Commentary Upfront Blog

Why the Olympics are worth saving

Sport can ennoble us, demanding that we rebel against our limitations, find joy and fellowship in the mutual pursuit of excellence, and express grace in loss. The Olympics do not always reach this height, but perhaps no other event unites the world in so rigorously demanding that its participants aspire to a higher ideal.

VANCOUVER 2010 WINTER GAMES: A SNOWBOARDER FLIES THROUGH THE OLYMPIC RINGS DURING THE OPENING CEREMONY
DAVID GRAY/REUTERS/FILE
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When the United States Olympic Committee chose Boston as its candidate for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games, I think I might have been the only excited person in the city.

This year, as the Pyeongchang Winter Games approach, I sometimes feel alone again.

I can understand why. You don’t spend 12 years as an Olympics reporter without coming face to face with some of the more unsavory aspects of the Olympic movement. After Oslo withdrew its bid for the 2022 Winter Games, the Norwegian website VG published a list of some of the conditions that the International Olympic Committee had set for candidate cities.

•The hotel must have a members lounge to be used exclusively by IOC members. If there is no members lounge, the hotel has to install one at its own cost.

•IOC meeting rooms must be air-conditioned to 20 degrees C (68 degrees F.).

•Private cars must be provided to select IOC members at the expense of the local Olympic organizing committee.

This, for an organization that generated $6 billion in revenue from 2005 to 2008.

The citizens of Boston – like those of Oslo – were not interested in fueling a sense of entitlement, among other things. And these days, it’s cool to be cynical about the Olympics. The fact that Beijing was chosen as host of the 2022 Winter Games was a sign that no one else wanted to indulge the IOC. Cross-country skiing will be held at a venue 124 miles away, and organizers will have to build an alpine skiing facility from scratch in a desert mountain range that conspicuously lacks snow.

But this week’s cover story, which I helped write along with a half-dozen contributors worldwide, offers a different portrait of the Olympics, I hope. And one that, to me, offers the real reason that the Olympic movement needs reform.

The Olympics are the closest sport comes to reaching its ultimate ideal. Eight years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Miami to cover the Super Bowl, then get on a plane and fly to Vancouver, British Columbia, for the Olympics. The difference was stark.

In Miami, the Super Bowl felt like a weeklong party that ended with a game which, in itself, was kind of just a party, too. In Vancouver, the Olympics felt like a celebration of sport – a spirit of genuine delight exuding from every pore. Given what the Olympics have become, it is easy to mock the ideal set out by founder Pierre de Coubertin, an elitist Frenchman. But it is real. The Olympic spirit has power.

Yes, in fact, sport can ennoble us, demanding that we rebel against our limitations, find joy and fellowship in the mutual pursuit of excellence, and express grace in loss. The Olympics do not always reach this height, but perhaps no other event unites the world in so rigorously demanding that its participants aspire to a higher ideal.

That is why the Olympics matter. And that is why they are worth watching – and saving.

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