As a child I loved the Olympics. I saw it as the ultimate global sports competition. To win here meant your country was the best in the world. I am not a child anymore, and I am now well aware of the dark side to the games the world loves to watch…
1. Opaque IOC: The Olympics is not an intergovernmental collaboration. The games are organised by a private entity called the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The
and its various national affiliates are opaque. National anthems are played, but this private entity conducts and makes revenue from the event. The revenue over a four-year period is around $5 billion. The athletes may well get prestige, medals and fame but not a significant share of this revenue. That’s why many Olympians end up doing humble jobs several years later.
2. Host city financial losses: While the IOC is cash rich, nearly every city that has hosted Olympics in the past few decades lost money. Athens 2004 pushed Greece into an economic crisis, which continues until today. In Rio, stadiums made for the Olympics lie in neglect and ruin. Tokyo will lose billions. There’s also a huge lasting negative environmental impact from the Olympics. All this for an event that just lasts a few weeks and ultimately enriches the IOC.
3. Arm-twisting by influential countries: The most recent and blatant example is Russia, where a state-sponsored doping scandal was discovered. The IOC technically banned Russia but allowed its athletes to compete under an ROC flag. Is this fair for others?
4. Player abuse: Issues associated with extreme competitive sport came to the forefront in Tokyo when top US gymnast Simone Biles withdrew mid-event citing mental health issues. Stories are rife from many nations about little children driven hard for years to win a medal. A report by Human Rights Watch highlighted extreme verbal and physical abuse of hundreds of young Japanese players being trained for the Olympics.
As we in India too strive for more medals, we should be careful to not become a child abuse factory. The training regimen and pressure in certain sports such as gymnastics is so grueling that we wouldn’t allow animals to be treated that way. You may argue that animals can’t consent but do you think a 13-year-old can? To be training for six hours a day for years and being yelled at? To face extreme pressure, risk career-ending injuries and massive rejection after years of work? All this for what? So the IOC can get richer, viewers get some entertaining cartwheels to watch and we can feel proud in Olympic week? How do we define the boundary of what is true training for a sport, and what might be too much for a young child? We need to be especially careful about over competitiveness in India. We already push our students too hard. A 100% cutoff in Delhi University is an example of how competition turns into insanity. I hope we don’t get that same insanity into sports. All for a medal from a privately managed entity conducting sporting competitions for revenue-earning content?
5. Peak performance vs big picture: Medals are great, but not a true picture of athletic and fitness ability in a country. The US has won the most Olympic medals but it is one of the most obese nations in the world. What’s more important? A few super fit athletes, or a reasonably fit entire nation? Where would you deploy your limited sports budget?
6. Rich country bias: Olympic medals today require training with tremendous resources. That explains the large correlation between high-income nations and medals. What is this competition then? Is it an equal opportunity sport? Is it for fun? Or a measure of who has more money to train its athletes?
The national anthem being played in the international arena is emotional and meaningful for us. It fulfills our aspiration to be a successful country on the global stage. The IOC exploits this emotion. This, coupled with world-class athletes that are fun and entertaining to watch, allows them to create content called the Olympics. It also allows them to get away with their dark side.
Do watch and celebrate the Olympics. They aren’t evil. But also realise that they have real issues. And they are certainly no place to look for national validation.
Congrats to the winners, once again!
(Chetan Bhagat is a bestselling author and a popular newspaper columnist. Views expressed are the author’s own and not of www.economictimes.com)