August 8, 2008

Contrarian Thoughts on the Olympics

With the Beijing games now underway, I'd like to make my usual argument that the Olympics, for all its pomp and pretension, isn't terribly interesting and, more to the point, doesn't live up to its professed goal of fostering international cooperation through sport. Oh sure, there have been plenty of awesome moments in Olympic history, and I like seeing events like swimming as much as the next person, but I find the sheer volume of different events daunting; by the time we've gotten through all the events both major (gymnastics, track and field) and minor (kayaking, badminton) I don't really see any resolution or payoff, other than by looking at the medal count. And on that score, Megan McArdle is right: The United States' overwhelming numbers make it far more likely to win, and win in more events. (See this map for illustration.) Then of course there's the fact that the Olympics has for most of its history been a proxy for great power conflicts, from the rise of the Third Reich to the Cold War to the current contretemps between China and the West. Rather than present an ideal of international brotherhood, the Olympics has more often functioned as a mirror of international strife.

By contrast, the World Cup hits much closer to the mark: For starters, soccer is already the default pastime of most of the world, and perhaps the premiere example of globalization, in all senses of that word. By being focused on one rather than many events, there's not only greater continuity to the World Cup, there's also a more level playing field: smaller and less prosperous countries have the potential to knock off larger and wealthier rivals, and also have a more plausible shot at the championship, rather than a medal count they will almost certainly never win. A goal of international sports should be to upset the traditional concentrations of power in the world, and in that respect FIFA does a much better job than the IOC. (Though in practice, the World Cup has historically been dominated by just a few countries: France, England, Germany, Brazil, Italy, Uruguay, and Argentina. But hey, that's hardly your traditional mix of countries.) If nothing else, the conspicuous absence of the United States in most World Cups provides a vision of a flattened world that Thomas Friedman can only dream of. That, I think, will change: Soccer's popularity in the US has grown by leaps and bounds, which means the level of talent in American soccer teams will only improve, and American interest in soccer abroad will increase as well. After all, as Steve Gilliard used to say, it is the beautiful game.

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