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The Real Cost of the Olympics - Part 2: But it isn't all bad

We look into the human costs behind the staging of the Olympic Games.

Derek Redmond’s father helping him across the finish line is one of the most iconic images in Olympic history

We explore what the hidden costs behind the Olympic Games are. Read Part 1 here.

Of course, not everything is bad about the Olympics. There is no doubt that it represents a global celebration of the human ability to perform, compete and persevere. No other event generates with such prodigiousness, stories of personal conviction and pursuit of excellence.

The Jesse Owens story is often repeated and stands firm as a powerful invocation for individual belief, anti-racism and shaping larger political narratives through the games.

Barcelona, 1992: Derek Redmond, a British runner and a podium favorite faced one of the most intense disappointments a competitor could face when his hamstring tore mid-way through a semi-final race. Yet, he fought through intense pain (physical and mental) to the finish line irrespective of where he finished. His father leaping from the stands to help him get close to the finish is one of the several heard-rending moments that the games often generate.

Six athletes have died while competing for their countries in Olympics. The most recent was Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died during practice in 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

This magical and intense pursuit of Olympics is a special recipe that humanity has created. It causes the athletes to produce at levels above what is believed as the human best at any given moment.

The medals and money aren’t the end goal; not at all. How else can you explain Shaun White taking another run on his snowboard after winning Gold to pull off one of the most difficult tricks in snowboarding history in 2010.

The event brings the world together, however superficially, through their athlete representatives, to be part of a large celebration of our species. Despite the wars, racism, terrorism and religious discord, the fact that countries deem it important to send their best athletes and win recognition among their peers speaks of an inherent need to seek each other’s approval.

The undercurrent of competition and the need to be the best has taken our understanding of the physical limits of human body to new heights. With the aid of science and our growing body of knowledge on human kinesthetic ability, we’re breaking new grounds in redefining our physicality all the time.

And yet, athletes from the smallest countries, with the least awareness of the science or technology often endure and pull out something impossible. It only speaks of the power of determination and will to win.   

If nothing, the Olympics inspires generations of athletes (even if it may be dwindling) to go out and start running, jumping, throwing, shooting or playing with fellow athletes in a quest to someday perform in the theatre of dreams.

The dark side

While it’s admirable that the Olympic athletes are driven by something beyond money or medals, it conveniently brushes away a major issue: Olympic athletes are poor in general. Even in a richer country with a culture of support for athletes, like the United States, even the top-ranked Olympic athletes only get $400 to $2000 per month. The pay is often below the minimum-wage requirements.

Now, it isn’t hard to imagine the plight of athletes from poorer countries or those without the necessary support. The fact that they compete so effectively with athletes who trained in the latest sporting infrastructure is something to be admired. Yet, it is a disparity that is hard to overcome for an Olympic athlete from a poorer country however hard she may train.    

Then there are the medal-factories like China. Since the 1980s, China’s sporting schools have identified and trained children from a very young age (as young as 6 years) with the sole purpose of cracking the Olympics gold. Images of children in tears in these grueling schools show the intensity and the appalling lack-of-choice for these would-be athletes to pursue anything besides a life trying to be the best Olympic athlete. This bore fruit when they topped the gold-medal tally in 2008 Olympics.

If you can’t force children to train for medals, you dope for super-human performance. World Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation and report that Russia was involved in systematic doping and cheating, is quite possibility neither unique nor rare. Earlier, Maria Sharapova ban on doping charges was on the basis of information that it was not a one-time infraction but rather part of a sustained effort to cheat. Russia may have been banned from Olympics, but it doesn’t mean that the other athletes do not dope.    

The Olympics is an international tug-of-war with stakes high enough to justify anything.

In its present context, it does not help the majority of the world’s athletes nor does it really help foster togetherness of the world (it’s about winning at all costs). It does not economically help the host cities and countries. In fact, there is evidence that the costs will cripple the city for years to come. It also doesn’t seem to be about the joy of sport and athletics but more about paying the price of victory whatever it may be.

The majority of the other athletes struggle their way to even compete. IOC itself does little to support their lives. It does not fund a single paisa toward the participation of a single athlete. The athletes spend the money from their own pockets if they are moderately rich (hello, Abhinav Bindra) or scramble around to scrape together enough from an endorsement deal, corporate sponsorship, government support, friends and family support or crowd-funding support.

Neither do the Olympics help local communities significantly (nothing spending the same money on more beneficial projects can’t do better). It does not have a strong economic case to justify the escalating costs and it leaves behind scars that take decades to heal.    

So, who really benefits from it?

It helps corporations: security firms, construction companies, architects, airlines, hotels (momentarily). It helps the host country’s Olympic body. And on top of everything, it helps the International Olympic Committee. The rich, who may own real-estate in the right areas, stand to gain. The top 1-percentile of the most-famous athletes, get to make lots of money through sponsorships and endorsements.

Let’s look at The Olympics for what it is - a glitzy, billion-dollar entertainment that provides spectacle and ties into the corporations’ march for riches. It’s a geo-political statement for governments which may or may not pay off but definitely trickles down to local sentiments of nationalism and pride. But beyond that, let’s not look at it with the lens of being a virtuous endeavor to humanity or society.

The athletes who compete do display enormous grit and dedication but in system that’s built for corporate benefit and powerful government machinations.

Perhaps it’s time to shed the mega tag for this event. Citizens need to question the wastefulness of the event while there are more fundamental issues at stake to be addressed.

Sports, athletics and other endeavors need to become a part of our culture at a country, state, city and community level. Perhaps, in time, it will continue to make bloated, global parties less and less relevant. The local events may have manageable economics and will involve people more deeply. This could get people playing and participating for the joy of sports.

Perhaps it’s time to de-escalate The Olympics and make it serve a real purpose.

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