The Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, have been going on for over a week now. I’m glad to hear about the U.S. beating Russia in men’s hockey, one of the few sports I care much about, but I have purposely avoided paying any attention to the rest of the events.
The media blitz over Sochi is scheduled to dissipate on precisely Feb. 22—before this article is even in print—and any Olympic news will be classified as old news, much like the events of a presidential election. All the participants, no matter how impressive their athletic accomplishments were, will be forgotten for another four years. If a certain athlete retires, he or she risks fading away from the public memory forever unless they start appearing on reality shows like Ryan Lochte, advertise cereal like Mary Lou Retton or find other ways of selling out.
The modern Olympics are a far cry from what Pierre de Coubertin and the revivers of the Olympics planned over a century ago. Originally seen as a way of bringing nations together and encouraging healthy competition among ordinary people, the Olympics have become another arena for countries to compete by employing all the money available, making it even more difficult for poor nations that cannot afford the best coaches and equipment to win fairly.
Rivalries develop into animosities over the course of the games, proving George Orwell right when he claimed that “sports are an unfailing cause of ill will.” Christopher Hitchens lamented the disproportionate focus placed on sports and the Olympics in his article, “Fool’s Gold,” and quipped that, “I only ask that they keep out of the grown up section of the paper.”
When the festivities are over, the cold truth is that only a tiny minority of Olympic athletes return home with any medals, and even those who win glory and celebrity endorsement deals risk ending up broke and obscure. The family of Gabby Douglas, one of the biggest stars of the London Olympics, went bankrupt as the games were occurring. Banks foreclosed on the house of Ryan Lochte shortly after the games concluded in August. Olympic athletes, and NFL and NBA players commonly lose all their fame and money after the competitions end. Seventy-eight percent of NFL players are bankrupt within two years of retiring, according to the ESPN documentary Broke, while 60 percent of NBA players are bankrupt within five years of retiring.
The Daily Beast described “post-Olympic stress disorder,” in which numerous athletes succumb to alcoholism, depression and obesity when they no longer receive attention and praise, and realize that hardly any athletes earn the millions that Kobe Bryant or Usain Bolt earn. We treat the Olympics as an amusing diversion, neglecting to remember that being an athlete is an unsustainable career that most people can only do until they reach their 30s, and that most never win lasting recognition or wealth.
The Olympic facilities and events are also forgotten as quickly as they come. When do we ever care about diving, ice skating or pole vaulting besides during the Olympics?
On the same day that I watched the BBC announce that Tokyo would host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, they also reported on the outbreak of radioactive water that was flowing from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In the midst of raucous celebrations for Tokyo’s victory, the Japanese government offered continuous assurances that the radioactive water leaks were not a serious threat to community health, nor would the leaks endanger lives during the Olympics six years from now.
Two weeks ago, Jake Adelstein wrote in The Daily Beast that several of the main organizers of Japan’s Olympics planning committees possessed ties to Japan’s organized crime groups, the yakuza. The organizers had violated Japanese law by associating with known criminals, arranging shady business deals and plotting to use bribery to lobby the International Olympics Committee to make certain Japanese sports were Olympic events.
Some people argue that hosting the games will bring billions of dollars in advertising, tickets and other economic benefits, and will grant a much needed shot in the arm to a country grappling with aging and recession. If the past examples of abandoned stadiums, kitschy merchandise and razed communities found in Greece and China are any indication, it is likely that the Olympics will deliver only the most temporary and minuscule improvements before being forgotten and discarded. The Olympics are a distraction that does not even deliver on the improvements it seems to promise and adds nothing to our lives.