Monday, March 31, 2008

Olympic gaming

A number of European politicians, including the chancellor of Germany, the president of the Czech Republic and the prime minister of Poland, have announced their intention to skip the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. This is a considerable sacrifice, because for sheer mind-boggling bad taste, nothing has ever equalled an Olympic curtain-raiser -- not the Grammys, not the Super Bowl, not the Three Tenors, not even a typical episode of American Idol. And you can be sure the Chinese are toiling round the clock to surpass Turin, with its marching trees and skaters with their heads on fire. Set your TiVo now.

Of course, there is no suggestion that the German, Czech, Polish or any other teams will stay away because of the brutality in Tibet. There's just too much money on the table. I'm not only talking about the corporate sponsors, the investment by NBC Sports, and the lucrative endorsement contracts coveted by "amateurs" who medal. In 1980, no one except the athletes had anything to lose by a US boycott of the Moscow games. American companies had little interest in reaching Soviet markets. But this is 2008, and no one can afford to ignore a billion potential Chinese consumers with money to spend on cars, electronics and other big-ticket items that fewer and fewer Americans can afford. The only way to reach those consumers is through their government so -- sorry, Tibet. You are in our prayers -- which is what Americans say when they witness an atrocity and don't feel like doing anything substantive about it.

Ironically, the Olympics probably do best under totalitarian regimes, which have a cold-hearted efficiency that the democracies lack. Remember the 1976 outing in Montreal? Neither the stadium nor the housing was ready on time. But the Has and Hitlers don't have to worry about labor unions, private contractors, environmental impact statements or restive citizens. If a million people happen to be living on a site the Great Helmsman has designated for a velodrome, then a million people can damn well pack up and move. Security? No problem. A hundred thousand children waving flags or banners for the opening ceremony? Grab them out of the schoolyards. The Chinese even plan to seed the clouds over Beijing a day earlier, to make sure it doesn't rain on their parade, setting a new Olympic record in the control-freakiness event.

When this floating sportsapalooza began in 1896, it was supposed to prevent war by having the privileged males of the Western nations compete on the playing field instead of the battlefield. Besides, all the significant European monarchs were blood relatives -- what could go wrong? I'm not denying the uplifting moments, like the expression on the Fuhrer's face when Jesse Owens won and won and won; or Abebe Bikila running barefoot through the streets of Rome; or Eddie the Eagle, a skier of irresistible klutziness. But the Olympics have not lived up to Baron Coubertin's dream either as a glorification of pure athletics or as a force for world peace. Too much raging nationalism, too many ugly incidents and too much commercialism have eroded the fun. Cities compete to secure this tourism bonanza by any means necessary, including bribery, with not much thought for the consequences. (Londoners who don't remember 1948 have no idea what they're in for.) In a world full of political criminals looking for a world stage, I wonder if anyone can really afford the Olympics anymore. China may be the last nation prepared to pay the price.

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