Interested in the Olympics?

Posted: Sep 21, 2000 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Abundance can create scarcity, George Gilder explains in "Telecosm," his stupendous new book that puts us in the vestibule of advancing technology's Newest Age. So that explains it! Now that the repellent jingoism that the Nazis, then the Soviets, then the rest of us, brought to the Olympics has receded to tolerable excess, I wondered why these Olympics so quickly became so uninteresting. Their television ratings are down. Newspaper readership of the games' coverage is flat. The other day in the locker room after working out not one of my handball pals admitted to watching any of the Olympics. I would guess that even over at the neighborhood bar the sports fans so intently gripping their health drinks are watching baseball. The scarcity of interest in these Olympics is borne from the abundance of cheap media coverage, volupt corporate money and a plenitude of sports events that must lead to feelings of repletion in all save the most devoted Olympic fan. Possibly even these worthies will join me in a boycott of the games once I make my case against them. I actually took a pass on covering them when one of my teammates from the Indiana swimming teams of the 1960s e-mailed me from Sydney that the place was in chaos. An Olympic champion himself and former world record holder, he is now assisting with this monstrous effort down under, and what he described was not pretty. Amateur sports officials are always a threat to the excitement of amateur sport and to the athletes whom they often consider secondary to their pompous proceedings. Today's Olympic officials, corporate donors and media blowhards have transported the Olympics from the realm of competitive sport to that of burlesque. From the gaudy opening ceremonies -- which may still be going on -- to the sentimental swill about how the athletes suffered en route to this slaughter house of amateur values, all sense of the toughness of each sport event has been lost. Instead, NBC's sports broadcasters have given us more mawkish accounts of human calamity than the Democratic National Convention. Cancer, car accidents, "heart arrhythmia" -- more grief than Al Gore exploits in a year -- have all been the centerpiece of dozens of portraits of competing Olympians. These are not broadcasts about sport but about soap opera. Frankly, the real interest is not in some calamity that may have befallen an athlete or -- more absurd yet -- an athlete's remote relative or best friend. The interest is in the competitive event. Yet the media has an abundance of time. The events only take up a small fraction of that time. Hence broadcasters give us filler between ads that few true sports fans can stomach. Of course, ratings are down. The Oprah audience can only be shanghaied for so long before it has to get back to the real thing. The abundance of money heaved at these games also distracts from their intrinsic interest. Some of the money goes to the athletes, spoiling the unique value of amateurism on which the games were based. Those values should never have been confused with the garish values of professional sport and corrupted. Part of the reason for Jesse Owens' place in sport history is that he stood alone against the clock and his opponents to set records that have meaning for the fans and special meaning for every athlete whoever set out to challenge them. Today's professionalized Olympians, with their counselors, lawyers and accountants, have almost no link to the great athletes of the Olympic tradition, for instance, Wilma Rudolph and Mark Spitz. And that brings up two other repellent aspects of the abundance of money in these games: performance-enhancing drugs and what is called "sports technology." For whatever reason, probably for the hype associated with breaking records, Olympic officials have been lax in enforcing their own rules. Amateurism went by the wayside years ago. Now despite official denials, Olympic officials remain lackadaisical about drugs, and the blind eye they turn to "sports technology" is a joke. Advances in equipment that protect athletes from injury are desirable. Those that enhance performance, however, detract from the essence of sport. An athlete's mind and body in competition against the field and against the ages is what attracts the sporting fan's interest. Technology belongs in motor sports, perhaps yachting, but not in the Olympics where we want to see the heart and mind of a world champion competing against peers and against the champions of yesterday. Consider the high-tech body suits being worn by the swimmers. They introduce competing engineers into a race, detracting from the athlete's performance and denying any comparison with the great athletes of the past. They also flout the world swimming organization's own rules. Why not add on flippers and small jet engines tastefully attached to the buttocks? Yet whoever straps on the right technological marvel will never be able to compare himself to the real thing -- Spitz and those earlier swimming champions who swam practically au naturel. Today's champions have opened a whole new product line for Speedo and other marketers of such spurious abundance. That is the real reason for the new high-tech swimsuit. Some of the swimmers who have been swimming so well in Sydney deserve the respect of the fans. Unfortunately they have been hornswoggled into becoming salespersons for Speedo and now they have to share their moment of glory with the engineers who fashioned their swimsuit. The chaos expands; the interest declines.