Monday, August 6, 2012

Olympics Just Not the Same Anymore


By Bill Gouveia

I've tried to watch the Olympics these past two weeks. And I can't deny that some of it has been enjoyable, exciting and inspiring. But overall, I find the modern Olympics to be an over-blown theatrical style experience that has far more economic impact than anything else.

Perhaps that is a jaded, skeptical view worthy of newspaper columnists (damn them!). But the Olympics today are so much more about politics and money than they are about sports and competition that you might as well be watching an NFL football game or a MLB baseball game. I enjoy those things, but they don't pretend to be what they are not.

The Olympics want us to think they are about national pride and competing for your country - and for many athletes and spectators that is exactly the role they fill. In past years I have been absorbed by them, especially when I was younger. And no, contrary to popular belief, I was not there for the first Modern Olympic Games back in 1896.

Some of the greatest sporting moments in my lifetime occurred during the games. Nothing can ever match the excitement and patriotic pride of watching the 1980 US Men's Hockey team defeat the heavily-favored Russians en route to the gold medal at Lake Placid. Watching Mark Spitz and now Michael Phelps become the greatest competitive swimmers of their generations was something to behold. And who among us did not cheer for Shawn Johnson to bring Olympic gold back home?

But when I was growing up the Olympics were a battle between the true amateurs of the United States and the semi-professionals of the Soviet Union and East Germany. We were proud that we sent real amateurs in what we considered the true Olympic spirit, while the Soviets and Eastern Bloc countries trained pre-teens away from their families for years in order to produce medal winners.

Today the Soviet Union no longer exists and East Germans live in a unified Germany. And the new female Olympic gymnastics champion is 16-year-old American Gabby Douglas, who left her parents to train for her attempt at winning a gold medal - and has not spent a single day at home in the last two years. Isn't that the very kind of thing we lamented when those on the "other side" did it?

We have enthusiastically accepted and endorsed everything we previously complained about when it comes to international competition. We have adopted many of the long-abhorred training techniques, and even hired away many of the foreign coaches so they could institute their programs here. And there is a very good reason for that. It wins medals.

The Olympics has always been largely commercial, though usually that was more about making money for the host venue. Now that professional athletes are allowed to compete, being an Olympic medalist is a much more profitable proposition. While it was always possible for an Olympic champion to make money via endorsements and exposure after their Olympic careers were over, they no longer have to wait. It is a huge change.

And truth be told, most prefer it this way. Americans love to compete and love to win. More people will watch LeBron James and Kobe Bryant than will watch even the best college and amateur players. While we love the underdogs who come from nowhere to win it all, we have an insatiable desire to see the very best.

If NBC is going to pay billions for the right to broadcast each Olympiad into our living rooms, they want the participants to be as familiar as possible to us. They don’t care if our figure skaters are making money on ice shows across the country between Olympic Games – and neither does most of the rest of the world.

But while that may make the Olympics more popular, it also makes them less watchable for fans like yours truly. The “Dream Team” may be great, but it doesn’t help make me want to watch springboard diving or team handball. And who knew there was even such a thing as team handball?

I still do love watching beach volleyball though. But that’s strictly because of my great love for the game.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and the current holder of the gold medal for couch-sitting. He can be reached at

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