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IOC needs to imagine a revamped Olympics

The Olympic Rings logo is seen on the top of a tower as the sun rises on Feb. 7, 2022 at the Beijing Winter Olympics.
David Ramos
Getty Images
The Olympic Rings logo is seen on the top of a tower as the sun rises on Feb. 7, 2022 at the Beijing Winter Olympics.

On a week when we got word that Paul McCartney will return to Baltimore, nearly 60 years after his last appearance, the words of his chief Beatles collaborator, John Lennon, resonated in these ears.

Specifically, “Imagine,” Lennon’s anthem to peace, got me imagining an Olympics stripped of the conceits that have warped the original idea of competition for competition’s sake. The recently completed winter games in Beijing are the latest example of how what should be the highlight of any sporting year have become a slog to be endured.

This year’s games, just as last summer’s Tokyo Olympics were largely void of distinguishing moments.

Admittedly, the COVID pandemic largely contributed to the desultory quality of the two most recent games. The absence of spectators in both Japan and China and the lack of a roaring crowd at certain times lowered the possibilities for magic.

But there are other systemic reasons the Olympics have lost their luster.

For one, the games have been swallowed whole by nationalistic pride and ideological confrontations.

Through xenophobia and jingoism, countries and their leaders have used the five Olympic rings to advance their own philosophies and usually at the expense of unsuspecting athletes.

Hitler was the most obvious to do it in Berlin in 1936, but he was hardly the last. The Russians 42 years ago tried in Moscow, and the Chinese have attempted in 2008 and again these last two weeks to whitewash their horrid record in human rights with Olympic pageantry.

The International Olympic Committee bears its share of the blame for the degradation of the Games through its relentless pursuit of the almighty dollar.

For instance, the IOC has perverted the process by which countries bid to host the games, forcing nations to stretch their resources and funds to unsustainable levels.

Brazil is still paying for the privilege of being the first South American nation to host an Olympics. Six years after the fact, there are facilities in and around Rio that are obsolete.

And then there are the games themselves that have been stretched beyond recognition, with new sports and variations added to every Olympics to make them more palatable for the great god, television. Despite declining interest, as manifest by plummeting ratings, there’s still time to fix the Olympics before they’re broken beyond repair.

First, absent certain sports that need a team orientation, like basketball, hockey or volleyball, let’s get rid of national labels and allow the athletes to compete individually. No more flags. No more anthems.

Next, to avoid the spectacle of countries and cities going into a financial hole, the IOC should commit to and build permanent sites for the Summer and Winter Games. The nations of Australia and Switzerland, respectively, would do nicely. Finally, the IOC should enact strict athlete eligibility rules, including an age limit and a policy on performance enhancing drugs that leaves no wriggle room.

These ideas may be the stuff of a dreamer. If so, so be it. But something needs to happen and soon before the Olympics as we’ve known them and loved them become the stuff of imagination, if they aren’t already.

And that’s how I see it for this week. You can reach us via email with your questions and comments at Sports at Large at gmail.com. And follow me on Twitter at Sports at Large.

Until next week, for all of us here, I’m Milton Kent. Thanks for listening and enjoy the games.

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.