Jewish World Review Sept. 21, 2000 / 20 Elul 5760
If the Olympics banished
television . . .
The only good idea I've ever had lasted just one
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
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 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
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
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
But think of the potential advantages to the
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
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.
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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