Ten reasons why the Olympics suck

1. The 1936 Berlin Olympics, in which American participation was ensured by the racist, sexist, antisemitic, Nazi-sympathizing future decades-long IOC president Avery Brundage (also, the IOC’s subsequent failure to accept responsibility for its role in legimitizing Hitler).

2. The 1972 Munich Olympics (and the IOC’s subsequent refusal even to memorialize the victims, apparently for fear of antagonizing those Olympic countries that still celebrate the murder of the 11 Israeli athletes).

3. Even after you leave out 1936 and 1972, the repeated granting of unearned legitimacy to the world’s murderous dictatorships—as well as “glory” to those countries most able to coerce their children into lives of athletic near-slavery (or, in the case of more “civilized” countries, outspend their rivals).

4. The sanctimonious fiction that, after all this, we need the Olympics because of their contributions to world peace and brotherhood (a claim about which we now arguably have a century of empirical data).

5. The double-standard that holds “winning a medal is everything” to be a perfectly-reasonable life philosophy for a gymnast, yet would denounce the same attitude if expressed by a scientist or mathematician.

6. The increasingly-convoluted nature of what it is that the athletes are supposed to be optimizing (“run the fastest, but having taken at most these performance-enhancing substances and not those, unless of course you’re a woman with unusually-high testosterone, in which case you must artificially decrease your testosterone before competing in order to even things out”)

7. The IOC’s notorious corruption, and the fact that hosting the Olympics is nevertheless considered such a wonderful honor and goal for any aspiring city.

8. The IOC’s farcical attempts to control others’ use of five interlocked rings and of the word “Olympics.”

9. The fact that swimmers have to use a particular stroke, rather than whichever stroke will propel them through the water the fastest (alright, while the “freestyle” rules still seem weird to me, I’m taking this one out given the amount of flak it’s gotten)

10. The fact that someone like me, who knows all the above, and who has less interest in sports than almost anyone on earth, is still able to watch an Olympic event and care about its outcome.

45 Responses to “Ten reasons why the Olympics suck”

  1. Mike Says:

    I agree with number 10. 😉

  2. ac Says:

    re #9: uh, isn’t that what “freestyle” is for? That you can swim any stroke you want? If you want to show how fast you are at a specific stroke, you do that subcategory (ie, breast, back, etc).

    I think in the medley you have to do a crawl stroke for that part of it.

  3. Justin L. Says:

    Wikipedia says you can use any stroke you’d like in freestyle. If that’s true, it doesn’t seem so unreasonable to me that they also have events with regulated strokes.


  4. Will Says:

    Swimmers can choose any stroke for freestyle. They choose the front crawl.

  5. Boris Says:

    9. FYI, the swimming event called “freestyle” allows the swimmer to use any stroke. At the Olympics, the freestyle is contested at many different distances and is part of two relay events. The other strokes are only contested at 100m and 200m, except for their roles in the individual and relay medley events.

    (To be completely pedantic, the rules do not allow the swimmer to be underwater, so you can think of “freestyle swimming” as “any surface-breaking swimming”.)

  6. Andrew Says:

    #5, this has to be the first time anyone has ever thought the fields of athletics and mathematics were in any way comparable.
    #9, I suppose you’ve heard of “freestyle”?

  7. Henry Says:

    Random factoid:

    So apparently Alan Turing himself was nearly in the Olympics: he posted a world-class (even by today’s standards) 2 hours 46 minutes Marathon time when trying out for the British Olympic Marathon team in 1948.

    Source: http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2012/06/scientists-alan-turing.html

  8. Scott Says:

    Everyone: Yes, I’ve heard of freestyle, but it was explained to me that because of various regulations it wasn’t actually “free.” E.g., the swimmers go underwater at the very beginning, looking like fish, then emerge and start doing crawl stroke. So I asked: if they’re doing that fish-simulation thing because it’s faster, then why don’t they do it for longer? And I was told it was against the rules—that there’s an upper bound on how long they’re allowed to be fish—which seemed bizarre to me. Maybe someone can clarify.

  9. Garl Eskimo Says:

    Nice post! Agree with everything.

  10. Xah Lee Says:

    Olympics isn’t that perfect, but better than say Nobel Prize. Your post seems bigotted.

    1. about 1936 berlin olympics. What you said is after-the-fact. Today, we could say the same about George Bush and USA.

    3. «granting of unearned legitimacy to the world’s murderous dictatorships» what country you refer to? China? Unless you are being specific, this point is hard to defend.

    4. «The sanctimonious fiction that, after all this, we need the Olympics…» this can be said just about any event. Nothing is perfect. Olympics is just a sports event, that happened to be famous, and carries some peace connotations, due to history.

    5. «The double-standard that holds “winning a medal is everything” …» again, this is nitpicking. In every other sports, winning is everything too, practically speaking. This is so in sciences too. Nobody really treats Olympics as some glorified ethics.

    7. «The IOC’s notorious corruption, …» Corruption happens in lots other sport organizations. No point here unless you wanted to say that Olympics has corruption far more than any other.

    8. «The IOC’s farcical attempts to control others’ use of five interlocked rings…» that’s the situation of modern society. This can be said on any corporation, and NBA, NFL, MLB, etc. What can you do?

    9. «9. The fact that swimmers have to use a particular stroke, …» Specifying a swimming style makes it more interesting as a sport. Else, it all reduces to front-crawl. Just as required moves in figure skating, diving, gymnastics, etc. In freestyle, swimmer are forbidden doing dolphin kicks all the way because afaik it happened in the past one guy done that and won. In finswimming competition, there’s a event of called apnea (holding breath all the way).

    10. «The fact that someone like me, who knows all the above, …» not sure what’s your point except making this post half-joked.

  11. Mark Says:

    The apparent irony of #10 disappears if you think of the IOC separately from the athletes and competition.

  12. Douglas Knight Says:

    Numbers 5, 6, and 9 are not specific to the olympics, but pretty much universal across sporting events. I think it’s important to separate them from the others.

    8. It seems strange to use the phrase “farcical attempts” when the attempts in your source are largely successful. What bothers me the most is that UK agreed to make olympic trademarks a criminal matter.

    9. The seemingly-arbitrary butterfly stroke evolved to optimize within the arbitrary breaststroke rules, but it is optimal in some real situations, like waves. Lifeguards use it because they need to.

  13. Devin Smith Says:

    WRT Underwater swimming:

    The rules-as-written require you to be above water no more than some distance from the wall to prevent you from staying underwater continuously. This has the upside of making you go faster, and the downside of making you not breathe. It turns out that in the interests of going faster people are willing to not breathe, and are both 1. quite bad at judging if they’re overdoing it, and 2. the optimum for short-term benefit (i.e. winning a particular race) is enough to do long-term harm upon enough repetitions. WRT 1., it turns out that having not very much oxygen in your bloodstream makes you kind of stupid.

  14. PhillipH Says:

    I was about to chide you for being so churlish until I read point 10.

    Well done! You had me there!

  15. Grad Student Says:

    Your “double standard” comparison between academia and olympic athletics is pretty bogus… with the exception of gymnastics all the sports have an objective criteria for determining the winner (track time, first to the finish line, mass hoisted above one’s head, etc) and even in gymnastics the athletes don’t get to judge each other — especially not as “anonymous referees”.

    Most olympic medals signify achievement of some objectively measurable goal. That’s an important component of most “reasonable life philosophies”. Popularity contests, not so much…

  16. Per Says:

    W.r.t to point 1: I found this interesting link the other day


    Thanks, Per

  17. Garl Eskimo Says:

    Xah Lee,
    yeah, yeah, “bigotted”. Trolls, G.W. Bush, Goodwin, etc. Let’s start the drill.

  18. AfterMath Says:

    Interesting, but this seems to be a gripe more at sports in general than at the actual Olympic games. I mean the comment “winning a medal is everything” can be replaced by Lombardi’s “Winning isn’t everything, its the only thing”. The statement about performance enhancing subjects holds true too. We just finished (or maybe finished stage 1 of) the steroid era of baseball where people are saying that the record books need a star by them because of the new (and better) performance enhancements that were taken (illegally) compared to what was available back then.

    The idea that the Olympics doesn’t contribute to the concept of world peace though is interesting, to say the least. Think about that 1936 games you mention. Hitler was trying to show off his master race theory and Jesse Owens comes in and wins four gold medals. That put a critical flaw in Hitler’s theory, absent of the later war.

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  20. Scott Says:

    Grad Student #15:

      Most olympic medals signify achievement of some objectively measurable goal. That’s an important component of most “reasonable life philosophies”. Popularity contests, not so much…

    I’ll leave aside your implication that math and science are “popularity contests”; that’s a discussion for another day! Instead, let’s consider ‘objective’ contests of mathematical skill. Suppose that a teenager matter-of-factly explained to an interviewer that, yes, of course his sole aim in life since the age of 3 has been to win a gold medal in the IMO, that nothing else ever mattered to him—what else possibly could matter? To whatever extent people paid attention at all, I expect there would be howls about how narrow-minded the kid was, and serious questions asked about the priorities of his parents and teachers. People wouldn’t be going on about how his pure devotion to the “IMO ideal” sets an example for everyone else.

  21. Scott Says:

    AfterMath #18: Yes, the gripe is more general. Sports are wonderful as recreation, but whenever I see “sportsmanship” held up as a noble philosophical ideal to which the world should bow in respect, something inside me recoils. I’m sure there are “philosophers of sportsmanship” who are also exemplary human beings, but I can’t help thinking about men like Joe Paterno, the above-mentioned Avery Brundage, or various sadistic high-school gym teachers of my acquaintance.

  22. gowers Says:

    I was going to say words to the effect of “Lighten up, Scott,” until I read 10. After all the blog posts I’ve read of yours, I should have known better. Re 9, does what you say apply even to “freestyle”? My gripes of that kind are that high jumpers aren’t allowed to take off from their hands (I have read a suggestion that a sufficiently skilful gymnast could clear a higher bar that way but that it would be against the rules) and that walkers, despite the rules saying that they have to have at least one foot in contact with the ground at all times, routinely get away with not doing so.

  23. Henning Dekant Says:

    #10 gets me every time, too.

    When it comes to peace and all that jazz, at least there was the Saudi Judo girl this time around. Now, if only that’ll inspire all women in Saudi Arabia to take up martial art so that they can kick the s*** out of the masochistic bastards that don’t even allow them to drive a car.

    As to #5 I think single minded determination (if put towards a constructive end) always deserves respect. I certainly much prefer it if science is pursued. Unfortunately it usually makes for far less compelling TV.

  24. Gunnar Says:

    Re #5: Isn’t a big difference that doing well in the Olympics has high status but doing well in the IMO hasn’t?

    I competed in the IMO, and it was great fun, but I don’t think that it’s a good spectator sport.

  25. Igor Says:

    I agree with the swimming stroke comment. Why not add to the strokes: how fast can you swim with one hand tied behind your back? Breaststroke is not meant to be a fast stroke, using it to go fast looks totally retarded. Butterfly is incredibly inefficient, and I cannot imagine someone using for any purpose outside competition.

    As for the other comments: the whole idea of organizing the participation BY COUNTRY is antithetical to the whole brotherhood of man idea.

  26. Igor Says:

    @Henry: in what universe is 2:46 a world class marathon?

  27. Michael Kovarik Says:

    Sounds like someone is having unhappy memories of their high school gym classes.

  28. Henry Says:

    Igor: as someone who is on the couch far more often than he is out running, I consider anything under 3 hours exceptional.

    But anyways, in the 1930’s the record marathon times were in the 2:25 range. So Mr. Turing wasn’t too far off :).

  29. Igor Says:

    @Gunnar: People pay money to attend chess tournaments, why not the IMO?

  30. Igor Says:

    @AfterMath: The Jesse Owens argument is totally bogus. Notice that in recent decades, if you were to say that black people had superior fast-twitch muscle performance (which should be obvious to anyone who watched the 100 meter races in the Olympics), you would be labeled a white supremacist. Hitler just did not think of this rejoinder to Jesse Owens at the time, and was probably kicking himself later (or maybe he did, and it just got lost in the many rewritings of history in the last seventy five years).

  31. Anon Says:

    Very disappointed to see this post. A lot of people think very positively of the Olympics. Certainly there are things to improve in them, but to say “the Olympics suck” misses the whole point that they are specifically there to turn the world’s focus away from all the politics (rather you end up refocusing the topic on politics in points 1-3).

    Particularly for point 3, I hope you don’t imply that countries/athletes should be denied from participating based on their political stance/training habits. No one has the authority to decide who’s worthy and who’s not, that’s what qualifiers are their for. Plus, it misses the whole point of having people from different political backgrounds/cultures connect. I am really shocked that you raised such a point…

    There are ways to address problems with the IOC, claiming that world stage for all athletes to perform and compete at their best sucks, for reasons that don’t even seem very serious or thought-through, is not one of them.

  32. seandbarrett Says:

    A couple of data points:

    With regard to (8), the number of prosecutions brought by LOCOG for trademark violations, whether that be by guerrilla marketing from global corporations, or by enthusiastic fans knitting replica Olympic rings, remains at zero.

    On point (10): there are ~ 9 million of us here in London having an absolutely incredible two-week long party. (It probably helps that we’re winning things).

  33. Richard Says:

    I enjoyed reading the post. Events like the Olympics make me think about the broader questions about the value of competitive sports, and if there is one.

    There’s a fundamental difference in value to humanity between a great accomplishment in science or art than in, say, setting a new record for the 100m dash. In the later case, just watching a video of a slightly slower runner played at faster speed accomplishes essentially the same experience for the observers. But there is no comparable “reduction” between the less-than-great and the great for scientific papers or novels.

    The value of sports seem to me to be rooted in healthy lifestyles (for example, a fun framework for getting exercise). The great athletes help support the culture of sports, that most people benefit from. But there’s an irony in that, in many cases, the great athletes practice sports in a manner that’s not such a healthy lifestyle (as Scott’s point 3 mentions). And lots of resources get wasted, in terms of doctors and scientists, figuring out how to make people perform better at specific sports — is it a wise use of a country’s funds, even if it pays off in terms of medal counts?

    An argument for the nationalistic side of events like the Olympics might be that they serve as fairly harmless (usually) outlets for our inate nationalistic tendencies. Or perhaps they fuel them?

  34. Scott Says:

    Anon #31:

      to say “the Olympics suck” misses the whole point that they are specifically there to turn the world’s focus away from all the politics (rather you end up refocusing the topic on politics in points 1-3).

    Aha, but my point was that the entire notion that one can hold a major world event like the Olympics and separate it from politics is a pure fantasy. When you have 100+ countries’ national prestige on the line, you’ll inevitably face situations where any choice you make has political implications.

    To give an example, Avery Brundage justified American participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympics—and even excluding Jewish athletes to pacify the Nazis—on the grounds that he didn’t want the Olympics’ purity to get sullied by “political” controversies. Set aside the morality of Brundage’s decision: would you say that it succeeded even at its stated purpose? Would you say that there’s any decision Brundage could have made that wouldn’t have had political implications?

  35. Ajit R. Jadhav Says:

    @Scott #20:

    You raise a very good (i.e. a bit hard to answer) question concerning identifying differences in keeping as a goal winning a medal at the IMO vs. that at the Olympics.

    Answering it right will require writing an article by itself. Here, I will just try to show the lay of the land.

    Recall a few philosophic principles/observations: Primacy of existence. Reality is hard to conquer. (Also, man’s nature involves conquering nature, not adjusting to it.) Reality (e.g. life) is too complex. The mind is man’s tool of survival. Consciousness is finite. Qua organ, it can get tired, and needs rest and time to recover. Mathematics is a science of creating mental objects corresponding to the quantitative attributes/properties of objects—not of the real objects themselves. It’s a science whose contents are all abstract; not a single mathematical object exists as a concrete in the world “out there.” Mathematics is just one small part of the entire knowledge. A broad knowledge-base is a pre-requisite for survival qua man, simply because life is that complex.


    If a budding sportsman engages in training for sports, both his mind and body are involved in that activity. However, obviously, the higher or conceptual aspects of the mind aren’t as involved in it as are the lower, automation-related mental aspects, and, of course, the body. So, after a long practice session, a sportsman’s body is tired, but not his mind. The body might allow 6–8 hours of sports practice. That still leaves 8–10 hours of “normal” life and the learning of life-skills, for which his conceptual mind is ready because it’s not tired. Notice, with just 8–10 hours available for all the other conceptual learning (informal as well as formal), he may not turn out to be a conceptual genius. However, his life-skills can still be expected to be at least at a satisfactory level.


    If a budding mathematician were to keep himself engaged doing only mathematics, from age 3 to say 20: His conceptual mind will tire (it’s finite) after 8–10 hours of practice. Hence, its capacities won’t be available to learn crucial aspects of other knowledge/skills in general (e.g., reading, writing, literature, grammar, arts, performing arts, and, of course, sports! And, learning to handle himself, his emotions, etc.). So the development of his mind will be far too lop-sided. It will lack in the crucial life-mastering skills (re. mind as tool of survival). He would turn out to be a real freak.

    Substitute physics in place of mathematics. Since, physics is concerned with the acctual objects of the concrete reality out there, the case is slightly better. Though, not much. You still are tiring the mind—not the body—to such an extent that it’s not available to master the real life-mastering lessons and skills.

    Is something worse than being a mathematics freak possible?

    Yes, there is: Being a chess freak.

    Wanting to be the world #1 in chess, from the age 3 onwards, practising nothing but chess all the time. Why is this worse? Simple. Mathematics is abstract but it does at least have some connection to reality, even if only indirectly and only at an implicit level. A kid first draws triangles in sand/on slate/paper—you can’t escape the real connection they and their properties have to those of real pieces of paper, real tracts of land. Similarly, for learning negative numbers: x + 3 = 2. But not even such indirect connections exists in the case of chess. Arguably, the wannabe chess world #1 kid will turn out to be even a worse freak, even if chess is usually classified as a sport. BTW, here, also read Ayn Rand’s article on the occasion of that chess match between a Russian and an American.

    Be a sport—scratch, scratch, scratch. Be a mathematic, Scott. Admit that there are real differences between doing sports “all the time” and doing mathematics “all the time.” (BTW, how did it sound—“Be a mathematic” [sic]?)


  36. Scott Says:

    Ajit #35: Now you’re making a falsifiable empirical claim—that sports freaks are likely to have “energy left over for other pursuits” in a way that math freaks and chess freaks aren’t. So is the claim, y’know, true? I don’t know! Bobby Fischer was unhinged, but Garry Kasparov seems pretty balanced. Even Erdös was by all accounts warm and personable, despite spending nearly every waking hour doing math.

    But the bigger point here is that whether someone is considered “balanced” or not is a function not only of themselves, but of the surrounding culture and its attitudes. For example, suppose Bob spends 14 hours per day training at sports, while Tom spends 14 hours per day doing math. Then in the remaining 10 hours, Bob might have access to wild binge-drinking parties, swooning groupies, and other social opportunities to which Tom doesn’t—and you might mistakenly conclude that the sports must have left Bob more “balanced,” “well-rounded,” and so on than the theorem-proving left Tom. But no, all you’re seeing is a difference in opportunities.

  37. Ajit R. Jadhav Says:

    @Scott #36:

    No Scott, I did not make any claim about sports freaks—or about “energy left over for other pursuits.” I said what I did.

    … On the second read of my own reply, it does seem pretty tightly written. So tightly, that I can’t seem to rewrite its parts without losing as much conciseness as I did manage there, in the first place. So, I will let it stand as is, even though my sincere desire right now is to recast it in some other words more considerate to how you have tried (or managed) to put it.

    Anyway, if you have to simplify and reduce a lot of what I said, you should at least have said something like: mental activity vs. physical activity. That would have done far more honor to what I said.

    That difference is crucial. The first leaves the mind too tired to learn all of the other life-mastering skills. The second does not.

    Now, about the so-called claims.

    Given the fact of human free will, any claims involving that particular difference, can only be statistical in nature.

    For an average 3 year old kid, while growing up all through his intermediate years to his teens/early twenties, if he were to spend a disproportionately great amount of time during all those years on only one kind of an abstract kind of mental work (whether maths, chess, or even “learning” to recite Sanskrit/Hebrew/Quranic texts sheer by rote without much regard to its meaning—the way such texts are usually taught), I would sure claim that his personality development can be expected to be lopsided enough to be of some concern to educationists. Most especially so, if the subjects are abstract and narrow of scope when it comes their fundamentals (like chess and maths are, in that order, but not so much when it comes to physics or other subjects).

    In contrast, I do claim, even if a disproportionately great time were to be spent on physical activity, you might expect some dip in the overall development, though it wouldn’t be as lop-sided.

    Both the cases are to be taken in the statistically average sense.

    You can’t deny free will—and the possibility of an exceptional individual breaking the mold, whether that mold happens to be self-imposed or otherwise, and whether the breaking through is in the -ve sense of a binge-drinking partying Bob you mention, or in the +ve sense of some mathematical genius who grows up mastering enough of life-mastering skills required of man qua man, despite his being obsessed about winning a gold medal at IMO from age 3.

    Nevertheless, note that to affirm free will and individual choice is not to deny the existence or the causal efficacy of those constraining circumstances. Their operation _should_ indeed come out in any well-designed large-scale statistical study.

    One final point. An apparent counter-example that isn’t one, in reality. Many smart people are easily able to gun for IMOs and even get those medals, while still not being obsessed enough to spend 6–8 hours only on maths from age 3 through 20, every day. Even if they do, they may have greater enough total mental energy capacities so that they can master at least bare necessities of leading successful lives even after according only a little time to these other skills. In contrast, the point I mentioned is better understood by assuming that you don’t have any greater total mental energy, and still divert too much of it to maths or chess. Thus, the maths freak example is different from the naturally “gifted” and mathematically inclined ones. So, nope, Dirac wouldn’t fit the maths freak archetype, despite all the stories circulating about him. But, yes, statistical studies should bring the effect out.


  38. John Baker Says:

    I was just browsing the British press. They’re estimating the cost of the Olympic boondoggle to top out around 15 billion dollars. That’s enough to launch 5 Curiosity Mars rover missions. I don’t want to hear another damn word about wasting money in space from grubby proles that prefer to blow it on finding who can best turn back flips on a wooden beam and successfully dodge drug tests later.

  39. MattF Says:

    On the other hand, beach volleyball. And dancing horses. And the Queen parachuting into the opening ceremony, although not actually. I’m not trying to excuse or deny reasons #1 through #9, just that it’s easy to come up with positive items.

  40. the reader from Istanbul Says:

    My favorite reason for why the Olympics suck is that not one athlete from North Cyprus has been allowed to compete since 1974. Silly.

  41. Richard Elwes Says:

    On #5 – the comparison with scientists/mathematicians/IMOists is of fairly parochial interest I’d say.

    I was watching a slot where specatators were interviewed coming out of the ground, and was struck by what one woman said: she was delighted that she’d taken her two children along, as now their role-models and heroes would be Olympic athletes and cyclists rather than Big Brother contestants. (Big Brother is an awful British reality TV show whose only function is to supply gossip magazines with a never ending supply of banal talentless “celebrities”.)

    Whilst the specifics of Olympic competition and medal-winning may not translate satisfactorily to other domains, there is an “Olympic ideal” which is of universal importance: working immensely hard over a long period of time to become extremely good at one specific thing. My sense here in the UK is that a large number of youngsters have received that message loud and clear over the last few weeks – and if so, it has done the country a true service.

  42. anonymous Says:

    I completely agree with #5. We revere athletes and view athletic training/endless practice as a form of great discipline and ability to overcome hardship, usually at the expense of other more “normal” life activities. A scientist/mathematician who does something similar, sacrificing “normal” life activities, is more likely to be considered a weird-o. So I know what you mean, even though this double-standard may be just the product of a majority enjoying sports more than science.

  43. bbear Says:

    Essentially the Olympics is a marketing device which attracts large audiences to sports that otherwise have only marginal appeal. After all, there are competitions in track and field, gymnastics, swimming, etc. every year, including national and international championships featuring the same atheletes one sees in the Olympics. And yet who watches? Compared with mass-appeal sports like football and baseball their audiences are miniscule. But attach some vague mystical connection with the ancient world, make it a ‘movement,’ and suddenly you can’t sell tickets fast enough…

    But though Scott is perfectly right about 1936, 1972, and the IOC, I do confess to having been drawn in this time around by the sweetness of the atheletes themselves…

  44. John Baker Says:

    A — freaking — men. The sooner we can shut this circus down and get our money back the better!

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