The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

August 8, 2008

“Citius, Altius, Fortius”*

Today is what might as well be the official start of the Olympics, because today is when NBC carries the Olympics opening ceremonies, even though events began Wednesday. (One could say the official start of the Olympics is the first official blasting of “Bugler’s Dream,” the name of which you may not know, but the music of which you do.)

The best thing about the Olympics may be that, for sports fans, TV-watching improves tremendously. Journal Communications’ own WTMJ-TV (channel 4) in Milwaukee and WGBA-TV (channel 26) in Green Bay will carry the Games weekdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., from 7 to 11 p.m., and from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. (Ask for me the next couple of weeks, and you will find me a yawning man.) USA Network’s daily schedule is from 1 to 11 a.m., MSNBC has the Olympics from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m., CNBC gets the Olympics from 4 to 7 p.m. and from 11 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., and even Oxygen gets into the act with gymnastics starting Monday. If you’d like to listen in Spanish, Telemundo also has Olympic coverage.

The multiple cable options are a big improvement for sports fans, because they allow more focused sports coverage — USA Network will have basketball, soccer, tennis, water polo and volleyball; MSNBC will feature softball, beach volleyball, wrestling, volleyball and weightlifting; CNBC will focus on boxing; and Oxygen will also feature equestrian and tennis. The biggest problem with NBC's Olympics coverage is that it's not really geared for sports fans; in fact, event coverage degenerates into soap opera, a trend that began with ABC-TV's "Up Close and Personal" vignettes during their coverage.

(Speaking of up close and personal: my wife was a translator — Spanish and, unexpectedly, Portugese — for Olympic volleyball in the old Omni for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. One night, I was idly watching late-night coverage back in Wisconsin when it was suddenly interrupted for news of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. That caught my immediate attention because the Omni wasn’t far from the bombing site, and I wasn’t sure if she might not have been in that area at the time. She wasn’t, I found out after one after-midnight phone call to the house where she was staying.)

It would be nice if the Olympic movement was only about athletic achievement. For that matter, it would be nice if the Olympic movement was motivated only by athletic achievement. It would also be nice if the Olympics was a place where international disagreements could be set aside for a couple of weeks. None are the case, of course; in fact, anyone who says the Olympics should be free from politics doesn't know much about the Olympics, of which USA Today's Richard Benedetto said, "Sports and politics are running mates."

The Olympic movement has been the poster child for political intrigue for almost its entire existence, dating back to the days when Baron Pierre de Coubertin resurrected the Olympic movement in the 1890s. Coubertin believed that professional athletes soiled sports, so, when Jim Thorpe was discovered to have played "professional" baseball ($2 a game), he was stripped of his medals even though his losing his medals was against Olympic rules. Adolf Hitler viewed the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a chance to show off the superiority of his master race. Several Arab countries boycotted the 1956 Melbourne Olympics to protest Israel, and 20 years later many African countries boycotted over South Africa. The 1968 Mexico City Olympics was marred by the Mexican government's massacre of more than 200 protestors.

The Weekly Standard is not the first to have discerned similarities between China's being selected to host this summer's Olympics and Nazi Germany's hosting the 1936 summer Olympics, what with Darfur, Tibet, arrest and imprisonment of political dissidents and Tiananmen Square on China's civil rights résumé. As Weekly Standard writer Dean Barnett puts it, "Unwholesome Olympics politics are more the rule than the exception," including the 1936 Olympics and boycotts by the U.S. in 1980 and then of the U.S. by Soviet bloc countries four years later. In a completely different category would be the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists in the 1972 Munich Olympics, an obscenity basically blown off by International Olympic Committee head Avery Brundage, a truly loathsome figure in sports history.

Beyond boycotts, each of the winter and summer Olympics between 1948 and 1988 was an athletic attempt for the U.S. and the Soviet Union to show off its superiority against the other. This was a rather stacked race given that the U.S.S.R.'s "amateurs" were not amateurs at all. Some viewers see NBC's coverage of the Olympics as excessively pro-American to the point of being jingoistic. And we haven't even discussed various medical scandals tied to the effort of outdoing the competition.

Commercialism has been a recent complaint (I wonder how much it would cost to be designated "the official conservative/libertarian online political column of the Olympic Games"), and yet the three U.S. Olympics held in the past 25 years — Los Angeles in 1984, Atlanta in 1996, and Salt Lake City in 2002 — all were profitable. (I was in Salt Lake City three years before the Olympics, and one business group that benefitted from the Olympics before the Olympics were road builders.) The Athens Olympics in 2004 and the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006 ran deficits.

Still, the Olympics can generate stunning achievement, including gold medals by athletes you've never heard of, such as American Billy Mills in the 1964 10,000-meter run, or Nadia Comaneci in 1976 gymnastics, or Cathy Freeman in the 2000 400-meter run. And, of course, there was that hockey team in 1980. (1960, too.) The Olympic Games is worthwhile watching, as long as you don't watch too closely.

* “Swifter, higher, stronger” in Latin.

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