It’s Not About Sports

In The Art of Travel, 4. Politics, Paris by Andie1 Comment

The Olympics have been on for the past two weeks, not that anyone in Paris cares too much about curling. The hype around the Winter Games has never felt lower. The French cleaned up with fifteen medals overall, but compared to Norway’s thirty-nine the ennui becomes apparent. It fits the stereotype, that’s for sure. But that’s what the Olympics have always been about: flamboyant caricatures of national ethos. Think of the 1936 Berlin Olympics at the height of Nazi Germany, or the first ever televised games, hosted in Rome in 1960, or the games in Moscow in 1980, when President Carter pulled the American team out of the games and hosted “The Liberty Bell Classic,” whatever that is. The Olympics aren’t really about sports anymore, and they never really were.

Just look at the road Paris took to secure the 2024 Summer Olympic bid. They faced two previous failures, with their bids for the 2008 Games (that went to Beijing, China) and the 2012 Games (that were hosted in London, U.K.). Bygones are bygones, but The New York Times called their 2012 bid “too political.” It takes a lot of politics to get the International Olympic Committee on your side, especially with billions of dollars on the line, and they love bureaucracy in this town, but that’s not necessarily a global sentiment.

According to the Times, France’s former leadership focused too much on the bid and too little on all that it entails; you know, sport stuff. They did what any country would do and centered their pitch around the best asset they had to offer: the public imagination. The fantasy Paris has built up over time is unparalleled; the only obvious challengers are the American fascination with Tokyo and the Olympics themselves. Hosting the Olympics in Paris would give the country a chance to further cement this fantasy by showing off just how French the French are, with two weeks of non-stop television coverage and cinematic pan shots from the Seine to the Eiffel Tower.

But that vision didn’t make the cut, as the two failed bids show. While the rest of the world has mostly abandoned the notion that the Olympics are about feats of skill and athleticism, don’t let the IOC hear you say it out loud. The Olympic reputation is immutable and deeply in need of a 21st century update, which is what the current French administration offered to give them. President Macron and the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, centered their pitch around French athletes, environmental sustainability, and community development, especially in the economically overlooked banlieues where facilities would be constructed.

That was enough to win over the IOC, and Paris has claimed the right to host hundred of thousands of spectators and athletes on the centennial anniversary of the last Parisian Olympics back in 1924. This might be the last time we witness a spectacle so terrifyingly grand and earnestly cliché for the next hundred years, so book your tickets now.

(Image: Olympic Candidate City Logos; Source: Games Bids)


  1. Andie,

    Since I arrived in Florence my friends and I have been commenting on how difficult it is to see anything regarding the Olympics here. Not that I’ve ever been a die-hard fan, I’m used to seeing highlights on the news or footage in bars and restaurants. In Italy, I haven’t seen one mention of any Olympic event, victory, or highlight. So when you explain the games as a “flamboyant caricature of national ethos,” I couldn’t agree more. The Italians are so laid-back and carefree, they don’t seem to have much interest in diving into these games. I guess the games really aren’t about sports at all; I never thought of it that way. It’s great to hear how other countries get involved in the Olympics. Thanks for sharing!

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