The sporting event that attracted the largest-ever global television audience didn’t actually have any sport in it. The opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games attracted between one and four billion viewers depending on whose figures you want to believe. Estimates suggest 4.7 billion people (70% of the world’s population) watched some part of the Games over the course of its two-week duration. It has become something of a cliché to talk of the Olympics as a ‘mega-event’, but such statistics would suggest that it would be more accurate to describe it as the mega-event.
All of which begs the question: why are the Olympics so popular? If we judge the Olympics by sporting criteria alone then really it has no right to be such a huge event. If you look at the sports that regularly figure in the top ten highest viewing figures for a sporting event then there are few if any surprises: football, American football, baseball, athletics, Formula 1, and occasionally rugby and cricket. Of these only two, football and athletics, feature in the Olympics and even then the (men’s) football competition is much derided as the poor relation when compared to the World Cup or Champions League
There is a school of thought that answers the question by pointing towards the wide diversity of sports on offer at the Games. So, for those of us here in the UK who are fed a staple diet of football, rugby and cricket this is our one chance to witness the joys of minority sports. There may well be some truth to this. As a sports-addicted child I can remember being thoroughly captivated by the sight of Turkish weightlifting legend Naim Süleymanoğlu. Yet I simply do not believe that this alone can explain the phenomenal status of the Games. As someone said to me recently, “The thing about the Olympics is that most of the events are shit.” Now, while I might have worded it slightly differently, you can see what he’s driving at. The prospect of our quadrennial dose of canoeing, table tennis and rhythmic gymnastics simply cannot explain those 4.7 billion viewers.
Obviously these sports remain on the very margins of public interest for a whole host of reasons, not least because broadcasters don’t see any demand for them (ie profit in them). I’m sure that if Rupert Murdoch thought he could make money out of skeet shooting you’d see every Sky Sports presenter waving a gun around on air to advertise the “Super Sunday Shootout”. But recognising the insidious role of multinational media corporations allows us only to see why some sports may not be as popular as others – not why the Olympics are so popular. And it certainly doesn’t solve the “Usain Bolt Paradox”.
Athletics is not a marginal sport and, having discounted football, it is the only sport to both regularly appear in the most watched list and feature at the Olympics. As such it is the ideal choice to illustrate the draw of the Games. The undisputed blue ribbon event at both the Olympics and the IAAF’s World Championship is the men’s 100m. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt won Olympic gold in 2008, and then added the World title in 2009. In each race he set a new world record. According to the people at initiative, sports futures a total of 390 million people watched Bolt in Beijing, while only 93 million watched his race in Berlin the following year. On purely sporting criteria I would argue that the figures should be reversed. Bolt was an established global superstar in 2009, it was clear that he was going to launch an assault on the world record (he slashed a tenth off it – the largest reduction since electronic timing was introduced), and the return of American sprinter Tyson Gay meant that the field was of a higher quality and more competitive than the Olympics final. Still the audience was only a quarter of the 2008 Games. If the answer to the Usain Bolt Paradox is not to be found in sport, where does it lie?
With some justification you can point to three areas – outside of sport – which help to make the Olympics the mega-event we see today: its history; advertising; and nationalism.
With its appeals to the past glories of classical civilization, and its own role in notable moments of more recent history (given the IOC’s constant attempts to proclaim the Games above politics it is somewhat ironic that many of those famous moments have been deeply political) the Olympics do indeed have a fairly unique past. And it certainly helps that each Olympiad is accompanied by wall-to-wall coverage, as newspapers fill column inches and corporations emblazon their products with those famous five rings. The IOC and the sponsors who make up the The Olympic Programme are notoriously secretive about the cost of sponsorship, but it is safe to assume each company is paying in the region of $100m for their exclusive worldwide rights. Whatever the actual figure is, it is certainly large enough for the IOC to require bespoke legislation from the Olympic hosts. The effect is that I can open my fridge and find three separate items proclaiming to be the official something-or-other of the Olympic Games.
Inevitably nationalism continues to play a large part in the appeal of the Games. This guy admits to having no knowledge of niche sports but is quite happy to accept a gold, silver or bronze if it moves ‘his’ country up the medal table. And this much to the chagrin of the IOC who stipulate in the Olympic Charter that the “Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries” (Chapter 1, Section 6). The staging of the Olympics is an ideal opportunity for our rulers to reinforce their ideology of ‘the national interest’, rather than the interests of (our) class – especially at a time when we are (yawn) “all in this together”. And of course it gives David Cameron the chance to blather on in quite staggeringly unoriginal fashion about putting the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain.
But do any of these factors demarcate the Olympics from other global sporting events? Are they entirely unique to the Games? Can we really say that the FIFA World Cup is devoid of history, advertising and nationalism? I think not, although you may argue that there are questions of degree at stake. What raises the Olympics above other sporting events is, I think, the fact that it positions itself as something more than a mere sporting event. Baron Pierre de Coubertin imbued a set of values into his renovated Games, considering them as an attempt to foster understanding and respect between people of different countries:
“the revived Olympic Games must give the youth of all the world a chance of a happy and brotherly encounter, which will gradually efface the people’s ignorance of things which concern them all, an ignorance which feeds hatreds, accumulates misunderstandings and hurtles events along a barbarous path towards a merciless conflict.”
Coubertin’s outlook has been characterised as “idealistic internationalism” by the historian John Hoberman (in this excellent and highly recommended essay). Unlike the internationalism of the socialist movement, which sought the abolition of national boundaries, Coubertin’s was essentially a right wing internationalism based on the continued existence of nation states. In this he saw no problem or contradiction – even as the Nazis marched the Olympic Torch across Europe.
At the heart of the Olympics is the same tension that can be found in Coubertin’s thought: it simultaneously holds the promise of a better world and yet does nothing to challenge the status quo. This idealistic internationalism is fundamentally flawed, and the gap between reality and rhetoric is all too apparent in the Olympic Games, but the lofty ideals have a resonance with people across the world. Amidst the ravages of war, poverty and bigotry the Olympics allow people to feel part of something larger, something more meaningful, something better. This is the mystique described by John Carlos in his autobiography, and the reason so many athletes talk so enthusiastically of their experiences in the Olympic village. The power of the Olympics, and what makes it qualitatively different from other sporting events, has less to do with sport and so much more to do with its message of solidarity, community, and shared humanity. Its tragedy is that it is destined to deliver so little.