Every four years the Olympics come around and the prickly criticism reaches a crescendo. We talk about the lavish costs, the impact on the local communities, the enormous waste, the huge inequality between competing nations and the humiliating team uniforms. Worse, we go on about how this event is in no way inclusive.
Frankly, I’m tired of it. Oh, I know it’s all true. Look at a map of the world — there’s almost no participation from around the equator and if you leave out Australia and New Zealand there’s only about 20 athletes from the entire southern hemisphere. I just don’t want to hear about it anymore.
The way I see it, there are three ways to end griping on a subject that irritates you: 1. Silence it; 2. Ignore it; or 3. Remove the basis for complaint. In this case I reckon Number 3 is the simplest way to go — but don’t worry — I’m not for a minute suggesting the IOC should clean up its act or that petty city administrations all over the world should end their collusion with these guys in the huge rort that the Olympics have become. No, I’m just suggesting a name-change for marketing purposes so that all the people currently complaining that the Winter Olympics don’t live up to their lofty ideals will shut up for a while.
I’m simply suggesting the IOC rename the thing a bit more accurately and I think "The Rich Countries With Snow In Winter Olympics" has a certain ring to it.
The benefits of a rebranding are pretty obvious. For a start, you won’t hear people making narky observations about the unrepresentative nature of the winter carnival because the new name will be completely open about this particular. Suddenly it will seem perfectly natural that Liechtenstein, with a tiny population of a few thousands, managed to put together a team of seven athletes — more than the combined teams of South Africa (49 million), Ethiopia (population 79 million), and India (1.177 billion). The fact that Liechtenstein gets plenty of snow in winter and is perhaps the richest country in the world per capita will only confirm the IOC’s point.
For the IOC the credibility boost would be immediate, turning this otherwise closed shop into a model of transparency overnight.
There will be other benefits. Dropping the all-inclusive tone (which seems mandatory with anything marketed as "Olympic") will set the ethical bar for the event at a more achievable height. When squabbles break out about trademarks and logos, for example, they won’t be thought unseemly — after all, a tournament for rich countries quite openly revolves around money — and will be celebrated rather as part of the general spirit of competition.
When we drop the pretence at lofty ideals, we also drop the baggage they carry, like the expectation that some kind of ethical principle should prevent low-income areas in Olympic cities being handed over as a windfall gift to real estate developers. For people who don’t even have a home, there will no longer be the fear that they may be bused out or hidden away as the games draw near.
That fear will be replaced by complete certainty and they can plan accordingly. Visitors to the games won’t have to pretend to themselves that this is a city without homeless people — they can instead admire the determination of the Olympic venue in making everything ship-shape for the games and secretly wish their own hometown administration had half as much spunk.
Clarifying exactly who the games are for doesn’t avoid criticism entirely, but it would certainly take the edge off. You could still accuse them of all the same things they do right now but you couldn’t call them hypocrites so most of the sting would be gone. The Rich Countries With Snow In Winter Olympics would have saved itself from most of this tedious criticism not by changing anything fundamental but by simply doing what it says on the box.
For those who still care about the actual events themselves, there would be welcome relief from the constant jibes that the Winter Olympic events don’t serve any practical purpose whatsoever. As a carnival for cooler countries with powerful economies it will seem perfectly normal that there is no competition over something useful like ice fishing or a snow mobile event, or events in which athletes must stay overnight battling the harsh elements. The luxury of ignoring practicalities is one of the great things that comes with being a rich country.
The question of where that leaves poorer countries is a good one. I wouldn’t support excluding them entirely — indeed there’s a good case to be made for giving them a handicap in some of the peripheral events (which they already have when you listen to some of the overly sentimental commentary). Of course handicaps lead to arguments but that’s the sort of thing that keeps the Olympics going.
Indeed, in the longer run, the poorer and warmer countries will have the last laugh as the climate pushes the event further up mountains and deeper into the northern hemisphere until it finally runs out of planet.
At that stage, I’ll be right behind the IOC when it wisely relocates the whole thing to one of Dubai’s indoor ski parks and we can put this whole irritating business behind us.
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