The Olympics have long been many things that have nothing to do with sports, and it would be naive to think otherwise. Beyond international politics, the Games are a huge marketing apparatus, creating ready-made advertising pitchmen, propaganda opportunities for host countries and potential windfalls for networks, with showbiz values and demographic concerns trumping athletics.
That said, amid an age of cynicism, there is still something noble about the Olympic ideal — nations and their most physically gifted representatives meeting on the track or ice rink, pool or ski slope, in the name of friendly competition.
All that’s a preamble to the latest Olympics to arrive saddled with a preexisting controversy, predicated on Russia’s anti-gay policies. Some have argued the U.S. and others should boycott the Games, sending a message, as the Carter administration did, by skipping the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, in that case, triggered by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
For those who find the smallest germ of optimism in the Olympics as a concept — or even strictly as a newsworthy event — a boycott was a bad idea then, and is now.
Historically, the Olympic Committee hasn’t done a good job of limiting the right to host the Games to splendid international citizens, whether that was Berlin in 1936 or Beijing in 2008.
Even so, the Games at their best offer hope that supersedes politics. Jingoism has been inevitable, particularly during the Cold War years, but beyond joking about unfair Russian judges, there remains something uplifting about seeing participants vie on a sports field, not a battlefield.
And while there’s always the risk of benefiting an abusive regime, there’s something to be said for the Olympics’ bright light of day being a disinfectant, assuming the media holds up its end of the bargain.
That’s particularly true in this age of reduced international reporting. Amid such retrenchment, anything that compels U.S. news ops to focus attention beyond the country’s borders has potential merit.
So while it’s appropriate for world leaders not to attend— and many have chosen to do just that — sending a delegation with representatives, as in the case of the U.S., such as former tennis star Billie Jean King, speaks much more eloquently than staying home ever could.
It’s worth remembering, too, that the 1980 boycott achieved relatively little — except a quid pro quo for the Games in Los Angeles four years later, when the entire Easter Bloc opted out — while simultaneously depriving athletes, gay or straight, the opportunity to compete. By contrast, many still vividly recall the U.S. hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” against the Soviets earlier that year.
Of course, supporting the Games comes with certain caveats. NBC Sports has pledged not to ignore the anti-gay laws in its coverage, and critics should hold the network’s feet to the fire given the rather large dog NBC has in the fight, desperately wanting the Olympics to go smoothly and help promote its programming. By the time the torch is doused, expect to be sick of looking at Jimmy Fallon. Displaying a little basic journalism in exchange isn’t a lot to ask.
Nor is NBC the only beneficiary of the the Games. With all those dollars floating around, excess and scandal, including revelations about performance-enhancing drugs, should surprise nobody.
Nevertheless, watch the late Bud Greenspan’s documentaries, beautifully chronicling the Olympics in movies like “16 Days of Glory,” about the ’84 Games in L.A., and whatever reservations might be harbored about Sochi begin to dissipate. It’s better to be there. NBC’s coverage might wind up pandering to younger demos — heavy on X Games-style events and human-interest packaging — but there’s still joy in the exultation of seeing young athletes triumph under enormous pressure.
Few things are completely pure, and the modern Olympics certainly don’t qualify, if they ever did. Still, undermining the international spirit upon which the movement was founded amounts to letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
In short, let the Games begin.