Every four years, Americans come together to watch weeks of NBC programming. They join millions of people around the world who feel a sudden upwelling of national pride. Of course, I’m talking about the summer Olympics. For those 17 days, we all suddenly care about a bunch of sports we will never follow again. Last summer, I spent a good deal of time watching Olympic fencing and the epic semifinal tennis match between that one British guy and the other one. I did not watch any wrestling, but then again, I figured that wrestling was not going anywhere.
After all, the Olympics are all about tradition, and wrestling has been in the Olympics since the original games in Ancient Greece. The International Olympic Committee’s IOC decision to cut wrestling in favor of preserving the modern pentathlon has generated the most controversy for the pentathlon since 1976, when it was discovered that Boris Onishchenko of the Soviet Union had modified his épée to contain a circuit breaker that enabled him to record a hit whenever he pressed a concealed button during the fencing portion of the competition. You are now probably thinking, “Huh?” Do not worry, very few people actually follow the sport, which is probably why the popularity of the competition has fluctuated more than the Fox Network’s weeknight programming. Over the past few Olympics, the pentathlon has gone from a five-day ordeal to a single five-hour competition that contains only four events.
Basically, it looked like the pentathlon was doomed, or at least in need of a name-change. Now, however, many critics are speculating that this Cinderella story may have a dark side. Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr. is a member of the International Modern Pentathlon Union, as well as an IOC board member.
In his defense of the decision, Mr. Samaranch said, “Tradition is one of our strongest assets.” I think his statement provides an excellent opportunity to consider how the Olympics should balance tradition and the need to modernize within a changing global arena.
Tradition is at the heart of the Olympics. Those in charge should give it ample weight when making large decisions. At the same time, I love the inclusion of rugby sevens and kitesurfing in the 2016 Summer Games. Both sports bring new, exciting elements into the mix; rugby was specifically included to diversify the group of countries which compete in the team sports category. In that sense, rugby is both upholding the tradition of creating global goodwill and helping to modernize the games. I don’t think there is necessarily a right or wrong way for the IOC to go about such decisions, besides eliminating conflicts of interests.
One defense of wrestling is that it attracts over twice the viewership of the pentathlon. However, the Olympics cannot be strictly dictated by mainstream public interest. The Olympics represent a broad range of traditions and cultures that unite for a multi-week sporting event. That’s why we can’t simply write off the pentathlon, despite the fact that almost no one watches it. There are plenty of sports that I find boring in the Olympics. If it were up to me, I would probably axe any of the long-distance running events or at least a few of the swimming ones.
Yet for those who follow these sports, the Olympics is an exciting time for them to share the prowess and strategies of their greatest athletes with the world. In the marathon, I just see a bunch of people running. I do not notice the highly complex combination of conditioned athletes gauging when to go and when to hold back based on where they are in relation to the rest of the competition and how much farther they have to go. If we allow the Olympics to become just about viewership, then we will quickly end up with a seventeen-day event that is as “varied” as the Billboard Top 40.
Despite tradition, the Olympics are constantly changing. When the modern games were started, they were an entirely amateur affair. When the U.S. men’s hockey team upset the Soviet Union in 1980, they were the best our country had to offer outside of the pros. I’m sure the “Miracle on Ice” movie only captured half of the adrenaline that people felt as they watched that game around the world. Yet, I was on the edge of my seat in 2010 as I watched the U.S. men’s hockey team, this time containing professional hockey players, battle Canada for the gold.
I’m not oblivious. For better and mostly worse, the Olympic Games are mired in politics. I think some politics shaped this vote. However, I have to believe that once the torch is officially lit, the politics end and the next days are about those lucky enough to wear their country’s colors on the world stage.