Every four years the Summer Olympics and a U.S. presidential campaign coincide, providing stirring examples of grace under pressure, good sportsmanship, fierce yet respectful competition, and achievements worthy of being celebrated for years to come.
At least at the Olympics. (Overgrown adolescent Ryan Lochte and sore loser Hope Solo notwithstanding.)
Substituting the gold, silver and bronze of Olympic medals for the blue, purple and red states on an electoral map provided a welcome chromatic respite.
Even if your favorite Olympian lost or failed to finish in Rio, you could relish the effort and personal drama, shown by NBC on more platforms than the Brazilians provided above the diving pool.
Other than the Egyptian judo wrestler who refused to acknowledge the Israeli who bested him, or Solo’s calling the Swedes who defeated the U.S. women’s soccer team “cowards,” Olympic competition was notably respectful and refreshingly free of nationalist antagonism. “The important thing at the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part, for the essential thing in life is not to conquer, but to struggle well,” said Baron Pierre de Coubertin, credited as the father of the modern Olympics.
The Frenchman believed athletic competition would spawn mutual understanding and peace. World’s fairs and expositions, once staple entertainments, are apparently obsolete, leaving the contemporary Games, Winter and Summer, as a rare occasion for representatives from a wide range of nations to gather for a purpose other than debate or war. Unfortunately, since the Games were renewed in 1896, emulating the ancient Greeks, there have been, oh, a few stumbles along the way to fulfilling de Coubertin’s vision, most notably two world wars, two boycotts, the terrorist murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, and systematic doping programs orchestrated by East Germany and Russia.
Meanwhile the quadrennial coincidence of presidential politics and Summer Olympics is curious, but appears to have no predictive value for the U.S. election looming on the horizon.
Since World War II, Americans have participated in 17 Summer Games, missing only the 1980 version in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This year’s 121 medals were the second-highest total in the post-war years, trailing only the 174 of 1984, 83 of them gold, when the Soviet Union and 17 other nations staged a retaliatory boycott of the Games at Los Angeles.
The ’84 election saw a Republican, Ronald Reagan, re-elected president.
The next-best collection of American gold medals was 46 in 2012, when a Democrat, Barack Obama, was re-elected president.
In the 16 non-boycott years starting in 1948, eight Democrats and eight Republicans were elected president. The highest percentage of total U.S. medals that were gold came in 1952 (51.4 percent, Republican Dwight Eisenhower) and 1960 (47.9 percent, Democrat John Kennedy.) The lowest U.S. gold percentages came in 2008 (32.7, Obama) and 1992 (34.3, Democrat Bill Clinton). Advantage, Republicans? Maybe not: three of the five lowest outputs of American Olympic gold came under Republicans. This year’s 46 golds represented 38 percent of the American medal haul, sixth-lowest in the postwar era.
Sure, Americans won more medals overall than anyone else at the Rio Games, with China a distant second. That’s the 10th time in the 17 post-World War II Olympiads the U.S. led. But, if we’re being perfectly honest, statistics say that was a less transcendent achievement than it appeared.
We may not think of the United States as a demographic colossus, but we are. With more than 320 million residents we’re the world’s third-most populous country behind only China and India. That doesn’t explain our impressive Olympic success – athletes from India, in stark contrast, won two medals at Rio — but sheer numbers did markedly boost our chances.
Based on medals per capita, we ranked 43rd among the participating nations at the 2016 Summer Games with one per 2.66 million Americans. Tops among the countries that reached double digits in medals was Jamaica, with a medal for every 248,000 people. The Caribbean island nation’s fortunes were buoyed by nonpareil sprinter Usain Bolt. The nine-time gold medalist earned three in each of the last three Olympics.
Under the Olympic model promulgated by de Coubertin, echoed a decade later by the founders of the NCAA, sports were to remain amateur affairs. That didn’t stop totalitarian nations starting with Hitler’s Nazi Germany in 1936 from enrolling athletes in their military, where they could be paid, trained and maintained as professionals. Later, under-the-table payments became an open secret in track and field. These days monetary rewards are an accepted part of the equation. According to Forbes magazine, Bolt, 30, earns $2.5 million annually.
Jamaica also paid a bonus per medal, slightly boosting Bolt’s estimated $32.5 million net worth, most of it endorsement-based. Russia gave its medalists new BMWs and other luxurious goodies. NBC and its Comcast cohorts preserved the gaudy luster of their coverage by making little mention of the pecuniary aspect of the Games. In fact, American athletes earned bonuses too -- $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze.
The NCAA, notoriously stuck in the old amateur paradigm, does allow athletes to retain both their eligibility and the U.S. Olympic Committee’s largess.
Then it absurdly turns around and forbids college athletes, enrolled or potential, from collecting endorsement money arising from those same Olympian feats. A week has passed since the closing ceremony in Rio and already the Games seem a fond, fading memory. If athletes don’t act quickly, those seeking financial security may never get another chance to cash in on their moments of glory.
The Olympic spotlight fell heavily on sports relegated to relative obscurity back in the U.S., where other than men’s basketball they were long regarded as “non-revenue” in college circles. The characterization inevitably minimized their stature compared to basketball and American football, the so-called “revenue sports.” Of course actually producing revenue is not the same as generating a positive revenue flow; most major-college football programs lose money.
Over the years non-revenue sports — which proliferated in the wake of the 1972 enactment of Title IX, assuring equal opportunity for women — progressed to “Olympic” status in NCAA usage. Now the pending ACC Network may offer a path to heightened interest in those lower-profile sports.
Assuming national championship aspirations are not compromised, it’s reasonable to think ESPN could manipulate Olympic sport schedules to suit its needs, just as it’s done with ACC football and basketball. The ACC tried clustering non-televised sports in 2001 with “SpringFest,” a four-day event that sounded more like a beer festival than an athletic competition and brought golf, lacrosse, tennis and outdoor track and field to Orlando’s Disney World. Athletes were entertained, but “attention, certainly media attention, was down at that location,” says Kris Pierce, the ACC’s Senior Associate Commissioner for Championships and Senior Woman Administrator.
Multiple championships already are contested within several-week spans in autumn and spring, but at sites dispersed throughout the league. Perhaps a prod from the ACC Network could lead skeptical conference leaders to try a collegiate version of the Summer Games, offering a smorgasbord of otherwise overlooked events under a unified banner.
Match various school “nations” against each other and keep tabs. Award participants tangible, visible measures of success. Hold the contests within close proximity – the Triangle would do nicely with its wealth of top-level facilities.
Then the excitement sparked by the ACC’s Olympic athletes won’t even need the contrast with presidential politics to be appreciated.