Mal Fletcher
The Global Olympic 'Machine' Devalues Sport

Walt Disney, world-class dreamer and founder of the fantasy empire that bears his name, once said: ‘I have been up against tough competition all my life. I wouldn't know how to get along without it.’

In the age of so-called mass collaboration, international sporting endeavour has the potential to remind us that not all competition is unhealthy; that testing one’s mettle against one’s peers can bring out the best in all concerned.  

Nothing has the potential to celebrate the virtues and values of sporting endeavour like the Olympic Games. The athletes who will gather in London are worthy of honour, for their dedication, self-sacrifice and sheer hard work in pursuit of their goal.

They represent the very finest of the emerging generation of young leaders.

Yet the international Olympic movement is now more machine than movement and has arguably become little more than a promoter of market values.

Sport is travelling the same road as are the arts in some quarters: it is increasingly seen as an extension of the market economy. It is an opportunity to increase a community’s collective wealth.

The Olympic Games will bring attention to London, at a time when the city and nation needs a boost in confidence.

Yet the likelihood is that for those of us who live in Britain, as for many of the nations taking part, there will be a temporary spike in nationalistic spirit – or jingoism – with a reminder that David very rarely defeats Goliath, especially where big money has been involved.

From the time our children take up sport of any kind, we hope that they will embrace some of its finer virtues: the pursuit of excellence, for example, or humility in victory and grace in defeat.

Yet, at the elite level, the virtues that once defined sporting competition now sometimes seem but a secondary consideration and arguably, in some ways, no competition reflects this like the modern Olympiad.

The success of any version of the modern Games is, at the end of the day, measured largely in terms of the potential monetary gain for the host nation and for those countries which produce winning competitors – especially in the big sports.

The international Olympics machine supports this and in this respect is badly out of touch with changing societal values. The writer Po Bronson reminds us that ‘a crisis can actually take people from thinking about what’s next to thinking about what is first.’

In his new book, What Money Can’t Buy, ethics professor Michael Sandel poses a question which is exercising the minds of social and political leaders throughout the developed world.

In the wake of the global financial crisis and the ongoing problems with major currencies such as the euro, do we want a market economy or a market society? Do we want the market to serve us or to define us?

Are there some things in life, Sandel asks, to which we could attach a fee or price but should not, because in doing so we might actually devalue them? Is there more to measuring value than attaching a monetary cost?

To illustrate his point, he takes up the issue of limiting childbirth in the age of population explosion. Some serious population scientists are now advocating an approach not unlike China’s one-child policy for less regimented societies, as a way of slowing population growth.

If a society were to take on such an approach, asks Sandel, would it be appropriate to allow women to buy and sell their reproduction rights, making money in the process and allowing wealthy families to have more offspring?

Whilst this might make sense in a purely economic universe, Sandel argues that in a moral one it does not.

Indeed, to most of us there is something repugnant about this idea. The right to childbirth ought not to be commoditised. Children should know that they were born out of love, not as a result of some economic trade-off.

Some things in this life have intrinsic rather than extrinsic value; they require no external price tag to establish their value.

We might apply Sandel’s observations and questions to the modern Olympics.

By the time the last medal has been award, the London Olympics will have cost a reported £8.4 billion, which is 101 percent over its original 2004 budget. They will be the most expensive Games ever - as, it seems, every new Olympiad is destined to become.

Does attaching a monetary value to the Games – and by extension to the athletes who participate in them – actually devalue sport itself, especially if that value is taken as the prime marker of their worth?

Despite vigorous denials on the part of the IOC, doubts remain about the propriety of the host bidding process for each new Games, with perennial claims of bribery and nepotism.

Even without these stories, however, the high price tag attached to hosting the Games likely works against the very sporting ideals the Olympics are supposed to reinforce.

Ancient Olympiads, as far as we can tell, were celebrations of sporting endeavour as an aspect of human achievement – in much the same way as were artistic exhibitions.

Elite-level sporting contests were viewed not simply as opportunities to see who could run fastest or leap highest. They were seen as celebrations of great human virtues, such as participation with honour, the pursuit of excellence, a commitment to fairness and grace in defeat.

Philosophers lectured and wrote about the glories of sport. Religious books also cited life lessons drawn from the sporting track or arena.

Though doubtless even classical Greece had its Olympic superstars, the overriding interest was not simply in seeing athletes achieve individual glory. The sporting carnival represented a celebration of the glories of competition itself.

All this seems a somewhat quaint by today’s standards. The Olympics movement – or machine – still talks the talk of virtue, but in some quite overt ways, it walks the walk of profit and indulgence.

The Olympic experience is now arguably as much about the auction process and the building of infrastructure to host the event as it is about the sporting festival itself. 

The Games last just a fraction of the time taken up by the global auction that precedes them.

Indeed, were we to calculate the media space devoted to Olympic politics and management – and its various scandals – we might well find that it far outweighs the attention given to the Games themselves. This is despite the fact that more journalists, editors, producers and media machinery jostle for space at the Olympics than at any other global event.

The Olympics are not, of course, the only branch of international sport to be impacted by the growing reach of commercialism. Ever since the introduction of professional sports in various national competitions, games of one kind or another have gradually morphed into market commodities.

At the top-tier level, sporting competitions have been transformed from amateur pursuits, where the love of the game is all, into high-powered industries. Athletes are now but one part of a complex machine made up of event managers, player representatives and sports psychologists.

In some sports, athletes have become such a small part of the overall equation that they require ever more strident unions to represent their interests.

Where the love of the game was once the primary motivation for competing, this is now just one of many factors.

The money-spinners will argue, with some justification, that athletes deserve to be supported financially. They should be rewarded for the application of their talents and hard work as much as any other member of society.

In preparation to compete, they also need quality training facilities and the opportunity to train and develop without being distracted by the need to find a livelihood elsewhere.

This is quite right, at least to a point. The fact is that financial support for athletes and their facilities represents just a fraction of the money generated in and around a modern Olympiad.

The argument often goes further, too, to suggest that financial support is especially vital when an athlete’s or team’s success is likely to bring recognition to the nation they represent.

In most cases, this ‘recognition’ is coded language for business and other financial opportunities.

H. G. Wells, a writer of history as well as science fiction, once remarked that history measures a person’s greatness by what they leave behind to grow when they’re gone. We might apply a similar measure to human events.

Once the quadrennial carnival is over, what primarily does a modern Olympiad leave behind?

I’ve just returned to the UK from a lecture tour in Australia. In one media interview on the Olympics, I learned that some prominent present and former Australian athletes now refuse to watch any Olympics opening or closing ceremony.

This may seem churlish, given that Australia has only recently hosted its own Games. Yet their concern is one that I feel sure will be shared by other athletes.

Their fear, it seems, is that, in terms of public perception and our collective memory, the circus element is swallowing up any iconic moments in sporting history.

Many international commentators have called the Sydney Games in the year 2000 ‘the best ever’. Living in Copenhagen at the time, I remember feeling proud of my homeland and its ability to produce such a wonderful sporting event.

Just months after the Games, though, I became aware that what people remembered most outside of Australia were the ceremonies to welcome and close the event. Historic sporting milestones, which were front page news at the time, were quickly forgotten.

Even now, mention almost any modern Olympiad and you will probably find that most people – sports journalists excepted – recall elements of the production over any major sporting achievement.

In London’s case, the opener is sure to be a huge hit, with its cast of more than 15,000. But is this what the Olympics are about, given that a prime measure of London’s success will be the question of whether we eventually see a return on our financial investment?

The Olympics are definitely not a waste of time; they promote athleticism to increasingly inactive and obese populations. They also provide a reminder that there is virtue in competition if it is undertaken against a backdrop of mutual respect.

What's more, sporting facilities and the transport and housing built around them can in time become a useful addition to local infrastructure. (Though whether the Olympics were a necessary part of such projects is debatable.)

Yet the virtues and values that once placed sporting endeavour on a higher plane than business or politics seem at times to be largely overlooked by the international Olympic machine. They appear to be treated as relics of a bygone, less sophisticated age.

We are all the poorer for it. Perhaps the London Games can begin to redress the imbalance. We can but hope so.

Hear Mal Fletcher's ABC Australia radio interview on this issue.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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