The Olympics are one of the most anticipated TV events of the year. I say TV event because the Olympics have become a marquee sporting event for non-sports fans. Over a period of a few weeks, legions of armchair athletes from around the world transform themselves into experts looking to cheer on athletes because of the flag on their uniforms.
Where the summer Olympic originate from basic competitions such as track and field, archery and wrestling - all universal activities everyone around the world can participate in regardless of country or creed - the Winter Olympics limit prospective athletes to those of countries with mountains and/or to people of financial means, pretty much eliminating whole continents worth of prospective athletes.
Well, looking at official lists of athletes participating, I began to gaze at Olympians from unexpected countries. I was entertained to learn that Mexico’s lone representative is an alpine skier who is the 55-year-old son of German royalty. Prince Hubertus Von Hohenlohe-Langenburg, a photographer, businessman and pop singer, is known in the skiing community for his flamboyant ski attire. Von Hohenlohe founded the Mexican Ski Federation in 1981 and has participated in the 1984, 1988, 1992, 1994 and 2010 winter Olympics, missing the 2006 Olympics because his own country's Olympic committtee held him back. According to Von Hohenlohe, ‘They thought they were going to have 10 (competitors) but then it was just me, and they didn’t want to send out one guy with a German name.’
He isn’t the only example. Morocco has two participants in Sochi and neither were born in the country. Bermuda has a cross-country skier participant, my college roommate lives in Bermuda and there isn’t any snow as he routinely reminded me.
Or my favorite, Mathilde Amivi Petitjeanm, who previously represented France internationally at the junior level but switched to the African nation of Togo after being contacted in May 2013 by the Togolese Skiing Federation via her FACEBOOK page with an offer to compete in Sochi.
Tough to begrudge any athlete for taking the opportunity to compete in the Olympic experience regardless if it requires switching flags or not. It’s unique experience, and if the governing body allows it, take advantage of the opportunity.
The dirty little secret is the 55-year old German pop singing prince is only able to compete because he has the money to do so. This opportunity isn’t universal; if you want to be a Winter Olympic athlete and your country doesn’t have mountains or snow, it’s an chance only money can buy. Even the most famous bobsledding nation in the world was a last-minute addition to Sochi because of financial uncertainties. How could any young athlete aspire to this? It kinda-sorta-clearly blurs the lines of competition.
If personal financial means are a requirement to participate in the Olympics, is it really the Olympics? This isn’t a simple matter of equipment, but years of living, training and competing abroad. If anyone in the world wants to become an Olympic runner, all they need is a pair of sneakers and desire. To be an Olympic skier you need to live near a ski hill, spend thousands of dollars on training, equipment and traveling to competitions, transforming athletic contest into a battle of financial attrition.
Of course the Olympic Committee courts these few unique stories (and in 2014 unique stories are at a premium), forwarding them to NBC and other networks who transform inspiring stories into sensational plots worthy of any other primetime TV show, which in-turn sell Olympians to corporate sponsors (free advertising!) and transform the Olympics into a breeding ground for D-List reality TV contestants, creating villains and heroes depending on who and what’s trending on Twitter.
The world isn’t fair, and I’m not pretending it is, but the Olympics are sold as Utopian competition - athletes from around the world competing at the highest stage. But the winter Olympics don’t feel that way anymore. The athletes all look the same. The phrase ‘The White Olympics’ is extreme, but not entirely inaccurate, and judging events are becoming far too common. TV networks are force-feeding content and pretending to be experts on sports they pay attention to for three weeks every four years.
Is institutional greed the only reason the Winter Olympics are still around? Wouldn’t most fans be happy if hockey just had a proper world cup every four years? Wouldn't the X-Games folks be happy to have the X-Games get as much media attention as the Olympics?
Look at the public relations beating Sochi has suffered in the last 2 weeks. We routinely read about cities and countries nearly destroying their economies to host this event, which over the generations has been proven to be a bad investment more times than not.
There must an better way to fill time prime time on TV.