A few days before the start of the Rio Olympics, I said to someone that, for the first time, I wasn’t excited about the start of the Olympics. In the past, especially for the Summer Games, I was pumped to watch the whole thing, and reveled as technology allowed me to have access to increasing numbers of events. But despite the fact that there were even more ways to watch the games, and the Western Hemisphere time zone would allow more live events to be seen during waking hours, and because working from home would allow me pretty much unfettered access to my various screens, I was feeling pretty blasé about the whole deal.
There are, clearly, lots of reasons not to like the Olympics, starting with the fact that they are run by an organization that is rivaled only by FIFA for being corrupt and socially tone deaf (although the Refugee team was a great idea). There’s the whole Olympic city spending way more money that it should on unneeded stadiums and arenas, a particular concern in a country like Brazil that is economically challenged and has wide-spread profound poverty. Add to that the stories about the risk of athletes and others getting Zika, and the ones about the events planned for sewage-filled waterways. There’s the whole doping issue, making it unclear whether athletes are competing on the proverbial level playing field. And, of course, there’s NBC’s American flag waving, world-ignoring, sexist, schmaltzy athletes overcoming obstacles focused, Today Show host stupid commenting, time-shifting coverage.
I get all of that. But when the competition started–with the pre-Opening Ceremonies soccer games–I got hooked. Because once the games begin, they become a big sports competition, and getting a chance to see some of the greatest athletes in the world compete against each other is incredible. Here’s what I did, and how I had a blast during the Games–I decided to treat the Olympics like a sporting event, not a spectacle featuring externally created dramatic story lines. For the most part, I ignored the packaged events, and the interminable opening and closing ceremonies, and tried to watch things live (although I did catch a bit of the women’s gymnastics, because Simone Biles and Aly Raisman were amazing). And during the day, and on the cable channels, the announcers, for the most part, kept on the sports side, and away from the schmaltz side. I also watched less of the sports that I regularly follow, like basketball and soccer (especially after the American women were eliminated), and I skipped golf and tennis, because I almost never watch golf and tennis.
My favorite events were rugby sevens, volleyball (the indoor version–I like the more intricate strategy as compared to the beach version), track & field and handball (thus, the typically inscrutable Mountain Goats song featured above). But I watched field hockey, rowing and fencing (in part to follow the Princeton alums competing). I watched Princeton senior Ashleigh Johnson play goal for the U.S. Women’s Water Polo team, winning gold, although I found the sport dull–as if they decided to take a fast game like hockey, or handball, and slow it down. I watched wrestling, both Greco-Roman and freestyle, judo, beach volleyball, boxing, archery and taekwando, as well as badminton and table tennis. I even caught a couple of minutes of trampoline.
I saw the U.S. men and women win basketball gold and squeezed in a little diving. Yes, I watched a bunch of swimming, because there was so much of it on, and it is exciting, even if it was one of the sports that NBC hyped–but when they started going off the deep end with the features, I could switch over to NBCSN, or one of the other channels, and see another less ballyhooed sport. And, remarkably, one night we had friends over for a barbecue, turned on the TV to watch Michael Phelps’ last race, and afterwards became engrossed in the surprising drama of the men’s 94kg weightlifting final, without an American in sight.
So, despite all of the negatives, I enjoyed the Rio Olympics because of the quality of the athletes and their performances, as a sports fan.
That being said, I do have a few modest proposals for the Olympics. First, bring back tug of war as an Olympic sport. It was in the Olympics from 1900-1920. Here’s a video from the 1912 Stockholm Olympics featuring Great Britain out tugging the home team Swedes.
But to make it interesting, the team from each country, or group of countries, would have to be made up of athletes already competing in other events. So, to make weight, you might have a weightlifter, a shotputter, and a couple of gymnasts. Have it at the end, maybe during the marathon, so that no one risks missing their event due to a dreaded tug of war injury. It could be fun.
Second, if there is going to be golf and tennis, make it different from a regular tournament and have the competition be by team, using some variation of Ryder Cup or Davis Cup type rules. Again, smaller countries could join together if they lacked enough players to form a team. Third, eliminate the sillier sports. I have my list; you probably have yours. Fourth, move some of the indoor sports to the Winter Olympics. There’s no reason I can see why, say, weightlifting, some of the fighting sports, or even volleyball couldn’t be moved, eliminating the logjam of sports at the summer games–there are 26 sports in the summer, only 15 in the winter.
And maybe most importantly, let’s figure out a way to stop spending so much on the games. While logically, having a single site for the Summer Olympics and one for the Winter seems most efficient, you would lose out on the distinctive character that each country brings. Maybe a rotating roster of cities or regions might work, with the cost borne by all of the members of the IOC would make sense–off the top of my head, you could have a summer site in Europe, maybe in Germany, if Athens doesn’t make sense, an Asian site in Beijing or Tokyo, a North American site in Los Angeles, which seems to really want it, a South American site in Rio or Buenos Aires and Sydney could be the Australian location. There could be a shared Winter Olympics in the Alps, with the various countries taking turns hosting, one in Vancouver, maybe shared with Seattle, an Asian site in Korea and maybe even a South American location in Chile. That way, the initial investments might be high, but not only would it only require maintenance and the occasional upgrading of facilities, but knowing that there was going to be a rotation would be an incentive to keep the infrastructure up to snuff. Of course, that might cut down on bribes, so it is not likely to happen.