The Olympic Movement – Stripped Down, Bare Bones Sport?

I found an interesting article today through a link on Cyclingnews about the media vortex that is Lolo Jones.  Before I go any further, let me just preface this entire post by saying I am not on or against team Lolo in any way.  I merely found the article as an interesting perspective on how the Olympics can really work sometimes.  


The Olympics movement to me, is meant to be the most stripped down, bare bones and highest level of sporting competition available to any athlete.  Each sport is meant to be contested with the athletes representing only their nation and nothing else.  No sponsors or endorsements.  No monetary prize or reward.  Just the pride of having prepared for 4 years to compete against the best in the world with the support of your entire nation behind you for a once in a lifetime opportunity to prove you are truly the best of the best.  Sport in the name of nation's pride, to prove who is the best of the best and nothing else.  Or is it?

Towards the end of the article the author explains how there is an opinion that Lolo was chosen for the USA bobsled team not solely for her athletic ability.  But rather a combination of both ability and media attention gathering ability.  Now to everyone who says that's impossible and that's not what the Olympics are about (which is undoubtedly and endless debate), I only wish to make a few simple points.  If the Olympics were only about the sport, then why is it impossible to find a beverage at any location in an Olympic venue right now that is not a Coca-Cola product?  Because Coca-Cola paid a sum to the tune of $100 million dollars in 2012 to the IOC to have their name plastered all over every beverage at the Olympics.  Sponsorship money that also goes towards the endless stream of TV commercials airing on a loop between each segment on TV.  Because, don't forget, after all the Olympics is nothing more than the largest televised sporting event ever.  

A known fact that also largely drives the event selection for each Olympic Games.  Take for instance the track cycling events schedule now.  We lost one of the most historic, and in my opinion, classic track cycling disciplines:  the kilo.  Sure it's still in the Olympics via the omnium event, but it's just not the same.  The kilo was, and still is the ultimate test of who really is the best of the best.  One ride, one chance, all out, everything you've got, winner take all.  4 laps around the track that at the end would prove not only who was the best physically and technically prepared, but also who was the best mentally prepared to handle the pressure of a single shot at Olympic glory.  To a true cycling fan, it was one of the most romantic disciplines of the sport where each edition was laced with stories or the ultimate disappointment and letdown side by side with the greatest of underdog and David vs Goliath tales.  So why was it removed from the games?  Well for one, it's an incredibly time consuming event.  It's also very difficult to get perspective on speed because the racers are directly opposite of each other on the track.  And to top it all off, the winner wouldn't necessarily be celebrating immediately upon crossing the finish line.  Then from a logistics standpoint the event would sometimes fall to a specialist rider who would be an additional member to the nation's team and up the total number of athletes at the Olympics.  Not anything the IOC would be a fan of, so it was removed.  So why did the team pursuit stick around?  That's 4 guys, going for 1 medal, similar set up where the teams compete directly opposite of each other and the fastest team takes home gold.  Well that is from a combination of factors including that qualification process that brings the final to a direct nation vs nation show down.  Next and really most importantly is that the team pursuit it much more visually stimulating with its every lap exchanges than the solo kilo.  Pick your team and cheer them on.  Simple and easy to share on TV.  In short, if it doesn't translate well to TV, then it doesn't make it to the Olympics.

So how does this relate to Lolo and the USA bobsled team?  Well if you stick to the notion that the Olympics is about selecting the absolute best of the best to compete then an athlete's marketability should have nothing to do with their selection for the team.  Medal potential should be the sole factor in team selection.  But given the just few examples I just talked about, I feel it is reasonable to believe that SOMETIMES there may be other factors at play.  To know that the potential exists, in any sport, for such a irrelevant branch of criteria to possibly be included in team selection to the greatest sporting event in the world is enough to make any athlete discouraged to say the least.  And perhaps that is why, as much as I hate them , I have such a tremendous respect for the British cycling team and their selection methods.  Now, of course any team selection is going to leave someone, somewhere feeling slighted by being left out.  But for any nation to willing to sit out the greatest track cyclist of our generation, Chris Hoy, at his final Olympic games, in the individual sprint tournament, that he could have undoubtedly won, perfectly depicts their overwhelming dedication to selecting the best possible athletes for each event and never anyone else.  It is a mindset and a mantra that I truly admire and aspire to hold myself to both now and forever in the future in every discipline of my life.

That is my rant for the evening, now back to watching some Olympics!