Michael Phelps has certainly boosted the viewership of these 2008 Olympic Games from Beijing- U.S. viewership of has reached an all-time high for the first few days of coverage. Such a turnout is perhaps unexpected, given the sparse coverage provided in the pre-Olympic weeks, a period in which drama-queen Brett Favre dominated the sports media circuits. Yet the Games don't seem to have quite the pizzazz they once did.
Clearly the games have taken a more political role over time, despite the fact that this is anathema to the very purpose of the games. Why else would China, with its dismal human rights records and horrible environmental conditions, be allowed to host this year's games? This, and other negatives such as the proliferation of "performance enhancing substances" and increased commercialization, were articulated in an excellent article by Hartley Henderson here at MajorWager just a few months ago (http://www.majorwager.com/index.cfm?page=27&show_column=652). While I agree with most of the points of that article, there are plenty of other reasons the Olympics fail to live up their billing from a fan's perspective.
Television coverage. Nowhere else is the commercialization of the Olympics more evident than in broadcasting. NBC paid a reported $2.2 billion for rights to the 2010 and 2012 Games in Vancouver and London, respectively. Nonetheless, it is seemingly impossible to see the events you want to watch due to copyright restrictions and the whims of network execs. If the Olympics are truly about international brotherhood and exposure for the athletes, then the IOC should demand more accessible broadcasting. As a casual fan, 3 hours of watching young men ride the pommel horse isn't exactly my cup of tea (although I am sure there are those who see things differently). In an era when anyone can access every MLB and NBA game through a satellite dish, there's no reason that the slate of televised Olympic sports should be so sparse.
Inclusion of professional athletes. While we all know there are ways to get around the "professional" tag (just ask Reggie Bush), matching up athletes who train year-round against amateurs from poor countries with little resources is ridiculous. How can a destitute swimmer from Afghanistan, who supports his family by farming the opium fields for 15 hours each day, expect to compete against someone who has done nothing but train in elite level swimming circuits for the past 16 years (yes, we're talking about you Mr. Phelps). If one of the goals of the modern Olympics is the inclusion of all nations, then allowing professionals or near-professionals to compete defeats this purpose. When the USA basketball team is routinely 40-point favorites, it tells you something about the quality of competition and, therefore, the quality of programming for the casual fan.
Too many events. In the first 1500 years of the Games, events were slowly added until a total of 23 competitions were eventually reached: 8 track-and-field for men, 5 track and field for boys, 8 equestrian events, and 2 "specialty" events. The latter includes events for trumpeters and heralds, surely the barn-burners of the early games. Today, the 2008 games have over 300 separate events, culled from 28 sports, running right into the IOC's self-imposed limit. One wonders if just a few of these events might be relegated to their own championship events at another date. Sports like table tennis, snowboarding, and BMX, while certainly requiring athleticism and a good degree of talent and hard work, are just not of broad enough interest for a spot on the main stage of the Olympics; the X-Games should serve the champions of these events just fine. There are 18 different Gymnastics events, 18 Cycling events, 16 Canoeing events, and 15 shooting events. Can't a few of those events be consolidated into fewer competitions? Perhaps the World Canoeing Championships can justify 18 events, but do we really need to be that specific when it comes to the Olympics? Even with over 300 events, the Games still misses sports with worldwide popularity, such as baseball, rugby, and cricket. It seems as if the Modern Olympics tries to recognize every sport in existence, when it should instead focus on the pre-eminent sports in each category that best exemplify human athleticism.
Ultimately it comes down to what purpose the modern Olympics are supposed to serve. Are the olympics designed to be a compendium of championship events of every imaginable sport? That is seemingly what they've become, though the Guniness Book of World Records serves that purpose far more mightily. The original purpose of the Ancient Games, a celebration of human athleticism and achievement, has been ridiculously watered down through the years. The apparent purpose of the modern Games, to foster brotherhood and understanding between all the nations of the world, is completely lost through politicization and commercialization. And from a fan's perspective, the broadcasting and scheduling of the games always falls far short of potential and expectations. Sure, we'll get some compelling storylines and excellent performances, as we do every 2 years. But is it worth all the hype, hoopla, and billing as the world's greatest sporting event? Not in my book.
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