If they wanted to see the highlights, they would YouTube it later on. It’s no longer necessary to watch events live. It even featured a political statement about making the environment a serious priority – a serious turn off for anyone looking for entertainment, and an ironic one considering that Brazil is one of the countries which allows its natural resources to be exploited at a rapid rate (think 20% of the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest in 45 years).
If it were just boring, I might be able to stomach that. Those of you who have been following my writing know, though, that the cynic in me cannot stop my criticism at the mere boredom that the Olympics evoke in us. Consider how much investment in infrastructure, accommodation, staffing and catering is required by the Brazilian government this year. I’ve heard, so many times on media commentary, that Brazil was feeling extra pressure, as a developing nation, to present a palatable front to the world during the Games. Suddenly, they were expected to rid themselves of the corruption, poverty and drug crime, which has plagued them for decades, and smile for the camera? Unlikely and, more to the point, unrealistic. We are setting Brazil up to fail.
There have been countless reports of stadiums and venues not being finished on time, not being completed to acceptable standards and being completed under agreements between corrupt companies and government officials. Not to mention the health complaints that caused endless anxiety for athletes and travellers before they traveled to Brazil: air and water pollution, the ominous Zeke virus. And, amidst all of this, the question begs: is it necessary to place such pressure on a developing country because citizens from first world countries want to attend an event there? Surely, if they had these resources to begin with, they would improve their own citizens’ quality of life. Instead, to cater for international citizens and an expectant international community, funds are being reallocated from vital services for the Brazilian people, such as education and health, to present a palatable image for just over two weeks.
The Olympics are always touted as being of great ‘economic benefit’ to the country who hosts them; while tourists may flock there, the costs of building new infrastructure to support these people’s tourism experiences leave a heavy dent long after the tourists leave and stop spending their money in the country. Not to mention, countries are then left with facilities that are unused, fall into disrepair and must be maintained. This is even more pronounced in a country that has such poor facilities as a starting point and that has such a well-documented history of government and industry corruption that the Brazilian population would not see much of the profit of the tourism industry.
Lastly, the issue that the Olympics pose, regardless of their location, is the deification of athletes. The respect and monetary award athletes are given in countries like Australia is already beyond that of any other industry, perhaps with the exemption of entertainers and musicians. The Olympics provides a world stage for these egos, and also often, unfortunately, their less than desirable behaviour. A Moroccan boxer accused of raping two women prior to competing was imprisoned awaiting trial; I’m in no way blaming this behaviour on either the Olympics or his profession as an athlete, however, the entire news coverage focused on the athletes missed opportunities, rather than the trauma caused to the women assaulted. Again, this is symptomatic of the media and modern society’s idolisation of athletes, which the Olympics only perpetuates.
On top of this, there is the inescapable pressure placed on athletes to succeed. It is not enough to simply make the team or compete proudly representing your country. There is an expectation that you will win gold. Your country then glories in your success or shuns and ridicules you for your failure. It isn’t surprising then that athletes turn to illegal substances to boost their performance. When the culture is not about excellence but about competition, cheating is not just optional but, for some, necessary.
Of course, there are the inspiring stories like those of Anna Meares, who has shown tremendous strength overcoming severe injury. Besides this, however, many of the men and women who are praised beyond reproach are terrible role models for our young people for whatever reason, be it the strain of competition or something else. Consider how those who develop their intellect or moral reasoning are treated by our society, and contrast this with how those who develop their muscles are treated and respected. Contrast the accolades those who operate charities voluntarily and those who represent their country in their chosen sport, each receive. It is admirable to pursue your passion if it is sport, just as much as if it is something other than sport, however, sport does not improve humanity. It does not forge new possibilities for a better world or save the environment from the brink of destruction.
If Zeus were among us today, he might call for a metaphorical Closing Ceremony on the Olympics. And who are we to disobey the king of gods?
Parkour teaches Literature and Language to high school students and writes fervently in her spare time. She loves a good story and a passionate argument. She currently lives in the country and longs for the buzz of the city.