Leading Article: An Olympic challenge

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The Independent Online
THE OLYMPICS are too big. Everyone involved agrees on that. And they may get bigger still: if present trends continue, we could reach a stage where a quarter of the world's population would compete in the Olympics, a third of the world would watch them and everyone else would work for the television networks that run the show. Among the events of these Games would be baseball, tennis, gridiron football and cheerleading.

Baseball and tennis are Olympic sports already. The fear that the Games must lose their soul as the price of being broadcast to the whole world is not groundless. Indeed, the dependence of the Games on the television networks which fund them is so obvious that a cynic might ask why we should be frightened. If the Olympics are truly global events, then it is surely right that they should contain the sports the world loves most. And no more accurate judge of mass popular taste has yet been invented than American television. Its only purpose is to give large audiences what they want, and the larger the


The real trouble with this line of argument comes when you consider which sports the mass audience does not want. Television has an interest in adding sports that entertain huge audiences, and just as much of an interest in removing sports that do not. Proposals floated last week by a Canadian member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would start to slim down the Olympics by getting rid of four sports of limited televisual appeal: fencing, equestrianism, Graeco-Roman wrestling and the men's pentathlon. It is, no doubt, purely coincidental that fencing and equestrianism are represented on the IOC by English women, one of whom is being run as a possible successor to the present president. More to the point is the fact that few people know whether the modern pentathlon is a particularly vicious episode of Graeco-Roman wrestling or vice versa.

All the sports at risk are among the original Olympic events, and all were once thought fit for officers and gentlemen. But they should not be retained for sentimental reasons. The argument for their preservation is a much stronger one, and can be generalised into a test to discover which events should be in the Olympics at all. This is that an Olympic gold medal is the highest honour which can be gained in that sport. If there is an excellence to be attained in these disciplines, Barcelona this month is where it will be found. The relative unpopularity of the threatened sports ensures that in them an Olympic medal is pursued for love of glory, not money.

Yet, if this test of excellence is applied to some of the newer, and more televisual, sports, their absurdity becomes obvious: no one dreams of crowning their tennis career with an Olympic gold medal. There must be some mechanism for dropping sports from the Games, and gaining new ones. But the test must be whether the viewers are seeing the very best in the world doing their best. If rigorously applied, it will shrink the Games back to their proper proportions.