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Jewish World Review Sept. 21, 2000 / 20 Elul 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

If the Olympics banished television . . . -- The only good idea I've ever had lasted just one edition.

This was during the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996; I presented the idea, which concerned the Olympics, in the early edition of the Sunday Tribune, and then that bomb went off in the park in Atlanta. I subbed out the column for later editions to write about the bombing, so only a relatively few readers ever saw the original column.

Luckily -- or unluckily -- not much has changed in four years, as far as the Olympics are concerned. This year the Olympics are being held in Sydney, but other than the geographical difference, everything about the suggestion I tried to present in '96 still stands.

The athletic performances that are at the core of the Olympics are still beautiful. Yet the Olympics remain garishly overcommercialized. The price-gouging in the host city still goes on. The traffic jams -- involving both motorized vehicles and pedestrians -- continue. The athletes still participate in a barely disguised race for endorsement contracts. The huge corporations that try to make the Olympics their personal trade show are still ubiquitous.

Add to that the dirty dealing that has been documented since '96 about the luring of the Olympics to Salt Lake City.

The question, more important than it ever was, is: How can the world return the true Olympic spirit to the Olympics?

The solution is easy -- and, with the hopes that mayhem in Sydney does not cause this column to be pulled out of the paper by Sunday morning -- here it is.

All the International Olympic Committee has to do is to add a very short sentence to its bylaws:

The Olympic Games shall not be televised in any way.

That's all it would take. The first future Olympic Games to be played under the TV-is-banished rule would resemble as pure and untarnished an athletic festival as has ever occurred in modern times. You wouldn't see it, of course--that's the price that would be paid--but all of the great aspects of the Olympics would remain, and the terrible ones would disappear.

Before we go any further: This is not a knock on television's coverage of the Olympics. Network television has traditionally done a magnificent job of telecasting the events, and NBC's camerawork and production elements are almost uniformly breathtaking. And this is most definitely not a criticism of the talents of NBC's Olympics anchor, Bob Costas, who is as true and trusted a friend as I have ever had in this business. Television's ability to transmit the emotions of the Olympics to tens of millions of homes around the world is unquestioned.

That's what you would miss if the IOC voted to ban television -- all those colorful and emotional video moments.

But think of the potential advantages to the Olympics:

Overnight, the sprawling corporate village that is erected in every Olympic city would cease to exist. All of the big companies that spend millions of dollars to show how much a part of the Olympic spirit they are would flee like the wind if they realized TV would not be present to give them worldwide advertising exposure.

The merchants charging obscenely inflated prices for everything from water to bathroom facilities would come back down to Earth. If TV were not present, persuading people from all over the globe that the Olympic city is the world's biggest party, the demand for goods and services would be severely diminished. The only people who would come to the Games would be people who loved to watch sports contests.

The athletes themselves would compete in a refreshing and different atmosphere: Because television would not be present, there would be no need to select certain athletes to build video "storylines" around. Each swimmer, each gymnast, each runner would be equal in the eyes of the spectators in the stands -- evaluated only on talent, not on pre-packaged TV personality profiles.

Would the great athletes still come to the modern Olympics if they knew they would not be televised? Good question. The athletes who compete for the love of competition would probably come if the Olympics were held in an empty shed. The NBA basketball players? Come to the Olympics on their own time if someone told them there would be no television? You decide.

The banning of television from the Olympics will never happen. But the Olympics became the Olympics because they were unique. There was nothing else like them. Today, everything in the world is televised -- the one way to make the Olympics unique again would be to keep them off television.

As it is now, all the ills of the Olympics -- the tawdry, the hucksterish, the logo-strewn, the excessive, the larcenous, the low -- come to town with the Games. Turn off the cameras, and the Games would return to being merely games. The best games in the world, but still merely games.

Imagine that.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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