Olympics move beyond satire

Olympic boosters don’t consider opportunity costs of Olympic competition, writes Geoffrey Barker. Meanwhile, the subsidies and scandals continue

19 July 2012



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State-subsidised carnival: London’s Olympic stadium under construction (above) in early 2009.
Photo: Nigel Chadwick/ geograph.org.uk

THE skies over London are protected by circling jet fighters, stationary ground-to-air missile batteries and cluttering helicopters carrying military snipers. The streets of the city are patrolled by thousands of soldiers, policemen and whatever is meant by “security personnel.” By comparison, the barrage balloons put up to counter the German air force in two world wars were like benign sausages in the sky.

London’s conversion into a national security venue, riding roughshod over the freedoms, comfort and convenience of its inhabitants, is due, of course, to the Olympic Games, the four-yearly global athletics carnival that most countries want to host for the economic benefits that supposedly flow.

Surely it is time the international community abandoned this Olympic nonsense, and not just because of the massive cost and inconvenience of protecting the games, although that is bad enough. London’s preparations have plainly elevated Olympic security to new and dangerous levels of lethality.

It is also because the Olympic Games, while constantly expanding as spectacles, are shrivelling as sporting contests, despite the apparently infinite capacity of competitors to break records and despite the billions of dollars poured in by governments and corporations. Resources devoted to Olympic sport could be put to much better use supporting other human activities with infinitely greater benefits to populations everywhere.

The fact is that every Olympic Games is a massively state-subsidised carnival staged primarily for the economic benefit of global fizzy drink companies and television networks. The drink companies flog their sugary junk direct; TV companies sell commercial time during Olympic broadcasts at massively inflated rates. Mammon, not Mercury, dominates the Olympic Games and there are few substantial and durable benefits for the societies that host and fund them.

Each four-yearly event is debauched by scandals about the use of performance-enhancing drugs. A huge bureaucracy has evolved to stop athletes from using drugs, but pharmacology usually trumps vigilance as athletes pursue the cornucopia of sponsorship “deals” offered to gold medal winners.

Olympic contests also encourage the descent of countries into nationalistic primitivism and conflict, with the medal count seen as evidence of national superiority. (Of course it isn’t: it is merely evidence of how much a country can afford to pay to win a medal.) Australia, it has to be said, is particularly prone to this disease. This is partly due to sports journalism and television commentary that daily invests the pointless gyrations of Olympic athletes with an importance and portentousness that is beyond satire.

It is not just that Australian broadcasters, like all other broadcasters, focus mainly on the performances of their own athletes and teams regardless of the excellence of other performances. It is also that Australian Olympic officials brazenly demand increased Commonwealth funding for the elite Australian Institute of Sport in order to maximise the chance of big medal hauls. The gurus of Olympism (their word, not mine) are already warning that Australians might win fewer medals in London than they have won at other recent Olympic contests. Australians are taught to believe that Olympic loss is a cause for national shame and victory is a cause for national ecstasy. No other emotional response is possible. A more mature nation would reject such simplistic nonsense.

It is sometimes claimed that Olympic sport brings the youth of the world together in amity for friendly competition with beneficial consequences for international relations. Nobody familiar with the events during the Hungary–Soviet Union water polo match in Melbourne in 1956 would believe that sentimental nonsense. Nowadays Olympic athletes are self-seeking professionals who are rewarded only for demonstrating their claimed national superiority by winning at any price. International goodwill does not come into it.

Perhaps the cost and inconvenience of Olympic sport might be justified if athletes were positive role models for young and impressionable Australians (and others). Unhappily, too many are not. Some have engaged in well-publicised violence (and usually have been flogged with a feather in the national interest); others have performed spectacular dummy-spits (sometimes claiming racial bias) when not chosen for teams; others have used alcohol and drugs to excess and with disturbing consequences. There is no evidence that Olympic athletes encourage other young people to aspire to participate in sports.

Not surprisingly the Olympic boosters don’t consider opportunity costs of Olympic competition. What are the forgone alternatives? What benefits could have been received? What would they cost? The massive funding of elite sport and elite sporting infrastructure means that less funding is available for infrastructure that could be used (for example) by those who want to keep fit but who are less than athletic supermen and superwomen. Money taken from Olympics budgets could be used to provide facilities to improve the increasingly threatened physical health of those who now tend to be couch potatoes.

Funding used to support Olympic competition might also be redirected to help growing numbers of morbidly obese people in Western societies. Better dietary advice and health programs could be funded to reduce the diseases like diabetes that are now becoming rampant, partly because so many people over-indulge in the products marketed by Olympic sponsors.

Rather than put so many dollars into the elite sport basket there could be more funding for other elite activities with far greater cultural impact and durability. Mass audiences in sports-mad countries are served an over-rich diet of elite sport but precious little in the way of elite music, literature and other arts performance. Australia would be better served if its young musicians, writers and actors (and scientists, philosophers and others) were given the exposure, encouragement and resources now devoted to elite athletes. Australians might even discover the richness of creative talent in this country.

None of this should unduly impoverish Olympic athletes. They have generous global corporate sponsors who pay them to run and jump and swim and promote their often ephemeral food and fashion products. They have TV channels anxious to broadcast athletics carnivals on their networks. What elite athletes (a tiny minority of those who engage in physical activities) should not benefit from is the public funding now poured into subsidising their lives. Their activities add nothing to national culture and, if anything, diminish the national reputation. Do we really want to be a nation of Jock (and Jill) straps? •

Geoffrey Barker is a visiting fellow in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

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9 Comments

  1. Russell Walton added this comment on 20 July 2012 | Permalink

    Geoffrey Barker,

    I agree, the opportunity costs of the Olympic circuses are enormous, there are hundreds of more productive uses for the taxpayers’ funds. Those demented people ( and vested interests) who think that the Olympics are nationally significant should pay for the entire farce with their own money, not the taxpayers’.

    If our politicians had more spine they would explain to the voters the cost of each Olympic gold medal. There’s a health argument in favour of subsidised participatory sport, but elite athletes are simply state supported entertainers and very expensive ones as well.

    People have been sceptical about the Olympics and Olympic athletes’ “achievements” for 2500 years–

    “It is folly for the Greeks to make a great gathering to see useless creatures like these….What good does a man do for his city by winning a prize for wrestling or speed or quoit heaving or jaw smiting?…..Garlands of leaves should be for the wise and the good”.

    from “Autolycus” by Euripides.

    Apparently we’re still the minority.

  2. Roger Scott added this comment on 20 July 2012 | Permalink

    Praise be for a stimulating critique. There was a delightful air of amateurism in every sense in Melbourne, rapidly washed out by the perceived authoritarianism of Eastern Europeans who performed so creditably (although drugs tarnished some of their achievement retrospectively). Since then it has all been trending towards show-biz focussed on predominantly minority athletic and aquatic acivities and second-string team competitions.

    The very best thing to come out of Sydney was the John Clark entertainment, “The Games”, as good as it gets in TV humour. Predictably the current UK equivalent on UK-TV, ex-BBC, (“2012″) is a pale imitation of the original but still offers some marvellous illustrations of life imitating art with themes like ludicrous appointments, traffic chaos, political in-fighting, community alienation and (potentially) security “overkill”. Beyond satire.

  3. Helen Carter added this comment on 20 July 2012 | Permalink

    If only… The Olympics have become obscene, bizarre, ridiculous.

  4. Max Willoughby added this comment on 20 July 2012 | Permalink

    I’m glad you mentioned scientists [even if only in parentheses], but this country would be better off spending less on sport and art and more on technology promotion – engineering and science. But I agree with your themes, our definition of ourselves through sport and the self-serving rent seeking of the oleaginous members of the so-called Olympic family needs to end, and the world should get over the circus of the Olympics.

  5. Boyd Milligan added this comment on 20 July 2012 | Permalink

    Geoffrey

    Perhaps your comments regarding the increased commercialisation of the Olympics reflect general trends in all facets of human endeavour.
    I must take issue with your commentary on the role model effects of Olympians. I invite you to attend our local swimming squad here in Perth to modify your view. Should you not get out on Canberra so much I offer to organise a similar visit to a similar club in Canberra Sydney Melbourne or most regional centres.
    Whilst there are a few “headliners” who in themselves do not provide positive role models I know and admire many lessor glamourised Olympians in a variety of sports who are putting back into their respective sports and communities, both during their sporting career and more often than not for many years afterwards.
    I am more than happy assist any of my children to “do the hard yards” now with a dream to perhaps represent Australia one day in the Olympics. The attributes learned at this stage and fostered by past and present Olympians within the system, will benefit that child and the community for many years to come both socially and commercially.
    The small minority of Olympians who achieve a profile from which they may make a genoerous living do not represent the vaste bulk of athletes.
    I suspect that the Olympian costs call significantly less on the public purse than Defence and University Fellowships. Similarly, and more easily measured, are the achievements of Olympians, and their grass roots beneficial impact on our society

  6. Phil Gorman added this comment on 21 July 2012 | Permalink

    What a gross spectacle the modern Olympic games present. Money and winning at any cost trump all else. The service of Mammon is added to the preoccupations of those ancient narcissists, onanists and nationalists. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel the Olympics provide the scoundrel’s sheltered workshop.

  7. Greg Mullins added this comment on 3 August 2012 | Permalink

    I, like so many Australians, are lamenting the lacklustre performance of Australia’s Olympians at the London Games. Not because I take any interest in our sporting performance but because of the billions more dollars taxpayers will be called on to pump into elite sport in the next few years to ensure Australia resumes its customary place on future Olympic podiums.

    How about a campaign to shut the Olympics down and bring it back in 10 years on a truly amateur footing? Too ‘pie in the sky’?

  8. Henry Haszler added this comment on 3 August 2012 | Permalink

    I agree with pretty much everything in the article. But I believe that elite sport does have some spin-offs in terms of motivating others to be more active and/or to just try harder themselves in whatever is their chosen occupation.

    As an economist, what I really object to is the taxpayer funded subsidies to the athletes. Oh and what about all that hard work and dedication I hear some asking? Well it’s a choice people make in pursuit of the glory and the potentially enormous cash.

    Clearly the rewards of Olympic success are enormous. Even making it into the Olympic team is worth something financially even if only in terms of helping people to get jobs they want.

    In other pursuits, eg working towards a university degree, we charge the kids a HECS fee. And we tell quite a few other Australians who don’t make the cut for state funded places education,”Get a Loan”. That’s what we also tell aspiring business people. I cannot see why athletes should not also be required to pay their own way.

    In a more or less free market economy we are distorting the allocation of our resources by encouraging through state subsidies more people into sport than would happen if the market were left to its own devices. And it is not as if we would end up with significantly less in the way of successful Olympians because the rewards are so great. Remember people once did all this as amateurs for the glory alone!

  9. Richard Pickup added this comment on 13 August 2012 | Permalink

    I rather like sport (participating very rarely watching)but the focus on Olympic/elite sports seems to be at the expense of the local sport for the kids. Very few of the kids in the poorer suburbs ever get to the sports my kids and I took part in.

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