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Do the Modern Olympics Devalue Sport?

Mal Fletcher
Posted 26 June 2012
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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. Yet the modern Olympiad and the organisation that supports it have arguably become little more than a celebration of jingoism and a promoter of market values.

The virtues that once defined sporting competition at the elite level now seem but a secondary consideration. The success of any modern Olympiad is, at the end of the day, measured in terms of the potential monetary gain for the host nation and for those nations which produce winning competitors – especially in the big sports.

In his new book, What Money Can’t Buy, ethics professor Michael Sandel poses an apt question. 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, he 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 mildly 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.

The London Olympics will have cost £8.4 billion, which is 101 percent over its original 2004 budget. They will be the most expensive Games ever. Does attaching a monetary value to the Games – and by extension to the athletes who participate in them – actually devalue sport itself?

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 ever more overt ways, it walks the walk of profit and indulgence.

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

The Games themselves 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 would probably 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 does a modern Olympiad leave behind?

In London’s case, part of the legacy will be a new high-speed railway line from downtown to nowhere in particular - Stratford isn’t exactly a buzzing centre, at least not yet – plus the world’s largest McDonald’s outlet.

For most of the nations taking part, there will be a temporary spike in nationalistic spirit – or jingoism – and a reminder that David very rarely defeats Goliath, especially where big money has been involved.

Are the Olympics a waste of time? No – 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.)

Sadly, though, sport is like the arts: it is increasingly seen an extension of the market economy. It is an opportunity to increase a community’s collective wealth.

The virtues and values that once placed sporting endeavour on a higher plane than business or politics are now overlooked, 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.

What’s your view?

Have the modern olympics become too commercialised?



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