It’s dusk on a Thursday and Geoff, Andy and I are at 35,000 feet flying over Syria en route from Amman to Beirut. It’s been the sportsbeef summer hiatus and our minds, and indeed time, have been occupied by anything but sport. The nightlife of Beirut and the Lebanese beach towns of Byblos and Batroun, the sheer scale of Wadi Rum and Petra and particularly our flight over Syria has made the Olympics feel like they are happening on another planet. In attempting to imagine or understand the horrors that were playing out below, my mind turned briefly to the events in Rio and in comparison it seemed ludicrous that these two situations could be occurring at the same time.
We spoke several weeks ago (Episode 37) about the need to stop the Olympics, in their current bloated form at least. Too many concessions have been made to the core Olympic ideals over the years and far too many hardships and hypocrisies have been visited on the people of Rio. The fundamental societal issues in Brazil should not be viewed through the Olympic lens or the country’s performance hosting the games measured against some artificial gold standard that the IOC and the indoctrinated viewing public have developed from Olympic cycle to Olympic cycle.
The writing has been on the wall for a while now. The white elephants remaining after the Athens Games now look like the entire Greek economy in microcosm. The sheer extravagance of Beijing and even the lo-fi nature of the London Games have not come without their hangovers in the form of the sweetheart deal taxpayers are eating for West Ham’s occupancy of the Olympic Stadium and the raft of post facto positive drug tests that have emerged in the wake of the IAAF and Russian doping scandals.
In attempting to reboot the Olympics, it’s worth iterating some fundamental truths. Sport is important exactly because of the situation in Syria. It is a wonderful triviality that reminds us that our nobler pursuits far outnumber, if not outweigh, those who would seek to peddle death, anarchy and corruption. The Olympics are important because they showcase small sports and provide moments in the spotlight for otherwise unheralded athletes from all corners of the world.
So in order to preserve the fortnight long smorgasbord of athletic competition we must unhook it from the factors that have diverted it from the movements’ true path. It needs a permanent home, as was the case for the original games. The opaque nature of the bidding process, the financial and political strain on host cities and the swing towards authoritarian regimes hosting major sporting competitions supports the idea that the current model has a limited remaining lifespan. And it needs to get serious about its approach to countries and athletes proven to be cheating so that when we look at Syria and Rio we don’t see two sides of the same coin but rather the distraction one should provide from the other.