The Olympics Came Back, And I Was No Longer Special – A Contrarian’s Lament

Every four years, along comes special chance to be a curmudgeonly contrarian. Well, if you are going to get all technical, I suppose you could say that such a chance comes pretty much every morning for me. But your mother raised you better than that, so you will keep the thought inside of your head and we can proceed.

Five years ago

I wrote about my issues with the Olympics here and have nothing to add. For those who would rather not go back and read it (and I wouldn’t blame you a bit), my issue came down to 1) not being a huge sports fan in general, 2) the Olympics involving sports I neither know nor care anything about and 3) everyone else insisted on watching them in spite of their own problems with No. 1 and No. 2.

It is that last part that has been a bigger turnoff than any of the others. I think I was born a contrarian. If you were to tell me that chocolate is the best ice cream flavor, my knee-jerk reaction would be to differ and say that vanilla has a lot going for it. But if you were to lead with vanilla instead, something deep within me would pry itself to the surface, causing me to wonder aloud if vanilla isn’t improved with the addition of things like chocolate shavings or bits of cherries mixed up in it.

This tendency worked itself out in my college days when I declared my major as economics. The study of economics is a very counter-intuitive way of looking at the world, one that does not come easily to most folks. When the price of lumber skyrockets in Louisiana after a hurricane, almost everyone starts screaming about how price-gougers should be thrown behind bars. I see those high prices doing a valuable service in making it worthwhile for lumber companies thousands of miles away to incur massive transport charges by diverting shipments from the quiet midwest, thus bringing much needed additional supplies.

My legal career in litigation fits this character trait as well. When one person claims that her cat was injured by the neighbor’s dog and incurred hundreds of dollars in vet bills, it takes a guy like me to reply “Not so fast there – your cat is considered personal property, and repair costs can only be collected until they reach the value of the cat – which is, what, maybe fifteen bucks?” Despite what some of you may think, this is not a surefire way to popularity. But if the cat owner is my client, I am right there ready to indignantly excoriate the heartless bastard on the other end of the phone or at the other table in the courtroom to suggest that the law should not treat a pet the same way it treats a damaged Yugo hatchback.

The Olympics have fallen right into this sweet spot of mine – everyone else in the entire world (and I am not exaggerating, since the games are populated by contestants from *literally* the entire world) is interested. Which is almost all I need to sit there and yawn. OK, not just yawn, but yawn while being irritated at someone who doesn’t know a volleyball from a dogsled going on and on about some random Olympic event.

But this year was different. As the games were finishing up recently, I realized that I had a terrible problem – too many people were agreeing with me. And I am not sure what to do about that. Yes, I know that my tastes should not be formed by what everyone else is doing. Who has not been asked “if everyone else was jumping off the Empire State Building, would you do it too?” I got the question in the second grade as I shifted from one foot to another under the Principal’s gaze. I must acknowledge that jumping off the Empire State Building because everyone else is calmly taking in the sights (and not jumping off the Empire State Building) is not really any better.

I know I should be happy (or at least feel a little vindicated) when I read that television ratings for the Summer Olympics fell off a cliff and that casual interest in the games was the lowest it has been in who knows how long. I should feel a little kinship with the many others who decided to watch reruns of Iron Chef or season 2 of The Bachelor instead of watching Team USA striving in some global competition. But my contrarian nature causes me to feel just a little uneasy about these developments.

I suppose I should hope that viewership and interest at large does not get worse four years hence (or will it only be three?) Or else I might find it hard to fight the urge to pound out a blog post asking “What Is Wrong With America” or “Why Are The Olympics Are On And Nobody Cares”. I would hate that. Because then I would have to start watching.

27 thoughts on “The Olympics Came Back, And I Was No Longer Special – A Contrarian’s Lament

  1. I didn’t pay much attention to the Olympics this year because I wasn’t in the mood and just wasn’t ready to see the rest of the world. I’ve been dealing with a lot of personal business during the pandemic that is creating a lot of changes in my life. Usually i pay some attention to the games especially any events that I had participated in my youth. That means skiing, bobsled and hockey for winter games and any track and field events for summer. I remember a little bit from the 64 Winter Olympics but 1968 from Grenoble France was the first I watched everything. It went off pretty well with Jean-Claude Killy winning the gold in the downhill and cleaning up in the Alpine. Peggy Fleming won the gold in figure skating for the US which was pretty awesome after the entire US figure skating team was killed in a plane crash in 1961. I remember nothing of the 1964 Summer Olympics from Tokyo but I watched everything I could from the 1968 Mexico City Summer Games. San Jose State’s Tommy Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze in the 200 meter respectively and wore their single black gloves on the awards podium. They and Australian Peter Norman who won the silver medal all belonged to The Olympic Project for Human Rights. They lowered their heads and raised their hand in solidarity with the Black Freedom Movement in the United State. Avery Brundage, head of the IOC banned Smith and Carlos from the Olympics for life. Norman was ostracized by the Australian press and not allowed to compete in the 1972 games despite qualifying. Meanwhile Bob Beamon set the record with a 29,2 foot long jump. It still stands as an Olympic record but has been surpassed in non-Olympic competition. Just prior to the start of the games the Mexican Army violently suppressed a protest of students gathered in Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco calling for greater civil and democratic rights. Hundreds died but the news was suppressed and most Americans had no idea that it had happened.
    The games were exciting but they could never escape the effect of concurrent political events. Which brings me to 1972. The only things I really remember from the 72 Winter games was how well the womens speed skating team did and the surprising second place finish for the US Hockey team. The favored Soviets took first and the US beat favored Czechoslovakia. Canada withdrew from all events in protest because the IOC would not let them use their best players who happened to also play for the NHL. Of course the Soviet players were professionals who happened to play for various industry teams.
    The 72 Summer games promised to be the best ever and I was closely watching the very talented US Boxing team as well as the rival powerhouse Cuban team that featured Teofilo Stevenson. Mark Spitz won 7 gold medals in swimming. Frank Shorter won the marathon and high jumper Dick Fosberry returned with his signature Fosberry Flop which changed high jumping competition.
    Everything was overshadowed by the murder of the Israeli athletes. Again there was no evading the concurrent political events of the day. Unbelievably IOC president Avery Brundage ordered the games to resume after a 34 hour delay. It was no longer possible for me to remain naive to the ugly intrusions of the messy chaotic outside world into the idealized Olympic spirit of pure athletic competition.
    I continued to watch the games on and off since then and certainly when someone I know is competing or involved in some way but I haven’t paid close attention lately. I questioned the sanity of holding the games this year. I suppose that we need to behave as though we will eventually get Covid under control and so take any opportunity to resume doing things for our own sanity sake. As long as we can do them safely without spreading the virus. Will this years games be a super spreader event? The games never escape the concurrent political events of the day. It would be nice if this signified a change for the better for everyone.

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    • The games have certainly provided their share of non-athletic news through the decades. The 1972 killings was one of the worst events. On the athletic side, I will admit to one winner I remember – Sharon Wichman who won a gold medal as a swimmer in 1968 – she was a 1970 graduate of my high school. The only reason I remember it is because that year my late baby boom cohort was straining the capacity of my grade school, so two classes of 3rd graders got educated in the high school building next door. For some reason, we 3rd graders were invited to the assembly that was held to honor her.

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  2. I guess we will agree to disagree on this one! I do watch the Olympics and try to focus on the athletes and all the hard work that went into their competing. Oh, I know politics, money, doping, etc. are part of the games, but I try to forget about all of that and enjoy the events.

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  3. This year I watched exactly zero minutes of Olympic coverage. Couldn’t have cared less, which does mean that you JP should have been glued to the couch with your Team USA jersey on.

    Luckily you have six months to plan your fandom program for the winter Olympics next year.

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    • You’re killin’ me, DougD! If I were younger I might have to start devising drinking games to accompany the televised events. Like having to throw back a shot of something every time someone uses the word “spectacle” or something. But that is a young man’s game, so I guess you are going to force me to start reading up on curling.

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  4. Some Olympiads are just more compelling than others. This one was on the somewhat more compelling end primarily due to our knowing Deanna Price, the top ranked women’s hammer-thrower. Sadly, she broke her foot right before leaving for Tokyo and was not at her optimum during competition.

    What seems to really compromise the experience is the coverage. There are generally many competitors, but media coverage focuses on a select few. There are some rather unique competitions, but many are usually barely worthy of a mention whereas it seems, for instance, gymnastics are half the games based upon coverage.

    Overall, we enjoy seeing competitors from smaller nations being able to shine, such as the young woman from The Philippines who won her country’s first gold medal ever – and she did it in weight lifting. Since there is little coverage of such things, that is what we want to see.

    But to your main point – I can identify although in our case it may be we opt for the path less traveled. That works out especially well with equestrian events.

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    • I had remembered your connection to Deanna and will admit that I looked up results after the news broke that a certain other member of her team had not excelled despite getting all of the publicity. I have no problem being interested in people I know of. What a terrible time for an injury. Didn’t she either set or come very close to a record in tryouts for the US team? And weren’t two of the girls on that team from Missouri? Your state seems to be a place that grows exceptional throwers of hammers. I have occasionally thrown a hammer, but it has always been straight at the ground and never gone any real distance.

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      • I’m not sure where the other two team members came from, although I do know the attention seeker attended Southern Illinois University – Carbondale with Deanna.

        Deanna did indeed set an American Woman’s record in the Olympic trials which were held in Eugene, Oregon. From what I heard, none of the Olympic contenders exceeded Deanna’s record throw from the trials.

        Watching some other track & field events made me realize a delightfully disproportionate number of both men and women came from Missouri. It worked well as the humidity in Tokyo was comparable to what they were used to training in.

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  5. I’m with you. I don’t get the Olympics, with all its lavish spending, corruption in site selection and contract awards for facilities. It just seems like an excuse for spending money. I don’t watch it at all. In fact even typing out this response means I am thinking about the Olympics which itself goes against my grain. I could do without them, and hope for the day when they cease to exist.
    My home town once put together a bid to host an Olympics. We were all relieved when we didn’t make the cut, as it would have snarled traffic for weeks and made getting around impossible.
    I did appreciate the way you positioned both sides of the argument about the cat. It gives us a whole new perspective on how to be contrarian, and to take the other person’s point of view.

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    • Boy Lee, you and DougD are giving my contrarian nature a kick in the ribs – many more of these comments and I am going to have to start liking the Olympics just because nobody else does.

      The cat case is one I actually had. It’s long enough ago that I could probably write about it. I had the heartless bastard side.

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    • Even worse, race-walking by people from every country in the world to see who can be the fastest without running. It seems to me that once a guy gets out of elementary school that is a skill that becomes useless.

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  6. Gotta say J.P. Once again you’ve hit the nail on the head…BUT, I have to say, there are many more nails to hit on the head when we are talking about the Olympics!

    1. Not a big sports fan myself, don’t really care all that much. I’m the kind of guy that walks into a bar/night club, and if there’s a TV, I have to think about if I’m staying. If there are two TV’s, I turn around and walk out. I pay a little attention to the Cubs and the Brewers (BTW, they just spanked the Cubs over a multi-game run), pay attention to a little Green Bay Packers, but I’m a little interested; it’s NOT the overall focus of my free-time life!

    2. Not interested in watching people that are genetically pre-disposed to high performance in sports. When this was about amateurs, your mail-person might be practicing to throw the discus, but years ago, instead of policing the SSR states, we just made a case for letting professionals do it all. Sorry, don’t care. I remember reading an early F. Scott Fitzgerald novel talking about the reverence he had for the football players of his college and prep school, How a determined and focused person could excel. Now? Genetically pre-disposed athletes are groomed from grade-school. Everyone else? Out! Like Jerry Seinfeld’s view on sports: “…you don’t know these people, they’re not from your neighborhood or city, you’re cheering for the shirt.”

    3. As an ancillary to number 2, there’s nothing more tedious than listening to people who have done nothing in their lives but practice sports, and been supported by helicopter parents, or funding sources. These are one dimensional people, and I don’t care about them. It’s not my mailman telling me how he’s getting that discus throwing in every night until he can’t see. It’s people who are doing nothing else. The worship shown these people by certain people in our society is maddening!

    4. BTW, ancient athletics? OK, I’m in for the weirdness and history! Naked Greco-Roman wrestling? Okay! But Duuuude…skate-boarding, volley ball? For shame! Puuullleeeeze…what’s next? Olympic Hackey-Sack? Olympic Frisbee Golf? It seems like Olympic sports are now being selected by a California branding company to favor the U.S. And? Everyone wears togas, except swimming, which is naked!

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    • I was never one of the “sports parents”, but my kids did kids sports, sometimes just to try or because their friends did them, but sometimes because they enjoyed it too. I think there is a subset of the really big sports parents who count on some of the scholarships available for college.

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  7. I used to love the Olympics. This year, however, I hardly realized they were taking place.

    In years past, I would become a fan of things like track & field, water polo, and wrestling for two weeks around Olympics time. I enjoyed watching athletes from different countries competing in obscure sports, and in competitions that seemed more genuine than overhyped pro sports.

    Bu no longer. My admiration of the Olympics had been tumbling for years, and it hit rock bottom this time around. The corruption and commercialization; the silly new sports; the politicization of sports at a time what that’s the last thing we need; the vapid TV coverage that seems to show about 5 minutes of actual competition per hour; etc., etc. It all became too much for me. So this year, for the first time ever, I didn’t watch a single minute of the coverage.

    Too bad really, because the Olympics are (were?) a great concept. Now it’s just one more thing in our world that’s messed up beyond all repair.

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    • It is the goofy new sports added over recent times that adds to my grumbling. I would think sports broadly accepted in many cultures should be the focus. But how many countries have a beach volleyball culture? Or is the IOC focusing on TV revenues? Hard to imagine in this day and age, right?

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  8. So, you didn’t like the Olympics when you were a kid? I thought that was all we watched, it was such a big deal. Russian, Germany, etc against the U.S. I lost interesting where there seemed to be no real country rivalry AND when they split the Olympics for winter and summer. It was better to have it all in one year, all at once. Anyhow, I hear you, I did not watch anything this summer. Just enjoyed Lake Michigan instead. 🙂

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  9. It’s easy to rag on the Olympics these days, and being an American doesn’t spin it any more positive. Our country is so dominant in some Olympic sports we get criticized when we don’t get the gold (hello, women’s soccer). Or how about the whole professional/amateur debate? I get it – other countries pay their athletes to compete so America caved as well. But seriously, why watch NBA athletes win the gold when they’re already getting (over)paid to play the game here at home? Why is basketball even IN the Olympics? If I were Olympics czar I’d remove any sports where athletes are already compensated to play the game. Finally, the headlines focus on gender equality, mental trauma, and other political issues as much as the sports. (Big) sigh. Why can’t the Olympics simply be about the sports? Remove the soapboxes and let these people “play”!

    Just a few angles on what’s wrong with the Olympics…

    Yet I have to add, it’s hard to beat the Olympics for feel-good stories. You learn about athletes who dedicate their lives to their sport or go through hell-and-back simply to BE in the competition. Regular people just trying to make a living who somehow find time to hone their particular talent. THOSE are the athletes and competitions deserving of our evening hours.

    Unfortunately, broadcast ratings demand we watch the “names” and the “name sports”, and most of the feel-good gets left on the editing room floor. For that reason, I watched next to none of the coverage this year.

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  10. JP. I did go back and read your 2016 blog – very funny! I watched very little of the Olympics this year, I just did not care. Generally I’m not a sports fan, although there was a local guy who won in the high jump last Olympics which interested me, but he did not compete this year. While I remember the Olympics being a big deal when I was a kid, I suspect that’s because we did not have as much choice on TV esp. in the summer, as to what to watch. With interest dwindling worldwide in this so-called amateur competition, I even wonder why cities continue to host it, as the cost to the country is enormous, and in the case of Japan the economic spin-offs were just not there. The only part I enjoy is the parade of athletes when they come in, especially those small countries you’ve never even heard of who might have one or two competitors, and you can just see the pride and happiness on their faces. PS. I think being a contrarian should/must be a requirement for entry into the legal profession, or maybe it’s something that you develop during the schooling. My mother has outlived 3 lawyers in the past 10 years, and all of them have been contrarians! The first two died of cancer, in only their 60’s, and I’m kind of worried this current one might retire.

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    • I can remember the days when 3 channels was the entire menu for watching TV, so when the Olympics was being covered by one of them that made for a good chance that you would be tuning in for at least part of the time when the alternatives were shows you couldn’t stand.

      I was going to say that I hope your mother doesn’t outlive her current lawyer, but then that implies some not very positive thoughts about your mother’s longevity. Maybe I will stick with wishes for long and happy lives for both of them. 🙂

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  11. I think a good lawyer has to be a contrarian, especially a litigator, like yourself JP. I am not that hepped up on the Summer Olympics and back when I watched TV more, I remember thinking the RNC, DNC and the Olympics ruled, or should I say “ruined” the TV schedule for Summer. I do like the Winter events and used to watch the ice skating competitions, especially the figureskating competition for the mean and women back in the day. I did enjoy those and used to watch all the national events on Saturday Wide World of Sports. As to the 2021 Olympics, if not for Simone Biles stepping aside for a mental health break, I could not name any other athlete. Gone are the Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz eras for swimming and other notable athletes as well.

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    • You reminded me of something I had forgotten, with the 1 year Covid delay – that the Olympics would be the same summer as both major party political conventions. Yes, there were a lot of “Regular programming is preempted by this special broadcast” notifications during the summers every four years.

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  12. My parents rented a cottage in Alpena, Michigan for two weeks in the Summer of 1968. The time period coincided with one of the conventions and Olympics as I recall. I was 12 years old. Once dusk arrived, the black flies came out in swarms, driving us into the cottage. It’s a good thing we had books and board games to occupy our minds as pickin’s were slim TV wise.

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