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The Liberal Olympics

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Fans of 1970s Saturday morning TV may remember the “Laff-A-Lympics,” a cartoon spoof featuring goofy characters competing in strange events. With the actual Olympics starting this week, Americans will have the chance to witness many sporting events that we haven’t paid much attention to since, well, 2008. But before the real games get underway, let’s imagine what a “Liberal Olympiad” might look like.


For starters, we’d need to give an advantage to countries that have been victimized by colonization. Recall the immortal words of President Lyndon Johnson: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

It would be unfair, then, to expect Kenyans to compete as equals alongside their former colonial masters. In distance events, the former African colonies should enjoy a “head start,” which would vary based on the length of the race being contested. It would range from just a thousand meters or so in the 10,000 meters to at least three miles in the marathon. This is, clearly, the only way these traditionally disadvantaged athletes can keep up.

Of course, this raises the problem that the United States was once a group of British colonies, and could technically be eligible for assistance when up against British athletes. Maybe Michael Phelps could lobby to be allowed to jump into the pool a few seconds before British swimmers?

Luckily, though, the days of American colonization were more than 200 years ago. So, using the logic of the Supreme Court in its Grutter v. Bollinger decision, the time for such assistance has passed. “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today,” Sandra Day O’Conner wrote in that 2003 decision.


Turning to track and field, it’s blatantly prejudicial that while men compete in the decathlon (10 events) women vie in the heptathlon (eight events). Under the logic of Title IX, we should do away with the two events that men compete in and women do not. Likewise, women do not compete in baseball, so that sport should be dropped immediately.

Finally, there’s the question of GDP. It’s obviously unfair to expect poor Jamaican sprinters to line up against richer American or Canadian runners who enjoy more expensive training techniques.

To be fair to runners from poorer nations, we should do something similar and shave seconds off their times. If a sprinter from Jamaica crossed the finish line in, say 9.69 seconds, we’d mark it down as 9.5 seconds. Fairness abounds!

Enough silliness.

According to the ratings firm Nielsen, “4.7 billion viewers -- or 70 percent of the world’s population -- tuned in to watch the [2008] Games.” That was up from 3.9 billion in 2004 Athens Games and 3.6 billion in 2000. And there’s a reason that the Olympics are so popular around the globe: It’s because they’re based entirely on merit. The best man (or woman) wins, regardless of creed, color or economic circumstance.

Yes, some countries tend to focus on particular events while others attempt to compete across-the-board. Thus Africans have come to dominate distance running, Asians dominate badminton and Americans vie for medals in most sports and consider ourselves unsuccessful if we don’t bring back the largest number of medals. But this is a reminder of the value of competition.


As Matthew Spalding noted in his book We Still Hold These Truths, “The essence of liberty is the freedom to develop one’s talents, pursue opportunity, and generally take responsibility for one’s own life and well-being.” That’s exactly what occurs in hundreds of countries as athletes prepare for the Olympics, and it’s what viewers see in the Olympic stadium when those athletes vie for medals.

And yes, luck plays a hand, as it always does in sporting events. Some stars are injured. Others wash out during the trials. Other story lines never develop.

In a world where it seems that every child gets a medal for simply competing, it’s refreshing to see a true meritocracy. In the Olympics, only the very best are rewarded. That’s why they matter, and that’s why we watch.

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