Why I’m Against the Olympics

Source: Straits Times | August 14, 2012

Lee Wei Ling 

The Olympic Games are the most prestigious international sports competition, with thousands of athletes from over 200 nations taking part.

The ancient Olympic Games were held in Olympia, Greece from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD. The modern Olympics, founded by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, started in 1896 in Greece. The motto of the Olympic Games is “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” which is Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger.”

There is no specific mention of who or what is being used for comparison. Is it one’s personal best, that is, faster, higher and stronger than one’s previous performance? If so, then as long as each athlete does his or her best in the competition, it is no shame not to win.

But the reality is that all athletes who participate in the Olympics, who are of world-class standard, want to win and are very disappointed when they don’t. Other athletes who are not up to world standard participate for the experience and take pride in having made it to the Games even if they get no prizes.

Records of the performance of modern Olympic athletes show that “faster, higher, stronger” is indeed taking place over time.

Whether this is due to better nutrition and health, better training techniques or better equipment, or due to use of performance enhancing drugs that cannot be detected by current methods, is difficult to ascertain.

Another effect the Games try to achieve is international friendship and peace. The Ancient Olympics were a series of competitions between representatives of several city-states of ancient Greece.

All conflicts among the participating city states were postponed until the Games ended. The modern Olympics’ symbol is made up of five interlocking rings, colored blue, yellow, black, green and red on a white background. The colors of the rings plus the white background stand for those colors that appear on all national flags of countries that compete in the Games. Hence I presume Baron Pierre de Coubertin hoped the Olympics would encourage world peace and international goodwill.

But when it comes to fostering international friendship — except for personal friendship forged at the Games — the Olympics have certainly not helped world peace. Instead, it gives terrorists an opportunity to wreak havoc, and kill or injure participants and audience. During the 1972 Olympics in Munich, members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and eventually killed by the Palestinian group Black September.

Little wonder then that strict security cover was provided for this year’s Olympics, with 1,200 extra personnel — from the British army, navy and Royal Air Force — drafted in because of fears that the private security contractor’s handling of the £284 million ($445 million) contract would not be up to standard.

In 1985, The Olympic Program (TOP) was established to create an Olympic brand. Membership of the TOP is both exclusive and expensive. Fees cost $50 million for a four-year membership. TOP members receive exclusive global advertising rights for their product category, and use of the Olympic symbol, the interlocking rings, in their publications and advertisements.

The growing importance of the mass media created the issue of corporate sponsorship and commercialization of the event, which has grown to the point where nearly every nation is represented. Such growth has created many challenges including boycotts, doping, bribery and terrorism.

I am personally against the Olympics because of the huge sums of money spent, with little or no concrete improvement to human welfare.

Perhaps modern societies demand circuses, and are willing to pay a high price for what is considered the most prestigious circus.

But even people who do not get to witness the circus are paying without being aware of it. They pay through public funding for the athletes, and for the cost of hosting an Olympic Games.

Public funding, of course, comes from taxes. Over the last 50 years, among the most expensive Games have been London 2012 ($14.8 billion) and Barcelona 1992 ($11.4 billion).

The Chinese authorities have not released data for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but I suspect the opportunity cost of the funds spent would be much higher than the other countries, given China’s per capita gross domestic product. In fact, cost overrun, averaging 180 percent, is a persistent problem for all Olympic Games.

Dr James Conner, a sports researcher at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, calculated the cost of a gold medal for Australia. The taxpayers paid about A$49 million ($52 million) for each gold medal. This sum does not even take into account the money spent at the state level, sponsorship dollars and expenditure of national sporting organizations.

What cannot be calculated is the human cost of hours put into training by the athletes who are usually of school or university age. Quite a few would have the option of their adult career limited as they did not get a chance to obtain a good education.

What does Singapore get out of sending athletes to the Olympic Games? Some may consider national pride as one gain, if our athletes win medals.

There are two rebuttals to this answer. First, just because we feel proud that a Singaporean has won any Olympic medal does not make us more patriotic and more willing to fight to defend Singapore if we are attacked.

Second, our medals so far have been from table tennis. The Times of India did an interesting analysis on ethnicity of table tennis players at the London Olympics. Of the 173 table tennis players, 55 are of Chinese descent, and 45 were born in China. From Lin Gui of Brazil to Ariel Hsing of the United States, Xia Lian Ni of Luxembourg to Bora Vang of Turkey, the Chinese are draped in the colors of 23 different countries. The entire Australian women’s team consists of players born in China. [Askmelah’s note: what is left unsaid is that we fared worse than Australia, the entire Womens and Men’s teams from Singapore are all imported from China!!!]

In my humble opinion, the significant sums of public money Singapore spends on training athletes for the Olympics and other international games would be put to better use to encourage and teach our population how to exercise for health. Ironically, when exercise is carried to the extreme — as sometimes happens with national athletes — the result is frequent injury, which is contra-productive to health.

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.