The modern Olympics has consisted of an eclectic and heady mix: archery and equestrian, track and field and swimming, wrestling and weightlifting. But where the Olympics’ eclecticism was once a strength, today’s version of diversity is its greatest flaw. While people often complain about the opening up of the Olympiad to professionals or the lavishing of vast inequities of attention, prestige, and money on different sports, the real problem is the inclusion of two (occasionally overlapping) categories: 1) Events, often high-profile, for which the Olympics is not that sport’s premier competition. These are nothing more than gussied-up exhibitions. 2) Events that are called sports but really aren’t. Call these the bogus or silly sports. The combination of the two does ruthless damage to the notion that the Olympics celebrates world-class contests of athletic excellence.
The “exhibition” sports are tennis, soccer, basketball, baseball—men’s ice hockey during the winter games—and any other event that already has an established championship compared to which the Olympics pales in importance. For example, men’s soccer teams are largely restricted to players 23 years old and under. Do you think Brazil and Italy care how their 23-and-unders do in Sydney? The local club qualifier, never mind the World Cup, is more important. By mid-September, tennis will have just finished the U.S. Open, so Olympic men’s tennis—to avoid overtaxing the players—will be a best-of-three-set affair until the finals. What is the point of Olympic basketball when there is more legend surrounding U.S. practices (a Charles Barkley elbow aside—though this too proves my point) than any of the games? This year’s baseball competition represents a new low: Seventy-two-year-old U.S. celebrity manager Tommy Lasorda is supposedly issuing invitations to erstwhile major-leaguers, and names like Chili Davis and Tim (Rock) Raines have been bandied about. What these events have in common is that they generate enormous revenue. I imagine the International Olympic Committee would argue that the Olympics cannot afford the games without them. Perhaps. But as the games become increasingly associated with these sports—and NBC will almost certainly devote disproportionate time to them—the notion that the Olympics represents a venue of superlative athletic achievement suffers.
Equally ridiculous are the bogus events. Everyone’s favorite is synchronized swimming, which requires make-up and hair gel. New this year is “trampoline” gymnastics, which joins “rhythmic” gymnastics (featuring colored ribbons) as the two events most suited to the backyard lawn. Add to these traditional events such as equestrian, sailing, and shooting. On the border are newfangled “extreme” sports such as mountain biking, the three different versions of kayaking, and (during the winter) snowboarding, moguls, and aerials. Too many of these events are subjective, with abstract ideals that make them resemble dog shows more than head-to-head competitions. Besides, ESPN’s X Games serves as the premier stage for many of them. It is a short, slippery slope to skateboarding.
Not all of the newly introduced games are problematic. Judo, for instance, was added in 1964, and the official Web site of the games, www.olympics.com, tells us that judo “is the only Olympic sport where submission holds allow choking an opponent or breaking an arm.” Who knew? The triathlon is a brand new sport in 2000 and is much more in keeping with what gets us athletically going today than the pentathlon, which includes shooting, fencing, and horse show jumping—important skills for a medieval knight.
The best events are recognizably athletic games for which the Olympics represents the pinnacle of a four-year build-up. Most of them remain obscure between Olympiads. (Track and field outside of the United States is the obvious exception.) Their rarity makes for captivating viewing. What is great to see is men and women in sports of action and subtlety, doing things with bodies and balls that the NBA makes glossy posters out of—all the while under enormous pressure precisely because this is their one moment on the world stage. A lot to shoulder? Sure. But that’s what makes the Olympics more than another simulacrum of modernity.
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To learn about synchronized diving—a variation on synchronized swimming—click here and go to “New Olympic Sport.”