The world is filled with great sporting events.
The 2014 Olympic Games is not one of them.
Sochi started with the same problem as every Winter Olympics. Forget the crass commercialism, the fake amateurism, NBC’s refusal to televise important events live to all its viewers. As an event, the Winter Games fail on the most basic level. They’re lousy to watch.
Good spectator sports share certain fundamentals. Their competitors battle head-to-head. Their winners are determined objectively: fastest runner, most points. They are refereed, not judged. At their best they feature long-lasting rivalries: Nadal-Federer. Celtics-Lakers. Liverpool-Arsenal. In cycling, Armstrong-the world.
The Winter Olympics? Not so much. Downhill track sports like luge are technology battles, as exciting as a NASCAR qualifying day. Snowboarders put on thirty-second shows for judges who decide whether a Double McTwist 1260 is more awesome than a triple-cork flip. (Yep, actual snowboarding terms.) The skiers are genuine athletes, but they’re greyhounds, speedy and interchangeable, hidden under helmets. They are sent down the slope one by one. Only the clock tells us who’s won.
Shall I go on? Figure skating’s judging makes boxing look clean. The biathlon is as exciting as armed seals waddling through a marathon. Speed skating? Curling? Please. If it isn’t obvious by now, the reason NBC lards its coverage with so many interviews of athletes, their families, and their pets is that the sports themselves are eye-glazing.
So be it. The Olympics are about more than athletic competition, we’re told. They bring the world together in competition. We root for our countries, but we appreciate the chance to discover other cultures.
And what have we discovered from these Games? That Russia’s leaders are even more despicable than we imagined. For the last few years, I’ve made a living as a spy novelist. I’m always looking for good stories. Even so, I’ve shied away from Vladimir Putin. I like my villains recognizably human. Putin fails that test. He combines the shirtless self-love of Alex Rodriguez with the vicious psychopathy of Robert Mugabe. He divorced his wife of thirty years in a television interview.
Putin oversees a state that is efficient in only one way, its ability to plunder its natural resources and deliver them to its political masters. The Guardian reported in 2007 that he had accumulated $40 billion in hidden wealth. The real figure is impossible to know. But given the fact that Russia has roughly three working hotel rooms to show for the $50 billion it has spent on Sochi, $40 billion sounds plausible.
Even the corruption is a sideshow compared to Putin’s loathsome policies. As a sop to right-wing nationalists, he’s all but stopped Americans from adopting Russian children, leaving thousands of them in orphanages that would pass for kennels in the West. His government has revved up anti-gay propaganda, conflating homosexuality and pedophilia, and ignored the murder of journalists, anti-corruption investigators, and human rights activists. Worst of all, as the civil war in Syria edges toward a government-backed genocide, Putin continues to support Bashir Assad and what he can to prevent the United States and the West from intervening.
We can’t do much about Vladimir Putin. But we don’t have to pretend to like him, or the third-rate dog-poisoning sideshow he is overseeing in Sochi. As a spectator event, the Olympics fail. As a political act, they offer aid and comfort to a dictatorship. The fact that one of the Russian torchbearers tweeted a racist photomontage of President Obama in September (she now claims, incoherently, that her account was hacked) is merely the icing on a most rotten cake.
I don’t think we should boycott the Games as a country—let Shaun White have his two-week vacation—but can we please pretend they’re not happening? You want mawkish made-for-television melodrama, try The Bachelor or The Biggest Loser. You want real sports, you don’t have to look far. The Super Bowl has come and gone, but the Premier League and the NBA are in full swing.
Better still, instead of complaining about this winter’s snow, turn off the television, grab your mittens, find that old sled in the basement and take your kids down the hill. Feel free to yell USA! if you like.
Playing is the best sport of all.