So as we slide through the second and final week of another Olympics, hasn’t it been entertaining? Wild dogs, ugly sweaters, and bad snow. But remind me, why do we still have the Olympics?
The Olympic Games were a Panhellenic religious celebration in ancient Greece. In 1896, Pierre de Coubertin revived the competition in Athens with the hope of uniting the world, or at least Europe, in peace. They were to embody and foster Olympism, which, according to the Olympic Charter, “seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example, and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” These vague principles should lead to “a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
But 118 years later, where’s the peace? Hitler used his 1936 Olympics to showcase his race and Reich. In 2008, the tyrants in Beijing used the Olympics to promote their regime just as Russian President Putin is now doing for his Russian Empire 3.0. In 1972, Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes in Munich. In 1980, the United States and others boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Then the Soviet bloc in turn boycotted the Los Angeles Games four years later. Far from bringing peace, the games seem to be another forum for existing conflicts.
International sports competition has great value. It gives athletes a global challenge and provides us all a more God-glorifying height of human accomplishment to behold. But we have no shortage of that in 2014, everything from the FIFA World Cup (soccer) to the IAAF World Championships (track and field).
As for the spirit of sport, it has given way to the spirit of commerce and self-promotion, neither of which needs an additional venue. Opening up competition to professionals (the National Hockey League now suspends its season because so many players are on Olympic teams) and allowing commercial endorsements (like snowboarder Shaun White) made the games big business.
With such a vast new revenue stream in motion, the site selection process is now more subject to corruption than ever. How did the Winter Games end up in Sochi, a city with a subtropical climate that rarely gets below 37 degrees? Though it is the largest resort city in Russia, athletes and journalists were appalled at the hotel conditions when they arrived: brown toxic tap water, humiliating bathroom arrangements, and various things falling apart or in mid-construction. In selecting a city, the International Olympic Committee looks into these details carefully. Although bribery has long been commonplace, we usually end up with a plausible location. But a terrorist-rich, subtropical Stalin-era resort city with ridiculous toilet culture?
Staging the Olympics often involves burdensome expenditures. It took Quebec 30 years to pay off the 1976 Montreal Games. Russia spent $51 billion, more than all previous Winter Olympic costs combined. In some countries there are human-rights abuses—bulldozing people’s homes and sweeping away the poor like so much litter—and even environmental destruction. For the 2014 Sochi Games, a highway and a railway were “cut through Sochi National Park—a nature reserve with world heritage status.”
If the Olympics must continue, we should stage the Winter Games permanently in Switzerland and the Summer Games in Athens where they began. The facilities already exist. There would be no political theater and minimal corruption. But that would involve international cooperation and goodwill, which is not the Olympic spirit these days.