Millions, possibly billions of people the world over welcome the Olympic Games as a time to escape the turbulence, stress and uncertainty that permeates our non-Olympic lives. The Games offer excitement and relief. We can take a break from the listless economy, partisan politics, and international conflicts, and focus instead on athletic excellence and individual achievement. Or can we?
The fantasy bubble popped loudly while the Olympic flame was still slowly winding its way among cheering crowds to its final destination in London. Despite the hearty applause and light-hearted excitement, acrimonious controversy, bitter conflict and intense competition are at the heart of the Olympics, and I don’t mean just on the sports arenas. The Games provide a global stage for the continuation of politics and business by other means.
The Olympics are, indeed, deeply inspiring. And there really is something incredibly exciting about watching representatives of every country in the world, and a few non-countries, come together to compete in friendly challenges. But there is so much more than wide smiles, bright eyes and rippling muscles.
By the time Mitt Romney kicked up a storm by questioning London’s readiness to host the event, politics had already tainted the London Olympics.
It’s a safe prediction that the Iranian government will violate Olympic rules by forcing its athletes to forfeit competitions that place them against Israeli athletes. Once again, they will crush the hopes of Iranians athletes who have trained for the biggest moment of their lives. And it’s a safe bet they will pretend injury or illness prevented their participation, avoiding the prescribed sanctions.
In another distasteful display of politics, the International Olympic Committee stubbornly refused a plea from the widows and children of athletes killed at the Games to hold a moment of silence in their memory. They wanted the IOC to recognize the worst tragedy in the history of the games at the opening ceremonies to mark the 40th anniversary of the massacre at the Munich Games, but the IOC, most likely fearing a boycott from Arab countries, rejected the idea.
All around the world spectators will admire the individual prowess of athletes and the coordinated skill of team sports, but the cheering for the flags of nations makes the games a thinly veiled geopolitical contest, as it always has been.
In the days of the Cold War, the frenzy of competition in the medal standings between Russia and the U.S. was a central drama, as was the larger East against West medals balance, a bloodless feud that roughly paralleled the nuclear arms race and the ideological competition.
Then, of course, there are the enormous financial stakes, which have a long tradition at the Games. The carefully crafted commercials that manage to make us choke up with emotion are not about brotherhood and sportsmanship.
The Olympics don’t take American Express, because they take about $100 million from Visa. And Visa doesn’t spend all that money just for the opportunity to remind us about the wonders of the Olympic spirit. The Games are a worldwide publicity pump and a money making machine.
Visa and the other major sponsors, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, McDonald’s and others are dishing out giant masses of cash because they expect to get back more than they put in.
The athletes compete because they love their sport. But many of them hope to become rich in the aftermath of their victories. We will hear the stunning numbers; first the lightning-fast times at the pool and on the track, and later the just-as-stunning figures in their subsequent endorsement contracts.
At the intersection of politics and business stands the British government, which helps explain why Romney’s remark triggered such a sharp and quick reaction.
Just days before the opening ceremony, new data showed the British economy shrinking even faster than feared. During a time of belt-tightening, Prime Minister David Cameron has justified the nearly $15 billion spent on hosting the Games as an investment that will quickly pay off. He has promised businesses in Britain that the large outlay will more than pay for itself. But, as has happened so many times before, the returns have so far proved elusive.
If Britain comes across as anything other than efficient, inviting, and competent, the games are unlikely to re-energize the economy and stimulate investment. That would be a pity for Britain.
As for us, we will still have the excitement of the competition and, hopefully — if nothing goes terribly wrong — a welcome break from the stresses of our daily lives and our troubled world.