You may not know this about me, but in a past life I competed at the international level in modern pentathlon. An obscure sport in the U.S., but historically significant for the modern Olympics. And by “international level”, I mean that I was 2x US National Champion for the under-18 category and had several inter-American and World competitions under my belt. An up-and-coming, potential future Olympian would not be too great of an exaggeration.
And why have I left the sport? Some part of the decision was made simply by the immense difficulty of training in 5 sports while being an undergraduate and a DI swimmer. But I was successful even in those circumstances for my first year and could have continued on. What made the decision was the sneaking suspicion, which had been growing for some time, that the Olympic dream was really an illusion, or maybe something that had once been a reality, but now replaced by old stories and idealism (someone quote Barthes for me).
These realizations have surfaced due to recent news on Brazil, the upcoming 2016 summer Olympics, and especially the “International Day of Sport for Development and Peace.” The modern games have a long history of promoting understanding between nations, peace through competition, and camaraderie amongst people of different nationalities. How much of that ideal is true, though? Certainly, there have been key moments when the status quo has been rejected and overcome through the amazing performances of athletes. For example, Jesse Owens standing up to racism at home and abroad in 1936.
The vast majority of the time, however, the Olympics are the stages for political one-upping, for unspoken gold-medal counting, for video feed money-racking. And not to mention the negative, if not potentially devastating, effects of actually hosting an Olympic game. See the Economist, the Atlantic, the NYT…there is plenty more out there for you to keep reading.
Looking to this year’s summer games in Rio de Janeiro, many are already pointing out major concerns about human rights violations including forceable migration and labor, demolition of property, and human trafficking. A journal article from Northwestern’s Julie Liu optimistically opined that the 2008 Olympics could be a vehicle for human rights agenda of China to improve, and look how much good that did. And I am not picking on Latin America or even developing nations more broadly. London was not above reproach, either.
Why do we defend the Olympic ideal? Why are we all so obsessed with the success of the few at the expense of so many? Is the Olympic idol worth it?
My decision to leave the sport was facilitated by a newfound love of academia, especially international relations and economics. I felt I could do more good in these capacities than I could do being an Olympian or world-class athlete. I could be wrong. And I certainly would not dare tell other athletes that they should retire and find new careers. But my answer to the questions above, for myself, is a resounding no.