The two greatest moments of the Olympics, the ones that have been passed down through legend and archival footage, involve the Cold War. There was Al Michaels shouting “Do you believe in miracles?” at the 1980 winter games in Lake Placid when the unheralded U.S. hockey team faced—and defeated—the mighty Soviets. There was also the ill-tempered finish to the 1972 basketball final, when the Soviets were awarded gold after a controversial judging decision. As Mike Bantom, who was on the U.S. team, later said: “We didn’t get beat, we got cheated.”
The Cold War’s U.S.-Soviet rivalry dominated the games from 1952, the first time the Soviet Union participated, until the demise of the USSR in 1991. The Soviets used sports to showcase their strength, pouring money into producing champion after champion. The U.S. embraced the competition. The all-time national Olympic medal counts for the Summer and Winter games are illustrative: The U.S. is No. 1 on the all-time Summer list with the Soviet Union at No. 2 (and East Germany at No. 9). On the Winter list, the U.S. is No. 2, with the Soviet Union at No. 4 (and East Germany at No. 11). This despite the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow games and the Soviet reciprocation at the Los Angeles games in 1984—and despite the disintegration of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago.
Today’s games are less about geopolitical struggle and more about made-for-TV storylines. They allow for smaller, poorer countries to shine, like when Grenada became the smallest country to win a gold through Kirani James’s 2012 victory in the 400-meter finals. They showcase virtuosos performances like Usain Bolt’s eight golds over three games. They crown new heroes to adorn Wheaties boxes. But without great-power rivalry—and perhaps because rival athletes are sponsored by many of the same international companies—the more recent Olympics lack spirit.
“I think the Olympics in the Cold War drew a lot of their appeal from this direct [superpower] rivalry. … In the years since, you don't have that same interplay, you don't have that same rivalries to watch for,” said Erin Redihan, who teaches history at Salve Regina University and is the author of The Olympics and the Cold War, 1948-1968. “When you think of the Olympic Games now … you lose that direct matchup.” One of America’s top international rivals at the moment, North Korea, is only competing in women’s hockey, and there only jointly with an American ally, South Korea. And notwithstanding the Trump administration’s declaration in its National Security Strategy that great-power competition is back, at the Olympics, it isn’t. Russia is hobbled by a doping scandal. China is not yet a major force in the winter games, though it won nine medals in 2014.
There are plenty of other reasons to dislike the games. The Olympics, as The Independent’s Sean O’Grady wrote in 2016, can seem like so much “running round and throwing things.” O’Grady was referring to the summer version—in the winter, the games can also mean lying flat and sliding downhill, or perhaps scurrying about and doing … whatever curling is. They feature obscure sports that only enter the collective consciousness every two years. Cheaters inevitably seem one step ahead of the authorities; most Russian athletes have been banned from these games because of the widespread doping nobody caught four years ago. The cost of hosting the games can leave the host country worse off. The games might exist to promote the sporting spirit, but unsporting behavior is all too common. And then there’s the International Olympic Committee, the giant bureaucracy that runs the games and that is reportedly being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department for corruption.
But for each of those reasons to tune out, there are storylines that keep the television audiences coming: the joint Korean women’s hockey team that adds an incongruous feel-good moment to the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons; the Nigerian bobsled team; and the hockey-playing sisters from Minnesota competing on different national teams—one for America and one for Korea.
“Because the Olympics have become such a well-tuned symbol generator, clumsy at times … the trump card they always have is the athletes. There’s always going to be amazing athletes,” Jules Boykoff, who is a political science professor at Pacific University and author of Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, told me. “The athletes themselves will help you generate those crises, conflicts, interesting stories, etc. ... And then you've got this clumsy, wobbly behemoth, the IOC, that jets in, parachutes in for the Olympics, lives the high life ... and then goes onto the next venue.”
Boykoff is a critic of the IOC. He points out that even without great-power rivalry, the games generate drama: the threat of crime in Rio; fears of terrorism in Sochi and London; and, of course, the very presence North Korea at the South Korean games. “Because the world is such a massive geopolitical tinderbox, no matter where the Olympics travel, there are going to be crises," he said.
But such crises come and go with each Olympics—there’s no larger story arc unifying several games over several decades. The only thing that comes close to providing one year after year is the prohibitive cost of hosting the games. Ultimately the greatest threat faced by the games is not a lack of interest or financial mismanagement or even geopolitics. As Redihan put it: “The games themselves are growing to new heights and have become an all-out spectacle, to the point that some cities just can’t afford to host them anymore.”
The 2022 winter games, for example, were awarded to Beijing after all other potential host cities save Almaty, Kazakhstan, dropped out. As Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said toward the end of Oslo’s bid for those games—with its estimated budget of $5.4 billion—“The Olympics would have been great, they would have been fun, but there are lots of other important matters we have to deal with.” The growing difficulty of getting popular support to pay such sums prompted The Atlantic’s Adam Chandler among others to wonder whether democracies would stop bidding to host the Olympics altogether.
“That’s where you kind of have to see beyond the shiny, glitzy spectacle side of it, and see that fewer and fewer cities are keen to host,” Boykoff said. “And that's going to be the real punch to the gut of the Olympic movement.”