THE OLYMPIC GAMES are amazing, inspiring and spiritually transformative. They’re also, if I may be so bold as to say it, a gigantic bloody mess. Since Peter Ueberroth “re-modernized” the modern games in 1984, the Olympics have grown in size, scope and spectacle each time they’ve been held, leaving us, in 2012, with an event that is arguably more complicated, more expensive, and harder to manage than many of the wars that the games were meant to replace.
Few nations on earth have the resources to host the logistical behemoth the games have become, and the country that proudly boasts of originating the ancient Olympics will likely never have them again. Greece has gone from the cradle of civilization to the cradle of debt, and while the Olympics cannot truly be blamed for this, the 16 billion dollar cost of the 2004 games probably didn’t help matters.
Any day now, the IOC is going to knock on my door and ask me to personally take charge of reforming and saving the Olympic games. When they do, here’s what I’ll advise:
1. Keep the ceremonies short.
Done well, the opening ceremonies can be majestic, powerful works of performance art, mixing music, dance, theater and multimedia presentations to tells a moving story of the host nation’s history and culture. Seen from another angle, though, they are simply too long, too weird, and too expensive. Besides, China scored a perfect 10 with their over-the-top million-man extravaganza in 2008, and nobody will ever top that, especially since the total amount of money left in the world will soon be smaller than the budget for that production. So let’s back off a little, shall we?
In my Olympics, the opening ceremony would start with a ten-minute film showing the highlights of past games, a sort of “Previously on the Olympics” montage, in the spirit of cop shows on TV. Then, a speedy parade of nations with one flag-bearer and one sign holder, and the lighting of the cauldron. No speeches, no stalling, and then right into the first event. Maybe a hurdles race or something. Cut to the chase, give the people some competition, move forward. The whole thing, including the presentation of the first medal, should take a half hour, tops.
The closing ceremonies, which have become a sort of “Yay for us!” party and international disco night, should be made even more informal. I’d invite all the athletes into the stadium for the conclusion of the marathon, and the moment the winning Kenyan crosses the finish line, they’d all come together for a big hug, a glass of champagne, and a group photo. Bam. Take your gift bags and get out. See some of you in four years.
For the closing of the Winter Games, I’d just encourage a massive snowball fight.
2. Keep it sexy.
Athletic competition, at the Olympic level, is about the idealized human form. In layman’s terms, I’m talking about good-looking bodies. Weightlifting would be an obvious exception, of course, but, as a rule, I’d encourage competitors to bring their sexy to the games. First and foremost, this means that it’ll be back to mandatory bikinis for women’s beach volleyball. Long sleeves and pants make the sport dull, dull, dull… almost as dull as men’s beach volleyball. Ogling browned buttocks and flat feminine tummies is really the only reason people tune in to this sport, and I’m wagering that a significant dip in TV ratings between warm Beijing and cool London will prove this. Hey, the original games in ancient Greece featured oiled, nude athletes, so count yourselves lucky to have clothing at all. And get ready for Rio in four years, where I have to believe that local custom will necessitate thongs.
3. No doubling-up.
Olympic competition will always be slanted towards the big, wealthy nations. But it’s particularly unfair when we see so many “podium sweeps,” with all three medals in a sport going to one nation. It’s ridiculous to see the best swimmer in Latvia knocked out of the finals by the third best swimmer in Australia, or a skier from Turkey kept out of the medals by three skiers from Switzerland.
If the Olympics are ever going to be a truly global celebration, we must let the smaller countries get some attention. In my games, countries would be allowed to send just one athlete in each discipline or event; only their top qualifier in the sport could make the trip and compete. The overall medal counts of the powerhouse nations would immediately plummet, of course, but these countries have a lot of other things to feel great about, so it won’t really affect their sense of nationalism. Russia has those nesting dolls, for instance. And Germany has pretzels or whatever.
4. Communal equipment.
Whenever technology, rather than talent, gives an athlete the advantage, the games suffer. High-tech swimsuits, running shoes, speed skates and bobsled runners let athletes and teams from the richer nations shave precious seconds off their times, which makes science and money as important as athletic ability. In Cross Country skiing, for example, the dominant countries like Norway spend millions of dollars on specialized ski wax, sending teams of technicians to the course on race day to analyze the consistency of the snow and choose a ski coating accordingly. When the race inevitably comes down to a second or a centimeter, it is this money and technology that wins the gold.
I’d remedy this by issuing standard Olympic equipment to the athletes a day before their event. Does your track star run in custom-made golden Nike cleats with her name embroidered on the side? Tough. Now she wears Olympic brand running shoes, like it or not. Are you great at hitting the archery target with your perfectly balanced, hundred-thousand-dollar bow, festooned with all manner of fine-tuned counterweights and stabilizers? That’s nice, but here’s a wooden longbow we made, and don’t break it, because all the other archers have to use it after you. And how great would it be to see a downhill skier, being interviewed after a gold-medal run, proudly standing next to skis marked “Rental?” That’d put a grin on my face, guaranteed.
5. Tighten citizenship requirements.
When Greece won their bid to host 2004 Olympics, they quickly realized they had a major problem: not nearly enough world-class athletes to rack up a respectable home nation medal count. So they issued an invitation to anyone out there with a drop of Greek blood in his or her veins: “Come compete for your great-grandfather’s country, and make your dead ancestors proud.”
I don’t want to begrudge a small European nation’s efforts to feel good about itself in the face of its own competitive inadequacies, but one should have to be more than “vaguely Greek-ish” to have a place on that nation’s Olympic team. Otherwise, the games become no better than professional leagues like MLB or the NBA, where a bankable star can wear a New York jersey one day and a Chicago shirt the next, all the while claiming to “love the fans” in his adoptive city.
If the Olympics are to mean anything, they shouldn’t involve scouting for prospects abroad or luring athletes across borders. An athlete who fails to qualify for the US volleyball team shouldn’t be able to move to a hotel in Moldova a month before the games and then march into the Olympic stadium with her new pals from the Chișinău athletic club. In Bill’s Olympics, ten years would be the minimum residency to be considered a native of any land. Learn the language, develop a taste for the food, buy a goat farm in the hills outside the capital city, and then maybe we’ll let you wear the uniform.
6. Stop building single-serve venues.
The cost of hosting the Olympics has gotten truly ridiculous, and the need to build specialized venues for niche events is partly to blame. Enormous cycling velodromes and meticulously designed artificial kayaking rivers not only guarantee that the host country will spend itself bankrupt preparing for the games (London spent over a billion pounds on venues for 2012), but, let’s face it: they take all the fun out of sport by eliminating the potential for disaster. Cycling should be done on cobbled city streets and treacherous mountain roads, not on perfectly banked elevated tracks in temperature-controlled domes. White-water should come from a wild, natural, boulder-strewn river, not from a bunch of electric pumps swirling foam around plastic obstacles.
If an event can’t be held in a naturally occurring site, or in a general-use stadium, I’m cutting it. You want to cycle on a track? Use the one the runners use and don’t whine when you take a spill on a flat turn and eat dust. You think imperfect venues will steal your chance at glory? Remember this: Eric Heiden, who won more individual gold at a Games than any other man, did so by skating on an iced-over high-school running track, in the wind, with piles of shoveled snow to divide the skating lanes. I’d like to see Apolo Pretty-Boy Ohno try that.
7. Fewer medals.
A basic sport can be endlessly sub-divided by criteria like distance, height, singles, pairs, four-man, team, indoor, outdoor, and on and on and on. A sport that starts out pure and simple becomes laughably complicated by tweaks and changes that are, over time, considered separate events, worthy of their own medals. Diving splits into springboard and platform events, and then splits again into synchronized springboard and platform, etc.
For an extreme example, let’s look at swimming. Multiply four different strokes by five different distances, then throw in various team relays and individual medleys, and you’ve got, well… a watered down sport, for sure. Can a single swimming medal really be worth more than the metal it’s stamped from if there are hundreds given out?
To begin with, cut swimming down to just three distances: 400 meters, 1500 meters and the 10k marathon. This plan gives one gold to the best swimmer of sprint, middle, and long distances, and puts drama and excitement back into a sport where there are so many races that each win has become “ho-hum,” and a swimmer has to amass a Phelpsian collection of medals to warrant attention.
Next rule: freestyle only. And by freestyle, I mean: use any freaking stroke you want, just get to the finish first. Why should we care how a swimmer chooses to move her arms and legs, as long as it propels her through the water? Imagine if each track and field race was run three times, with runners required to run with a different gait each time. And then, just for giggles, they also have to run backwards? It’s a race, people. Speed should count… not the movement you use to generate that speed.
Oh, and you may ask, “Why no 100 meter distance?” Simple: when first and tenth place are separated by a hundredth of a second, you no longer have a race. You have a perpetual tie. As athletes get closer and closer to perfection, the short distances must be sacrificed.
Take this same plan of simplification, apply it to all events, and we’re getting somewhere.
8. Combine and Consolidate.
In keeping with the plan to lower the number of medals awarded, I’d eliminate individual apparatus competitions and focus on the overall. The decathlon, often called the contest to become “the world’s greatest athlete,” would be the model. First off, all ten individual events contained within the decathlon would be eliminated. No medals will be awarded for pursuits like shot put, javelin, discus, etc. Those are already in the combined event, and we will value general athletic prowess, not specialized and specific skills. Will it hurt to give up premiere events like the 100 meters, the high jump and the long jump? Hell yeah. But progress requires sacrifice.
The same goes for gymnastics. Awards for each apparatus will be nixed, and just four golds will be given out: Men’s team all-around and individual all-around, and women’s team and individual all-around. Nobody cares that you won a silver on the rings, dude. We want to know who’s the best of the best.
Skiing events will be likewise decimalized, combining all alpine, Nordic and freestyle events into a new Winter Decathlon consisting of a single gold given to the man and the woman who can master downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super g, ski jumping, cross-country, moguls, aerials, ski cross, and biathlon. I love this idea mainly because of the beauty of a decathlon that contains a biathlon.
9. No Subjective Scores.
If it has to be judged by a panel of experts, it isn’t a sport; it’s American Idol. Higher, faster, farther… these are what athletes should strive for, rather than “nice looking form on that twist.” Points should be awarded for getting the ball into the back of the net, or getting the arrow in the center of the target… not for style.
I’m not saying that uber-popular events like diving, gymnastics and figure skating should be done away with. I’m just saying that we need to find a way of determining the winners based on incontrovertible, objective criteria, like centimeters or seconds.
In skating, go back to the compulsory figures, or calculate the fastest death-spiral, or award the gold to whoever jumps the most barrels. In gymnastics, measure the distance of the vault, or the height of the high-bar release, or turn the floor routine into an obstacle course race. In diving, have the athletes plummet through smaller and smaller hoops until somebody touches the sides and gets disqualified. Just find some logical and measurable way to determine a clear winner.
It shouldn’t all come down to the fact that the Ukrainian judge is in a grumpy mood because her puppy got ran over, or that Randy Jackson “just isn’t feelin’ it, dawg.”
10. Open up the Marathon.
And finally, I’d take the most famous and iconic event of the Summer Olympics and give it to the people of the world. Anyone who can get to the starting line, anyone in the world, can run the Marathon. If you live down the street from the course, or if you can hop a bus to the host city, or if you can scrape up the money for a plane ticket, you can be in the Olympic Games.
Sure, ninety percent or more of the people who join in will never finish, and many will come just to run a few yards and then break into various parties of national-anthem singing, beer drinking, and general high-spirited merriment that would put even World Cup celebrations to shame. But imagine how awesome that would be? A 26-mile race… that’s actually the human race? Now that’s what I want to see the Olympics become.
And again, in the Winter Games, it would just be a huge snowball fight.