Why does anyone persist with the Greek mythology that the Olympics are an engine of economic development, sportsmanship, or peace on earth? London is spending $15 billion on the hope that it can sell enough tickets to synchronized swimming, and earn enough from television ads, to cover the costs of the 30,000 rent-a-cops and military personnel being deployed in the spirit of Olympic harmony.
Even though the Games break few economic records, except those for non-performing sovereign debts, governments around the world scramble madly every four years for the right to act as host, as if influence peddling were an Olympic sport.
The original cost estimate, sold to the British public to convince them to get behind the bid for the 2012 Games, was about $4 billion. Those budget forecasts imagined that, after the event, Olympic sites would be recycled for use as schools, homes for the aged, and handicapped parking, even though earlier Olympic cities have found little use for their table tennis stadiums and aquatic centers.
In 2005, London beat out Paris (narrowly), New York, Madrid, and Moscow for the right, if not the privilege, to spend billions of dollars (that no one has) on a temporary Olympic village, a badminton complex, and swimming pools suitable for the American relayers to lap swimmers from places like Albania and Costa Rica.
Those who advocate Olympian edifice dreams include smiling politicians who can dole out sweetheart construction contracts; national sports associations, whose budgets are commensurate with gold-medal production; the International Olympic Committee, which in the past has been something of a Dream Team for backhand payments; and the television networks, which use the Games to fill the dog days of August and to develop various story-lines around medal-gobbling athletes (see Michael Phelps) or mildly voyeuristic content (women’s beach volleyball comes to mind).
Everyone wins at the Olympics: stadium contractors, strutting central governments, and athletes who place high enough to be crowned with the laurels of corporate sponsorship. Well, everyone except the bondholders, who are left with little more than folded tents when the circus leaves town after three weeks of breathless commentary about women’s weightlifting.
By chance, I have been to many of the cities that have hosted recent summer Games — Barcelona, Moscow, Beijing, Athens, and Seoul. In nearly each locale the thought crossed my mind that city residents have little more to show for their indebted billions than a few light-rail lines, perhaps an airport facelift, and impractical buildings that can be converted only into minimum-security prisons.
Beijing still has its iconic Bird’s Nest and Water Cube, although neither stadium is used now for anything more than tourist photography and an aqua park.
My son Charles and I spent a week driving around Greece after the 2004 Games. As best as we could tell, all Athens got for its now-bad loans were signs pointing the way to the Olympic Sailing Center (we even found these billboards miles from the sea), and a light-rail connection to Piraeus. Weeds covered the infield of the softball stadium.
Barcelona, the 1992 host, ended up with some new apartment buildings — since the Olympics were played in downtown areas — a few marinas, and of course light-rail. Many cities, however, have successfully put up apartment blocks without staging a field hockey tournament.
Nor did Moscow get the political bounce it had angled for when it hosted the 1980 summer Olympics. In protest over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the United States and many allies refused to send teams, giving the Games the feel of a Warsaw Pact scout jamboree. The paint peeled off the Olympic village faster than some of the times in the marathon. (In London, the US has decided against boycotting its own invasion of Afghanistan.)
In theory, politics have nothing to do with the Games, although by organizing teams according to countries, the Olympic Committee has ensured that the spectacle is best understood as the continuation of war by other means, including archery and (in 1900) live pigeon shooting.
When the modern Olympics were revived in 1896, individual athletes paid their own way to Athens to compete as amateurs. Now, nearly all nations field the equivalent of the East German swim team, a squad bred in laboratory test tubes to demonstrate a triumph of the will.
The reason terrorists have the Games on their hit lists (Munich in 1972 was the worst example) is because the governments that they revile enter the stadiums with such wild displays of flag waving, as though the opening ceremony were a bullfight. At the London Games, security contracts are worth more than gold medals. For example, the British army is deploying surface-to-air missiles near the Olympic Stadium (apparently javelins no longer do the trick), and the FBI, in theory an exclusively domestic US Agency, is sending over about 500 agents, even though it was the Secret Service that won the regional escort trials in Cartagena.
Does the corporate business of the Olympics negate the achievements of the athletes? Am I so cold-hearted that I cannot admire Joan Benoit Samuelson coming home in 1984 with the gold or Fosbury’s flop? Not at all. I enjoy watching Moldova lose at water polo as much as the next American. At the same time, there is something cartoonish about NBA All-stars dunking over a Latvian small forward.
Were the decision mine, I would let the Olympics go the way of Nuremberg rallies. The Games strike me as ruinous to city finances and bad for sport. Should not the goal of the Olympic movement be to encourage more players and fewer spectators? Instead, the Games are a celebration of reclining consumerism. At least the athletes get to go through 100,000 condoms in 17 days.
Nor does any sporting event that requires the protection of thousands of soldiers, surface-to-air missiles, and 24/7 cable coverage strike me as the spiritual heir of the Games first contested in a Greek sanctuary.
Several school vacations ago, I took my younger daughter to Olympia, located in the western Peloponnese. We were tracking down the ancient wonders of the world, and Olympia once had a huge gold statue of Zeus, until “promoters” stripped it for parts and carted off the gold to Aleppo on donkeys.
We strolled around the original Olympic stadium, which even today could be built for about $200,000. The “seats” are slopes of grassy lawn, and the field of dreams is covered with dirt. The rest of the Olympic village is a few pine trees and some worn temples, but it’s magical.
Even during times of conflict, from 700 BC to 400 AD athletes came to Olympia from the contours of the Greek world, and left for home, if successful, only with olive branches in their hair. Along with paying honor to Zeus, the ancient Olympics celebrated athletic achievement, not prime-time nationalism or Coca-Cola. To show modesty, athletes were naked for their competitions. The Games ended only when Christianity moved to wipe out what it viewed as a pagan ritual.
At the end of three weeks of the London Games, even if the British army has had to shoot off a few of its surface-to-air missiles, TV commentators will pronounce the Games an immortal success, a triumph of Spartan proportions, and an epic not seen since Jason came back with the golden fleece.
Then, in three years, if not sooner, London will get the $15 billion invoice for its fun summer, and all it will have to show for it will be a few used diving boards and, with luck, some new light-rail. In the words of George Best, the great Northern Irish footballer: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”
Flickr photo by Jesse Scott / twowaystairs - Wenlock, the 2012 Olympic mascot.
Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is Whistle-Stopping America.