Trying Just a Little Too Hard

by Glen Hamilton


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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What a Place!


by Glen Hamilton

The Olympic Opening Ceremonies last night were great. They weren’t as over the top as Beijing and Sochi. Instead, they were in the right spirit for these games. The director touched on Brazil’s experience with slavery, which is something they couldn’t figure out how to do in Atlanta. I probably missed several hundred social signifiers, but apparently the show stuck its finger in the new, unelected President’s eye throughout. Great job, despite a shriveled budget. Isn’t it great when a fantastic piece of work is pulled off with slim funds for the benefit of the same Austerians who are desperately trying to undermine them? Hold on. Uh, no actually. That sucks. And it happens all the time.

I’ve been interested in Rio since I lived in New Orleans and fell for the Carnival festivities there. Rio seemed like something akin to the “Super Bowl” of Mardi Gras celebrations. But quality information about Rio was tough to come by. That changed dramatically when the city was awarded the Olympic Games. Now, there is so much interesting stuff about this fascinating place. Despite all the claims about the Olympics being a sinister corporate plot, the media coverage of the has been highly critical of the neo-liberal model for the Games.  Local elites’ actions and motives have been criticized severely. There are some great community groups getting the word out effectively. Traditional media are getting a great view from the ground. The only downside to this attention is that the media tends to focus on the disparity between the favelas and Rio’s South Zone near the Olympic sites. Largely missing from the coverage are the lives of majority of Cariocas, working class people in the North and West of the city. That, the Games, as well as mass transit, seem to have missed.

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Good Luck With That Stadium!

by Glen Hamilton

Estadio Olympico

Perhaps the most bedeviling Olympic legacy issue is what to do with the main stadium. Re-use can be tricky. Tokyo has hit some rather significant bumps in the road while planning to reuse their 1964 Olympic Stadium as an Olympic site in 2020. Those issues will probably be resolved before their games begin. But for all the complaining about Rio de Janeiro’s preparation for Olympic Games, one place they have already succeeded and where so many others have failed, is re-use of their main stadium. The vast Maracana stadium, home to some of the largest soccer crowds ever, will be used much the way it was before the Olympics. After renovation, it resumed its role as the home stadium for two major Rio clubs, along with a smattering of other marquee games. Alas, this is the Rio Olympics. So they found a way to mess up their stadium legacy as well. While the opening and closing ceremonies are in Maracana, Estadio Olimpico is being used for Track and Field events. It was rented to Botafogo FC since it was built in 2007.

“Rent it to a local football team” has become the solution of choice for host cities with what is ultimately a giant track stadium. Unfortunately, the biggest issue with playing in a former Olympic stadium is that they frequently are terrible places to watch soccer. From that a whole slew of issues grow out of that. Clubs that can get 60+K people regularly are much better off financially owning their own stadium anyway, and aspiring second tier clubs aren’t going to have the increased gate receipts they would hope for in stadiums that are described as “quiet” and “soul-less”. Botafogo, with a facility 15 miles away from its namesake neighborhood, may eventually be anxiously waiting for its lease to run out and move on. Not unlike Panathinaikos (Athens), Espanyol (Barcelona), and Bayern Munich.

In other news, I just realized West Ham United played their first game in London’s Olympic Stadium today. Reviews were mixed. Most appreciated the state of the art facility, but many wished they were closer to the action and were able to make more noise. Sounds familiar.  

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If It Seems To Good To Be True, It Probably Is

by Glen Hamilton

The Olympic Torch arrived in Rio de Janeiro today and the first events began as well. So the media will soon tip from reporting on Rio’s apocalypse to finding candidates to be put on a Wheaties Box. But right now the current wisdom is that any city that hosts the Olympic Games is insane and doomed to decades of misery. While very much a critic of the Olympic Movement, Dave Zirin is normally one of the most astute observers of the intersection of sport and society. In an L. A. Times Op-Ed Zirin suggests that Los Angeles should drop its 2024 Olympic bid in order to force the Olympic movement reform its host selection process in a way that addresses human rights and corruption. This is a very worthy goal. But a boycott by candidate cities is not an effective tool of reform and Zirin’s solution of moving to a single location is completely unworkable.

In order for a boycott to succeed, a high level of compliance is crucial. Countries with the necessary level of political activism to thwart an Olympic bid are the same countries where the most egregious corruption and social dislocation could effectively be called out. The main by product of a boycott would be heavier dependence on hosts that would be more likely to suppress opposition, degrade the environment, and bulldoze a city’s urban fabric. I went the Olympics in London in 2012. I can assure you they are every bit as special as people say they are. So cities are going to sign up to host them, and those that win bids will love them.

One thing no community would love is to host multiple games. Hosting a single Olympics is exhausting. Any city would be pretty jaded around half-way through the second go-round. Managing that many people and events at different locations is no small feat, and the cost savings won’t be as dramatic as they are made out to be. Many Olympic facilities are renewable now. Building from scratch could end up being more expensive in many cases. For example, the water polo stadium where I watched the US play Serbia was shipped to Rio and has since been reassembled. Big ticket items like the main stadium, the aquatics facility, and transport infrastructure need upkeep. So they are not quite the slam dunks they first appear to be. The Athletes Village is a wash because using housing two weeks out every four years isn’t feasible. A new build every four is years is a big temptation, hence minimal savings.

I can’t predict what is going to happen at the Los Angeles Olympics in 2024, but it can’t possibly be as bad as the naysayers predict. The other day a caller on NPR’s To The Point radio show claimed the 2004 Olympics caused the Greek debt crisis of 2010 and would cause similar financial contagions in Brazil and California. Sure, the guy was a bit of a crank. But he was left mostly unchallenged by the moderator and guests on the show because that is the way thinking is going on this issue. Unfortunately, advocates for the Olympics used absurdly optimistic and frequently bogus financial figures to sell the games to the public, leaving themselves open to equally nonsensical critiques. This allowed reality and perspective to slowly slip away from both.

A change in the way that countries conduct business with the Olympic System is not as impossible as it seems. The politicians that launch a successful bid are rarely the same people who preside over them.  So there will be political change; just what kind is up to voters. People need to vote and demand more transparency in the process. If successful, Los Angeles and the United States will have seven years to make this right. Transparency at the Olympics will work because so many people are watching.

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