Thursday, 19 April 2012


I think I'm sick of the Olympics. Not the sports but the games themselves. I am not an Olympian and likely never will. I like running, cross country skiing, and walking. Something broke in me yesterday, and waking up this morning the halves drifted even further apart.

When I was going into grade nine I wanted to be a weightlifter. Not sure why, but it was that month's dream. I learned to do the clean and jerk in my basement. I started in May lifting no more than 70lbs but by August when the Atlanta Olympics were underway I could lift 140. My motivation was the Olympics. Every day I would face off again the barbell and keep trying to lift more and more. Once school began I put my dreams on hold indefinitely, so it would seem.  I never thought realistically about my goal, except that weightlifting was, for a few months, a passion.

When I was ten my parents convinced me to cross country ski. I knew how to ski and liked it, sort of. They were looking for a something more organized, maybe even teach me how to race. The solution was to join the Nakkertok ski club. They taught me how to ski fast, and I hated it. I still remember my first ski race when I was 11. I tripped over my exhausted self halfway through a not very long 4k loop, then sat on the side giving up. I pulled myself together to finish, but it was clear something would have to change before I would race again.

That motivation came when I joined biathlon. This period came in high school, after my weightlifting fantasy dissolved. The club was new, it was fun to shoot a rifle, I could still ski for fun, and races we not so much against other skiers but yourself. Why was biathlon racing different for me? It had something to do with the shooting targets and not paying attention to the other skiers. No idea, but the motivation pattern was getting clearer all the time: do it for yourself, on your own terms. Whenever I'd try to consciously compete, the whole point of racing seemed to dissolve instantly.

Having tried both XC skiing and competitive running in university, the same idea held true: when the end goal itself is to win, I always seem to lose.

Now back to the Olympics. Why did I lose interest? The straw that broke the camel's back came with this Globe and Mail article about the failure of almost every Olympics to make money. Living in Montreal I have a constant reminder of our own Olympic folly. For 25 years we had to pay for that terrible stadium. It's an eyesore to many, and it chills me to learn Jean Drapeau said in 1970 "The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby". I hope that's carved in stone somewhere. I try not to think about the Stadium as I run by it. It offers no inspiration.

I see a parallel between the personal Olympic experience and the city itself. Both are attempting to please a large audience on a grand scale. Every couple of years someone puts on a grand show, and the next day we forget all about them. It reminds me of the Great Gatsby, who held fantastic parties nightly  on the shore of Long Island.
On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city, between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants including an extra gardener toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.
Everyone seemed to love him, until it was all over. When Gatsby commits suicide after a failed love affair, no-one comes to his funeral except Nick Carraway (the narrator) and Gatsby's father. In probably one of the saddest moments in all of literature we learn what aiming to please really means to the rest of the world:
A little before three the Lutheran minister arrived from Flushing and I began to look involuntarily out the windows for other cars. So did Gatsby's father. And as the time passed and the servants came in and stood waiting in the hall, his eyes began to blink anxiously and he spoke of the rain in a worried uncertain way. The minister glanced several times at his watch so I took him aside and asked him to wait for half an hour. But it wasn't any use. Nobody came. 
Consider Gatsby as a allegory to the Sydney, and perhaps every Olympic games:
the real troubles in Sydney began after the Games. Australian officials had expected that the Olympics would boost the Sydney “brand,” and overall tourism would nearly quadruple to eight or 10 million people per year in the years after the Olympics. In fact, there was no boost at all: Tourism in Sydney has stayed steady, at about 2.5 million visitors a year even as tourist numbers have risen sharply across the rest of the region.
Remember that commentators said at the time these were the best-run Olmypic games ever. Instead of running the games on their own terms, they put on a flashy show for a world that doesn't seem to remember a thing about you after the balloons come down and the doves fly away.

What about the individual? Is this situation any better? Consider the lack of financial support before and after the games. The IOC sets qualifying standards that are necessary enough to curb participation numbers. But are these aims in and of themselves? The sheer nationalism imbued in every athlete is, to me, sickening. Not because nationalism in terms of sport is necessarily bad but because this same country offers so little support for the individual. In Canada, in order to qualify to the games, a nauseatingly high A+ standard must be attained and the stipends are paltry. Yet even this small support comes only on the verge of qualifying. No true development, no long lasting partnership. In the military you are promised full support during your years of service, and for any injuries incurred on the job. Athletes are, by comparison, used as party favors. They have become the new hunger games.

I imagine, perhaps someday, a large group of athletes taking back the games that were once theirs. The early years of the Olympics was about stories of individual achievement with countries in the backdrop. Think of Chariots of Fire, and what motivated them to run. There is now no avoiding the onslaught of flags in any games. The foreground is fading, the background enhanced. I see it as no accident the games are held for two weeks instead of a full month (like the World Cup or Tour de France). The shorter the games, the less time the audience will spend watching persons, instead keeping track of the medal count. Athletes are the trees, and we're watching the forrest. When a country like Canada is intent on only sending "winning" athletes, they betray the notion of what winning means to the athlete and what achievement should mean to the audience. There is no one person or organization at fault here, hence why collectively we will remember this as an era of decadence. And decadence, once gone, leaves nothing behind. 

The entire Olympics was meant to be symbolic of sport. A symbol is meant to be smaller in scale than what it represents. The Olympics has grown so big now it represents only itself.  


  1. Where is the medal count data? Love the literary analogies though!

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