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.”