Why Do We Care About The Olympics?
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Why Do We Care About The Olympics?

Is it athletics or television entertainment?

Why Do We Care About The Olympics?

The upcoming Olympic Games in Rio are creating a lot of stir in the media these days. Let aside the issues and controversies around the planning and readiness of the venue, the upcoming Olympics have everyone abuzz and a-flutter in a wave of nationalist frenzy, rooting for their nation’s athletes as they hope to bring home the gold. The basic premise of the Olympic Games is competition for the love of the sport at a global level, and yet has the potential to be so much more. Indeed, the first fundamental principle of the Olympic Charter states that “Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” The Spirit of the Games hopes to surpass the face-level athletic competition as a symbol of cultural understanding and unity through sports (My teammate and colleague Will Brewster wrote a great article going more in depth about this issue that is well worth a read).

And yet, is this what we see every evening when we tune into NBC, where Bob Costas issues a firm “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, as we resume our Olympic coverage…”? Is this what we saw when we watched Gabby Douglas earn USA Gold in gymnastics? Or when we all watched Michael Phelps break Mark Spitz’s record by winning eight gold medals in one Olympics? Or when we watch two-minute info snippets/sob stories about the trials and tribulations that some athlete had to overcome to make it to their sport’s top stage? Or how about when we watch highly paid professional athletes like LeBron James or Michael Jordan or Larry Bird (or perhaps this year, Steph Curry) tool all over the other nations’ basketball teams?

While many will chant, "USA! USA! USA!" until the person on screen does whatever the hell they have to do to enter the water perfectly straight on a high dive or throw that ball-and-chain thingy as far as it will go, some, myself included, will be watching in eager anticipation as the American heroes of our respective sports (for me, track and field) pit their strength, cunning and technique against the world’s greats on the field of battle. When we watch the Olympics, we are looking for the thoughtful analysis that will break down the competition and insightful race commentary that will fill in the gaps where the TV camera does not. HA! We wish. It’s just the same old stuff they go on about every year, followed by the slow-mo clip of the athlete crossing the finish line / making the “killing” epee strike / gritting their teeth in agony as they grind down the home stretch, and then the customary, “coverage of the broadcast of these Olympic games are brought to you by…” followed by a myriad of ads that take up more time than the competition broadcast itself.

Wait a second — ads? Let’s stop to think about this for a minute. Advertisements are pitches made by companies and corporations to persuade people to buy their product/good/service (duh! No poop, Sherlock). So why are they present during a celebration of sport, education and culture? Well, the more obvious ones, like the TV ads or the in-between-broadcast shoutouts are simply there out of tradition, and they’ve always been there since the beginning of television. But then there are the more subtle ones, like the rolling billboard ads on the side of the competition area or the corporate logos and insignias that adorn the banners hanging from the stadium or the … athletes’ uniforms?

Yep, even on the uniforms. While many of us may not notice it, our own beloved athletes are walking billboards promoting whatever athletic wear or otherwise company that gave their National Olympic Committee money. While this may seem innocuous at first, this has had some effect on the games.

Sponsorship disputes are not uncommon in the world of sports, but they can have drastically varying effects depending on the circumstances. For instance, in the world of track and field recently, there was a bit of controversy surrounding the sponsorship status of 800 meter runner Boris Berian, who switched his racing sponsorship to New Balance while still under contract with Nike (the situation was a bit more complicated than this, but that’s the basic gist). This led to a lawsuit that Nike ultimately dropped because his contract ended in June. But other athletes haven’t been so lucky. Another top-notch 800-meter runner, Nick Symmonds, recently filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Track and Field team for not allowing certain sponsors to appear on racing uniforms. The rule from the US Olympic Committee (who, interestingly enough, is also sponsored by Nike) only allows the logos of certain pre-approved equipment brands. This lawsuit led Symmonds, billed by many as the top 800-meter runner in the U.S. that year, to boycott the 2015 World Track and Field Championships in Beijing. Although his boycott did not gain much support from other athletes, it certainly changed the way many people viewed professional sports.

And this advertisement trend does not only apply to individual athletes. Corporations can and are endorsing National Olympic Committees and even the Organizing Committees themselves. For the Rio Olympics this year, Nike secured a sponsorship deal with not only the USOC (with whom they still had a contract until 2040) but also with the Brazilian National Team and the Rio 2016 organizing committee, in what is known as a tier-one agreement. Other corporations with this level of sponsorship include Nissan and some major Brazilian companies like Bradesco and Claro. However, with access to outfitting the athletes, one has to think that Nike will have a significantly greater advantage in advertising coverage at the Games this year.

This does not even take into consideration the sponsorship deals that the athletes themselves sign, which will include bonuses for records, good places and medals, no doubt. This adds an interesting incentive to the games that is not present in the Olympic Charter, as it detracts from the “joy of effort” and introduces the joy of compensation. I’m not saying that professional athletics are bad. On the contrary, I believe that compensation at a certain level for athletic performance does indeed improve the level of competition and has the potential to boost performance. However, there is a point at which we must contemplate whether there are limits to these benefits.

For instance, golf has been added to the Olympics this year for the first time since 1904. However, many of its top athletes (including eight of the top 10 in the world) have withdrawn from the Olympics, citing health concerns amidst the Zika virus mess. Also, the busy schedule of the professional golf tour at that time features many top tournaments with large purses. While concerns over the long-lasting health effects of the Zika virus are nothing to snort at, there is something rather odd about citing the perks and big paydays of the professional tour over the allure, legend and omnipotent spirit of the Olympics and Olympism.

So when you adjust your TV sets later this summer to watch the Games of the XXXI Olympiad on NBC with your family and friends to cheer on America’s best as they compete on the world stage, think about why they compete. Sure, the broadcast will show some tear-jerker segments on the trials and tribulations that certain athletes (all athletes face these to a certain degree) had to face, and maybe if you tune in at the right time before the Opening Ceremony there will be a segment (as there rightly should) on the history of the Olympics and the messages of Pierre de Coubertin. But what is seen without that perspective is the same kind of sporting event that one could find in any other sports competition shown on TV, replete with ads, endorsement spots featuring the competing athletes and competition snippets that the network shows because they are what is needed to keep the viewing audience attentive and interested. Instead, when you watch the Olympics this year, remember the Olympic mission and reflect on not only the joy of effort that drives the competing athletes to make that last push before the finish line, but on how that same joy of effort applies in the interests, athletic or otherwise, that you pursue in your own lives.

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