The Best Possible Outcome

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by Glen Hamilton

The International Olympics Committee (IOC) decided to award the Olympics of 2024 and 2028 together. Initially, the contest was for just the 2024 Games but the IOC decided to award the 2028 Games as well. Paris will be awarded 2024 and Los Angeles will host 2028. Given that the two previous Olympiads, Sochi in 2014 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016, were ludicrously expensive failures, having two great cities like Paris and L.A. sign up for the Olympics looks like a vindication of the IOC and its recent reforms to the bidding process to make hosting Olympics more attractive.

If only this process was that kind of a slam dunk. The bidding for the 2022 Winter Games involved several European bids dropping out and the IOC was forced to choose between two hosts from unsavory regimes in Asia that were nowhere the top of their list of the possible sites. When they received two good offers from Paris and L.A., they gave them both an Olympiad for fear of having no takers for the Summer of 2028.

Even though this year’s effort resulted in two outstanding host cities getting the games, there were plenty of bumps in the road. Budapest, Rome and Hamburg all dropped out during the process. Also, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) was lucky to get a shot at anything after their ill-judged initial selection of Boston to host in 2024. It is a testament to the importance of America to the Olympic Movement that they got a another chance after being part of such an epic failure. Give the USOC credit for a great second choice, and kudos to Los Angeles for resurrecting their bid, but no one should have been conned like this in the first place. The Boston effort unraveled quickly and dramatically, revealing leadership that was self-serving and transparency-challenged. And Los Angeles is not of the woods yet. For the 2028 Games, opponents will have more than ten years to drum up anxiety of the impending disaster that awaits the city. Bankruptcy, terrorism, security lockdowns, gridlock, displacement, and corruption will all be presented as disastrous and imminent. In fairness, they could all happen. But taken together, it is all just a little ridiculous. One is reminded of the Conservative Government’s “Project Fear” campaign that failed in last year’s Brexit referendum in the UK. Both cases are grounded in legitimate concern for potentially catastrophic problems that could lie in the future, but the relentless scare-mongering just begs to be tuned out.  Additionally, the 1984 L.A. Games, which are generally seen as a success, could rather easily be recast as something altogether different. So many of the seeds that turned the Olympics into, at times, a grotesque vehicle of corporate power, were planted at those Games. Fortunately for Los Angeles, those seeds didn’t really sprout and take root the way they did in subsequent Olympics.

Both Paris and L.A. have huge advantages that previous hosts haven’t had in decades. Since the selection committee is loath to lose their sole applicant, both cities have significant leverage. Los Angeles can also remind the IOC how an American city that is perceived as being hard done by the Olympic movement might mar the games for the blockbuster American audience NBC paid 7.65 billion dollars to entertain. These places have power, I just hope they have the courage to use it. So much of the critique of the Olympics focuses on the high financial cost of the Games and the traffic problems that grow out of them. These two concerns, particularly the traffic, are often cartoonishly exaggerated. Displacement, on the other hand, is a much bigger problem in recent Games and it doesn’t get anywhere near as much attention. Instead, the focus invariably falls on the high cost of the event. Make no mistake, these events are not cheap. But it’s not like there isn’t money out there to be spent. That’s why I find it so depressing to hear critics of the Olympics from the political left borrow the tired discourse of conservative austerity politics. Too many people who should know better concede the far-right’s argument that there is no money for anything and everyone needs to cut back. These assumptions, in addition to undercutting any type of progressive agenda, are just plain wrong.

The most encouraging part of both Olympic sites is that they are mostly doing it for the right reasons. Both are incredible urban environments that are worthy of an event as special as the Olympics. While I am sure there will be plenty of scoundrels who will try to cash in on the games in both cities, neither bid is an expensive vanity project like Sochi. Nor is there a lot of “branding” nonsense attached to them like there was in Rio and Beijing. If there are grounds for concern, it is because both cities have become extremely expensive places to live, beyond the reach of typical working people. Displacement will be a huge issue in both places. There will be enormous pressure to remake neighborhoods to suit developers, just like there is now, only more so.

With the Olympics, the grind of gentrification takes place on camera. Local political groups need be ready to fight, it could change the way we view urban politics entirely. Local reporting in Rio had significant success in harpooning stereotypes of favela residents, particularly for foreign audiences. Just imagine what political organizations in a media epicenter like Los Angeles could do.

The best-case scenario for any Olympic city is that lots of people have fun and the community shares a large, mostly positive, collective experience. The transport infrastructure built for the event will be useful for years afterward. Recent practices for the reuse of sports facilities have diminished the scope for white elephants, and both L.A. and Paris already have purpose-built track and field stadiums, which tend to be the most egregious examples of long-term wasted urban space of nearly every Olympiad. While much about both applicants is encouraging, there are still many bad decisions that can be made while trying to pull something like this off. In fact, some bad ones may have already been made. Empowering local authorities is a much-needed change, but it is no silver bullet. One only has to see what the people who brought us the Boston Olympic debacle have been up to since their failure to realize that local control can be abused.

Recent events are quite encouraging for the Olympic movement. There is a good chance things will work out rather well. Of course, as commuters in both cities grapple with the construction orgy that inevitably precedes the Games and the normal grind to get around both large cities becomes even more formidable than usual, people are justifiably going to ask just why this aggravation is necessary. I would encourage locals to ignore the incredible negativity that precedes every Olympiad. Try to have fun and remember just how hard it is to get urban infrastructure upgraded in this age of austerity, no matter how much merit it may have.

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A Little Solidarity Goes a Long Way

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The U.S. team stands during the national anthem after defeating Canada 3-2 in overtime in the title game of the women’s hockey world championships, Friday, April 7, 2017, in Plymouth, Mich. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

by Glen Hamilton

The US won the gold medal at the IIHF Women’s World Championship on Friday in Michigan. They defeated Canada in the final in overtime. It was a thrilling match and a great victory, but the US team had an earlier triumph that spoke to the political moment in the US is in right now. The American women threatened to boycott the tournament if they did not receive better pay, conditions, and a more robust commitment to player development. After a “productive” first meeting, USA Hockey, the national organization who manage the team, began searching for replacements to field a team without the boycotting players. The last players cut from the squad were, of course, the first one’s called. When they refused to cooperate with management, public support for the players’ boycott began to grow. A social media campaign brought attention to the situation and USA Hockey capitulated three days before the competition and agreed to an arrangement very much akin to that of their defeated opponent, Canada.   

Certainly, a women’s final involving Canada and the US has become very common in recent years. The two teams have now met eleven times in a row in a global final. An overtime victory by one of the sides has also become common with five of the last seven meetings ending in overtime. The two sides are very closely matched, but their dominance is a problem at the international body which would like more competition from Europe. Unfortunately, the Europeans have their work cut out for themselves. The talent pool in both North American countries is vast by comparison. In terms of registered female players, Canada has 87,000 and the US has 73,000. The next highest countries for player participation are Finland and Sweden, both of which have a little more than 5,000 players each in organized ice hockey. It’s not that surprises don’t happen, but North American domination of Women’s ice hockey is kind of a thing now.

Despite their similar positions in competitions, the teams’ relationship with their respective national bodies are in different worlds. Since 1998, Canada has had a central contracting system that provides the top players a steady income while they are playing for the country. There are incentive bonuses and player development included in their agreement as well. Meanwhile, the Americans were operating in an amateur-era time warp where management claimed that they did “not employ hockey players.” The US team was paid $1,000 a month for the six months before the Olympics, everything else was covered by a modest per diem. Most women’s national teams of any importance have moved to some sort of central contracting system. That is a very important development because women don’t have any lucrative major leagues to break in to and make millions. The WNBA is about as generous as it gets with average pay at only $51,000 a year. National bodies are becoming a big part of compensation for high level female players in many sports. USA Hockey was a real outlier this way. I suppose they thought that if they lost promising women players because they found their careers unsustainable, there was enough talent to get a silver medal. How is that for priorities!? BTW, did I mention that USA Hockey scored the lowest in gender diversity of any national organization? I am sure that had nothing to do with the decisions that led to a near fiasco last week.

Despite having some of the most successful and lucrative sports leagues in the world, outdated notions of the virtues of amateurism are surprisingly common in the US. In the past, when professional athletes were banned from competing in the Olympics the amateur bodies that were recognized by the IOC constantly propagated a critique of professional sport relative to national representation from 1950 to around 1990. The media found the stories of self-sacrifice, discipline and obedience very compelling and skillfully packaged them through the 1970s and 80s.  No team encapsulated the American-style amateur fantasy than the 1980 US Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey team. To be fair, that effort was simply incredible, but it was a once in a lifetime victory. Nevertheless, it it left an imprint on American perception of what to expect from a national team, particularly for for ice hockey. It is a notion that seemed to resonate with the older men who dominate leadership positions in US Hockey. So much could have been avoided if they just listened to the voice of the 1980 team, captain Mike Eruzione, when he tweeted his support for the boycott the very same day it was called.

But USA Hockey management went looking for replacement players anyway. One would think that having climbed to the top of such a competitive heap might have worked to the players’ advantage in negotiating with their respective national organizations. But oddly, it is management that has leverage over the players instead.

Much of the players’ angst grows out of the 1987 NFL players strike. It went on for several weeks until management hired strikebreakers. Though the audiences in the stadia and on TV were considerably smaller than normal, the crowds were bigger than expected. Player solidarity melted away as high profile players crossed the picket lines on-camera.

Though the strike was a catastrophic public relations disaster for the American labor movement, it is still just one event that happened thirty years ago. What keeps it in the mind of an aspiring athlete is that apparently Corporate America loves the NFL strike narrative and doesn’t want anyone to forget it. Despite a lot of talk about the “liberal media,” it isn’t hard to find articles a quarter of a century later, talking about what a great bunch of guys the strike breakers were. Hollywood, an industry with its own labor issues, even made a shitty feel-good movie about strike breaking loosely based on the strike action. Professional athletes contemplating a work action are well aware, and frequently reminded what a “worst case scenario” might look like. Watching others fly the flag while you sit out because of money issues is almost too awfulto consider.  

Ultimately, the team turned the tables and created a “worst case scenario” for management. They were hosting a tournament with no team and no support. The social media campaign was hardly “viral,” but it communicated to the right things to the right audience. International ice hockey has a strange schedule for a major team sport. Most operate with a quadrennial calendar that build to mega events like the World Cup or the Olympics every few years. This makes a player boycott difficult to maintain. Competitions either matter too little bring change, or they are so huge that any action becomes self-defeating. Ice hockey has a world title every year, a frequency that diminishes the tournament greatly. But it still matters enough to those involved.

A few final take aways. Romantic notions about amateurism got zero traction. Hopefully these outdated ideas will age out over time. In these times, scabs are not so heroic anymore. The labor movement is not as threatening and income inequality has changed dramatically since the 1980s. It also needs to be realized that a vast majority of high-level athletes in the world toil for very modest compensation. Wealthy stars are great, but they are hardly representative. Also, national teams are viewed differently than clubs. Selection is seen as an honor and hence shouldn’t be sullied by unreasonable wage demands. Thirty years after the end of amateurism, sports bodies in are discovering that that sensibility applies to management as well as the athletes.

The massive political demonstrations of January 21 of this year put the wind in the sails of an effort like this. Support for getting the other half of the story out there was what made everything possible. Thinking globally, the IOC is always interested in American women, or at least their viewing patterns. Their television partners at NBC constantly tell us that their lucrative television contracts are linked to a female audience in the United States. NBC’s contract with the IOC is worth 7.65 billion dollars. If voice could be put behind those billions, there could be some changes coming.

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We Should Do This More Often

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Team Puerto Rico’s celebration of Carlos Correa’s game-tying home run in the World Baseball Classic semifinals was epic. (Getty Images)

by Glen Hamilton

I realized the World Baseball Classic (WBC) was happening while I was getting my daughter off to school and noticed a live, televised baseball game going on in front of a chanting audience at around 7 AM local time at my home in the American Southeast. The WBC occurs every four years and is the only international baseball tournament that Major League Baseball (MLB), which organizes the competition, releases their players to play.

As usual, despite low expectations, the tournament has been viewed as a success. The crowds are big and the games have been great. There have been several surprise results and the standard of play reasonably high, with a few spring training worthy errors thrown in. More importantly, the players are enjoying the experience. This includes the United States team, who are clearly totally into it. So yet again, another group of well-paid, highly autonomous American professional athletes fail to live up to stereotype of being too arrogant to give a shit about playing for the United States. There is very little not to like about this competition. Still, despite hosting the event, the WBC has a very low profile in the US. America boasts a significant cohort of critics who smugly diminish the event.

If you can figure out how to ignore those people, it is easy to realize the WBC is great fun and has a formula that is almost impossible to screw up. Baseball is either a major part of a country’s summer that really matters, or it is very small beer. The contrast in player quality can be particularly significant, which makes surprise results like Israel defeating South Korea particularly remarkable. Because of the atypical matchups and the short duration of a competition like this, the enthusiasm among the fans and the players is particularly high.

It may sound strange, but one of the big surprises is the strong showing by the United States, the eventual champions. While several big stars passed on playing this year for the US, this only seems to have made the remaining players more committed. Cameroon, who had eight no shows in their effort to win the African Cup last February, became champions by making a similar dynamic work for them. While generally not recommended, high profile snubs from players can work. But perhaps the most exhilarating aspect of the WBC is that it is held so infrequently. Knowing that many fine players will only have one opportunity play for their country at this level lends an early jet-age sense of occasion in international sport that harkens back to the 1960s. It would all be perfect if it wasn’t so contrived. I mean, uh, we have planes now.

OK, there are some pretty serious problems with the WBC. The staggered roll out leaves a lot to be desired. Having half of the second-round qualifiers take a trans-Pacific flight to complete the competition seems more than a little crazy. Holding the tournament during MLB’s spring training makes for an awkward dynamic between the players and their clubs. And the clubs are not above pressuring players to pass on the event. This leads us to the most exasperating aspect of the WBC: the begrudging attitude of the MLB towards the event. Fans and the media sense the ambivalence of baseball’s leadership and it is reflected in their level of interest. Because of this, I frequently get the feeling the whole thing is put on for the overseas audience while the league’s traditional American fans are viewed as “above” the whole affair. A lot of this grows out of America’s odd ideas about athletes in their major professional sports playing internationally, many of which go all the back to the amateur era.

It would be great if a tournament like the WBC could take place next year. The stories of this tournament would continue and become intertwined with club baseball. But that is simply not happening. The chances of any expansion of the international baseball calendar at the highest level is virtually nil. In fact, the MLB has an open invitation to the 2020 Olympics and apparently, the ownership thinks they will be “too busy” to participate. Although it is a long flight from North America to Tokyo, any Olympic format is going to be very quick and relatively painless. Turning up one’s nose to an Olympic invitation smacks of small minded snobbery to those who don’t “get” baseball. A real indication that MLB’s efforts to grow the game are still largely rhetorical.

Although there are a lot of things to complain about in the Olympic movement, lack of global television exposure for the participants is not one of them. Even though the games would probably be shown in the US during the very early morning hours, the global audience would be huge. Possibly several times the size of last year’s epic World Series game 7 globally.

The MLB seems pretty keen to operate separately from the IOC, and create something akin to soccer’s “World Cup” with the WBC. They fail to realize that FIFA has a huge slate of international games building up to the big event that are central to its success. American baseball just isn’t willing to do the work to make that happen. Passing on 2020 is great example of an extreme lack of commitment. There is a still widely-held view in the US that the IOC hates baseball. That simply isn’t true. While the stereotype of Olympic leadership being mainly made up of failed modern pentathletes is a little closer to the truth than anyone would like to admit, that doesn’t actually hurt baseball within the movement. Much of the IOC may not “get” baseball, but they love the idea of it. The sport does very well on television. It is popular in Asia, which is where the future of the Olympic movement lies, while at the same time, the WBC nods in the direction of the US, the focus of the Olympics in the present. The WBC final garnered something like 100 million people watching it worldwide. 100 million viewers to a modern pentathlete is a little like a billion dollars to the average citizen. It is hard to get your brain around the figure, but you would do almost anything to have it.

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It Gets Better

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by Glen Hamilton

The US Olympic team won more medals than any other country at this year’s Summer Games. The media’s constant drumbeat about American young people being lazy underachievers sure as hell didn’t apply to the delegation in Rio. Mercifully, media coverage of the national medal counts was minimal. Perhaps this was because the US won so many medals early on that the “race” ceased to be a compelling story. Another factor was that so much of NBC’s coverage was incredibly ethnocentric, at times cringingly so. As result, foreign athletes’ medal performances rarely received the recognition they deserved.

The pseudo-Cold War that the United States, China and Russia sometimes engage in during the Olympics didn’t manifest to same unpleasant degree as it has in the past. I didn’t detect a lot of schadenfreude over China’s underperformance in Rio. There were no suggestions of anyone going to the Chinese equivalent of Siberia that one might have expected in an earlier era. The official Chinese media expressed some initial disappointment, but they quickly pivoted to more “human interest” stories. Luckily for them, China had perhaps the most adorable medal-winner in recent memory, Fu Yuanhui. In the last year, China has made a high profile commitment of both public and private resources to success in soccer. The emphasis at the top has shifted away from padding Olympic medal counts by overwhelming other nations in minor sports to concentrating on the most important non-Olympic sporting event in the world, the World Cup. Avoiding a repeat of China’s recent abysmal performances in World Cup Qualifying might be more edifying to the current leadership than a dozen more medals in minor Olympic events. In 2008, when the US played China in basketball at the Beijing Olympics, I joked that if China wanted to impress people at home and abroad, they might want to try to excel in sports that people actually give a shit about. Finally, someone is listening to me!

If there is a current heir to the Soviet tradition of piling money into minor sports that award high numbers of medals, it would be Great Britain. Their impressive medal haul in Rio wasn’t merely the result of plowing lottery money into sport. It is also the result of Team GB’s focus on achieving maximum ROI efficiencies through a detailed cost/benefit analysis for each sport. The team’s success was grounded in a strange marriage of the aims of a Soviet-style Politburo and the methods of a private equity firm. What could possibly go wrong? Well, so far, not much actually. Team GB did great in Rio. Competing is important, but there is nothing wrong with excelling at the Olympics.  Over the long haul, turning the focus away from medal-poor team sports that kids play and grown-ups appreciate might have diminishing returns over time. Of course, the exception proves the rule. Great Britain’s women’s field hockey team won a heroic final that was as exciting a game as I have watched in any sport for a long time.

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Jerks

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by Glen Hamilton

Frequently, when people become overly concerned with the moral health of the world or a country, my usual response is “People always remember the assholes because kindness and decency are not that newsworthy.” I have been forced to use this rationale a lot lately while watching a couple of American Olympic athletes’ spectacularly bad behavior in Rio.

After earning several medals, American swimmer Ryan Lochte’s adventure in bad judgement, clueless racism, and dishonesty, has gathered a lot of attention. Hope Solo’s breathtakingly bad sportsmanship earlier has almost been forgotten. In fairness to Solo, her complaint about losing to a team playing defensively was depressingly familiar. At this year’s Euro football tournament in France earlier this summer, other participants had similar complaints. Belgium’s (now fired) manager Marc Wilmots complained about Italy’s defensive posture in the game where they eliminated his team from the tournament. Portuguese mega-star Christiano Ronoldo had the same complaint about Iceland’s defensive play as well. Both were mercilessly derided for forgetting that an attacking team’s job is to break down defenses and score goals, not bitch about their failure after the fact. Before leaving for the Rio Olympics, Solo posted a tweet that rudely referenced Zika. At least Ronoldo somehow avoided sending a douche-y tweet about Dengue fever before his arrival at the Brazil’s World Cup in 2014.

A lot people have written incisively about how these stories relate to white privilege in America, while others have illustrated how these stories dovetail with a rich country’s perspective of cities in the Global South. I am not going to dwell on those issues because smarter people than me have already weighed in on them. Nor am I going to examine the conduct of the athletes in Rio. Instead, I’m focusing on how American notions about the Olympic Games are framed by its historical relationship with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Although most countries endured the travails of the amateurism from the 60s to the 80s, few places were affected as dramatically or for as long a time as the United States. In addition to exercising power over athletes, amateurism policies functioned to marginalize lucrative team sports within the movement. While soccer was able to find a space for international play for its professionals, North American team sports with an international footprint like ice hockey and basketball were unable to find traction. In the 1980s European hockey and basketball leagues found a work-around within the Olympic movement and were able play. At the same time, NBA and NHL players from any country were unable to compete because of league-specific bans. I joked at the time that the anti-apartheid movement would have killed for that kind of international compliance for a sports ban.

The net effect in America was a heightened bifurcation between serious professional sports and marginal amateur ones. This contrast was heightened in the 1970s when the Olympics became a breathtakingly lucrative television enterprise in the United States. In the midst of the conservative backlash of that decade, hardworking, self-sacrificing, and authentic Olympians were seen as much more virtuous than their greedy, arrogant professional counterparts. This took place at a time when African Americans were coming to dominate popular American sports.

While much of the overt racial baggage has been shed, large sections of this narrative persist. One only has to encounter the almost instinctive criticism of many American sports fans about the NBA’s participation in the Olympics. They may not be pissed off at Jesse Jackson anymore, but it sure sounds like they have been listening to someone who was. Despite their reputation, the 2016 American basketball team has been frightfully well-behaved and includes players such as Kevin Durant, someone who is almost cartoonishly laden with wholesome, authentic family values. Carmelo Anthony displayed more quality insight during a short visit to a local favela than most of the American broadcasting team has for the entire Games, save Matt Laurer’s favela tour with Theresa Williamson.

Part of the reason that these notions continue to persist is that until the early 90s, the IOC only recognized American amateur bodies that propagated versions of the amateur story to suit their needs. Later American Olympic broadcasters continued to implicitly support the positive authentic fiction about amateur athletes while trying to avoid vilifying the professional athletes they routinely televised before and after the Olympics. But the American media very rarely advocates for the unromantic, if completely accurate, notion that Olympians are incredibly talented professionals in their field. Unfortunately for current broadcaster NBC, borrowing a framework from 1970s America comes with echoes of the vicious racialized and gendered political fights over forced busing and the ERA. And this makes their coverage even more fraught than usual.

Getting back to Solo and Lochte. While Solo plays in a sport recognized in the popular mind with professionalism, the reaction to her Olympic transgressions was swift and disapproving. In short, the world seemed to be saying, “You are understandably angry about losing but OMG!” In Lochte’s case, NBC was quite fair about the incident. But there was a palpable sense underlying their coverage that they wanted that guy to be telling the truth because that was a narrative they preferred. Alas, it didn’t work. Americans can be quite ruthless to athletes who lie. Thanks for nothing Lance Armstrong.

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What We Remember

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Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, right, and Rio de Janeiro’s Governor Luiz Fernando Pezao, left, ride in a trackmobile to review the construction of a new subway line being built in the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, May 12, 2015. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

by Glen Hamilton

In a little less than a week, parts of the media will begin discussing the legacy of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Only briefly, of course. The real treatment won’t begin in earnest until the beginning of 2018, when the Winter Games in South Korea begin to loom in the near future. The Olympics will have a significant effect on the fabric of Rio. Much of the perception of success will be framed for the foreign media by the size of Rio’s Olympic venue boneyard, how “over budget” the Games appear to be, and how Brazil’s political situation plays out to audiences abroad. All of those things are not looking good for Rio right now. I have lived in two cities that hosted the Olympics: Atlanta and Montreal. The effect of an Olympiad on actual residents is more subtle and complicated than most visiting media care to discover.

These games have been dubbed by many as the “Exclusion Games.” And this is not without good reason. The two major transport infrastructure projects include a subway link to the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city and a BRT line that goes through, unfortunately in a literal sense, some of the less glamorous neighborhoods further north. This resulted in the forced relocation of many of the city’s poorest residents. Much of the development around Olympic Park and its historic waterfront has been tailored to benefit a few tycoons at the expense of local people, sometimes quite brazenly. The overtly political approach of the organizers led to a significant backlash and how that plays out in Rio and Brazil as a whole will be the real lasting legacy of these games in Rio. Brazil’s impeachment process will affect how the political dynamic moves forward in Rio. If it is an honest move to reform, the previously marginalized constituencies that have found their voices and an audience in the run-up to the Games will add constructively to Rio de Janeiro’s future outcomes. But if President Rousseff’s removal appears to be a judicial coup, coupled with an attempt to quash the many corruption probes in play at the moment, it will be a huge setback. And in Rio there will be tons of security infrastructure leftover from the Olympics to force the return to the status quo.

It seems likely that the perception of Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic experience will be framed by larger political events, probably things that haven’t even happened yet. In Athens and Montreal, larger events were telescoped to their respective Olympic efforts. In Athens, the high cost and subsequent waste has merged in many people’s minds with the country’s debt crisis that took place six years later. The Games came to symbolize the kind of irresponsible chicanery that got the country in this mess to begin with. Unfortunately, the other apt analogy from Athens 2004 is the enthusiasm of the international community for Greece’s profligacy. (Somehow people don’t like talking about that one.) In Montreal’s case, they also accrued massive debts and architectural white elephants. But rather than triggering a crisis, Montreal is presented as having gone into “decline” and “withdrawn from the World.” While there is some truth in that, one needs to remember that the most important event in Quebec in 1976 wasn’t the Olympics, but the landslide election of Parti Quebecois later that year. So a lot of the changes in Montreal’s place in the world were the price it had to pay to drastically reconfigure its relationship to Canada and put the last nails into a polite caste system.

We don’t know how either the Olympics or the political process will pan out in the end, but I can tell you from my experience with impeachment in America that its backlash has a long tail. From Nixon to Reagan and Clinton to Obama, impeachment is a setback. What ultimately matters is the quality of the recovery.

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Trying Just a Little Too Hard

by Glen Hamilton

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Apparently American basketball players are staying on a cruise ship, separate from the Olympic Village. USA Basketball cited several reasons, including security concerns. Another of the rationales for separating the American players was how tired the players may get from the constant and abundant attention they would receive in the Athletes’ Village. That may be true, but the decision also speaks to where the American basketball establishment, dominated by the NBA, sees itself in the world. Unfortunately, they sometimes try too hard to present basketball as having a massive presence worldwide. While the NBA’s formidable PR machinery can project the league to the far corners of the Earth, that is not quite the same as growing the game.

Look, I love the NBA and I love that the NBA is supportive of the Olympic Movement. But USA Basketball’s posture on their lodgings echoes the aspirations of American basketball leadership rather than its reality. One common excuse used to justify the separate location is that the players would get tired of the constant attention in the Olympic Village, much like track star Usain Bolt.  But that just doesn’t ring true. It’s not that USA Basketball is being disingenuous. It is merely operating in the “augmented reality” of the NBA’s marketing world. I am not diminishing how taxing living in the Olympic Village can be over time for high profile athletes. While the American Men’s basketball line up is full of tremendous basketball players, as a group their international profile isn’t all that high. Obviously Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving are pretty recognizable. Most of this group will sell jerseys overseas in the coming years, but they are not going to be mobbed like the Beatles.

I am also not entirely convinced that basketball’s global footprint is quite as big as the NBA would have us believe. The sport has a significant toehold pretty much everywhere, but its popularity varies wildly. The NBA’s promotional style, with the constant optimistic drumbeat heralding the sport’s global presence, has created an echo chamber that lies far away from the grunt work on the ground. Alas, growing a sport globally is a slog in bits of the world that many people don’t think about often. Good work is going to be hidden for years, if it appears at all.

Having players from a league with the high caliber of the NBA participating in the most important sporting event in the world is a huge asset that puts wind in the sails of the game internationally. Additionally, this is one of the better uses of American soft power. No league participating in the Olympics has the same stature as the NBA and people who follow sport realize that. Perhaps it’s not the slam dunk (no pun intended) that the DOJ pulled off in their arrests of much of FIFA’s crooked leadership last year, but it is streets ahead of a begrudging NHL and clueless MLB.

Despite my quibbles, I think I’ll just defer to the judgement of USA Basketball on where the team should stay. Their global tournament record over the last ten years is incredible. So, whatever they are doing, it’s working great.

 

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