Willem Buiter: Ditch the Olympics, Permanently

Well, Buiter did not go quite as far as I suggested in the headline. He recommended a 1500 year pause.

This post made me realize why I have a certain fondness for Buiter. It’s not that I agree with his argument (I hate to confess, I have come to be completely bored by the event, which may be symptomatic of what is wrong, so I can’t get particularly exercised), It’s that Buiter is a closet Victorian.

The post is full of moral outrage that most people deem to be, well, unseemly. Cynical is acceptable, as is sharp-tongued, But outrage has gone out of fashion, and with that, we have lost our ability to enforce values. And you can make a solid case that the erosion of values in Corporate America has a good deal to do with our economic mess today. I’m not so naive to believe that there wasn’t chicanery in the past, but the need to maintain appearances limited its scope. For instance, widespread accounting fraud by large, supposedly respectable corporations of the sort we saw in the US in 2002 had been simply unthinkable since the securities law reforms of 1933 and 1934. Before 2002, you only saw fraud on that scale in companies with very weak controls that had grown rapidly, or once in a great while, when a leader had a very bad case of the Icarus syndrome.

But Buiter has resorted to fulminating about values before, in a post attacking the abuse of the term “sanctity.” Buiter is so outre that he is an intellectual willing to wear his Church of England beliefs on his sleeve.

As with that post, many readers may take issue with Buiter’s logic. But I find it refreshing that he is willing to argue from values. It’s a perspective too often ignored by economists.

PS Via Charles Poliquin, who can claim to have coached more Olympic medalists than anyone (he learned German so he could read German medical research), I have heard how pervasive performance-enhancing drug use is in many sports. As Buiter suggests, it’s pervasive in track and field. Similarly, the Chinese are frighteningly systematic in scouting for gymnasts. They look for young girls with hairy arms (a sign of high testosterone) and high reflex speed (measured by how many times they can click a stopwatch in a minute). Ones with high potential are taken from their families (I understand it is not a good idea to refuse) and sent to what amounts to boot camp. Those and stories like that make sports seem a lot less sporting.

From Buiter:

There was about a 1500 year gap between the last of the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece, and the first of the Games in the new Olympic era. Let’s have another 1500 years without Olympics…

(1) Who wants to watch a contest between pharmacological labs?

I won’t be watching the Olympics this year. A sufficient reason for this decision is that the spectacle is just not interesting anymore, because most of the time I don’t know what I am watching. Is it a competition between athletes or some convolution of a competition between athletes and a contest between pharmaceutical labs trying to find the optimal combination of illegal performance enhancement and likelihood of detection?….

I would also be interested in watching on television an athletic competition where any and all forms of performance enhancement are allowed, as long as the information about who uses what is in the public domain: “In lane 4 we have Marion Jones, fresh out of jail after doing six months for lying to federal prosecutors about her steroid use and cheque fraud – a one-time poster child of American track and field, now exposed as a career-long performance-enhancing drugs cheat. Next to her in lane 5 is Ben Johnson, steroid-assisted former world record holder over 100 meters and Olympic 100 meter Gold Medal winner at the 1988 Olympics (both short-lived), ……. The full list of performance-enhancing drugs each of the competitors will be using can be found on our website: http://www.withalittlehelpfrommyfriends/olympics.org .”…..

The only competitive sport that appears to be clean is darts – a sport played by unfit fat slobs without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs other than beer and cigarettes, and both are out in the open.

(2) Today’s Olympics desecrate the Olympic ideals; it is an exercise in collective hypocracy

It is difficult to read the Olympic creed – “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”- and keep a straight face. The Olympic creed may ring true for Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards, the worst ski-jumper ever, and for the Eric “the Eel” Moussambani, the slowest swimmer ever. It is a lie for most of the prominent participants in most events. Winning, winning at all cost, winning ugly, winning dirty, winning winning winning is the only thing that matters. The hypocrisy of the Olympic creed is staggering. Why not be honest and replace it with “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”….

…. the Olympics have become hothouses of toe-curlingly embarrassing nationalism. The national medal counts, total, per capita, per square meter or what not are the exact antithesis of what the Games ought to be about. Abolishing national teams and scrapping the playing of national anthems would help. Admitting, say, just 200 club teams, each of which was located in an area containing roughtly 0.5 percent of the world’s population, and none of wich could discriminate as regards membership on the basis of nationality, would be a positive alternative. Playing the Archers’ theme instead of the various national anthems would save money and lower the jingoistic cholesterol count.

(3) The Olympics are at risk of being hijacked by totalitarian political regimes and turned into mass-political propaganda events. The 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin and the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen were used by the Nazis to showcase the strengh of their New Order, for the benefit of domestic and foreign observers. The Soviet Union used the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics to extol the virtues and merits of Soviet Communism. The 2008 Summer Olympics in China will be used by the Chinese authorities to showcase the arrival of China on the global scene as a financial, economic and political superpower. As indeed it is.

But I refuse to watch the organised spontaneous exhibition of self-realisation-in-the-harmony-of-pan-Chinese-unity that will be staged by the 55 happy ethnic minorities officially recognized by the Beijing authorities (including the happiest minorities of them all, the Tibetan, Uyghur and Mongol ethnic groups). No doubt the ethnic minorities will feature in the opening and closing ceremonies, all dressed in cute folkloristically correct outfits and signing the appropriate ethnic songs. They will be followed by the happy religious minorities (members of the underground Roman Catholic Church and of the many protestant ‘house churches’, Muslims associated with unregistered Muslim religious activity in Xinjiang province, Tibetan Buddhists, followers of Falun Gong and many others).


The Olympics are a hypocritical, dishonest, corrupt and wasteful event. One of the positive side effects of global warming could be that it kills off the Winter Olympics, because there won’t be winters any longer. To get rid of the summer Olympics, a concerted effort is required.

It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the Beijing Olympics will turn out to be such an athletic, human rights and political debacle, that the Olympic Movement will not recover.

The following calamities are quite likely, severally and jointly:

Athletes in endurance events dropping like flies because of intolerable atmospheric pollution.

Foreign and domestic demonstrators protesting human rights violations in China, China’s deplorable environmental record, its alledged complicity in the Darfur massacres and its general neo-colonialist policies in Africa and other vulnerable developing countries, or whatever else rings their bell disrupting the opening and closing ceremonies and possibly the sporting events as well.

The demonstrators getting arrested, manhandled and expelled (in the case of foreigners) or locked up for indefinite periods (in the case of Chinese residents).

Clashes between young Chinese whose nationalistic fervour cup floweth over and demonstrators against political, cultural and religious repression.

Journalists getting neither the access to people and sites nor the freedom to report that they expect and creating a massive fuss and stink.

I believe that the Chinese authorities have no idea as to what they are about to bring upon themselves with these Olympics and the inevitable temporary opening up of the country this implies. Recalcitrant domestic demonstrators can perhaps be given the Tiananmen Square treatment again. It would not be as costless to the authorities if they meted out similar treatment to foreign demonstrators. If they are genuinely interested in the survival of their regime, they would find some excuse for cancelling the Olympics as yet. A public health scare, say SARS or something like it, would do nicely. But this is, unfortunately, unlikely.

Here is an opportunity for Gordon Brown to regain the moral high ground. After the Beijing Olympics have degenerated into farce and mayhem, he should stand up and inform an attentive, respectful and soon-to-be-admiring public that the 2012 London Olympics are off. The infrastructure improvements for Greater London planned for the Games should, of course, be implemented regardless, as the ambition to move London from third class to second class infrastructure status ought to survive the cancellation of the Olympics.

The Olympics: just don’t do it.

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  1. Richard Kline

    Buiter heaps scorn and outrage upon the USSR for ’80 and China for ’08, but not on the US for ’84 or for Salt Lake City, grotesqueries of jinogism, commercialism, and graft? I’d say his outrage is ‘right’-handed rather than evenhanded . . . though not misplaced. The Olympics as they exist are an embarassment. I haven’t watched them for years personally. If their credibility is to be salvaged, to me two things which must change are: a) the concept of a ‘host country’ must be scrapped, and b) the Olympic Committee itself needs a thorough reform.

    The original concept of the Olympics was that, even between hostile countries neutral competitions would be conducted as a commitment to long-term solidarity and peace. The goal was worthy time was, and so remains. Competing as national teams is intrinsic to the concept, and indeed it is very rewarding for many athletes to compete _for their country_. To ban that is to kill the idea completely. But the host country status has been repeatedly exploited for national ‘brand’ promotion in ways completely antithetical to the notional spirit of the enterprise. To be outraged at China doing this WHEN EVERYBODY ELSE DOES EXACTLY THE SAME THING is total, odious hypocrisy, and the Chinese will not be wrong to believe themselves cheated and disrespected, regardless of what one thinks of any one policy of the Republic of China.

    The colossal expense of putting on an Olympics, as presently constituted, ‘implies’ that a host country should back it’s host city but this isn’t working. We need to return to the ancient concept of holding the games at neutral sacred sites, likely a half-dozen or so, in rotation. Competing countries should pay in fees to support the enterprise. Also the Olympics should take on sole media production rights, and use an event-specific pool system of interviewers, reporters, and commentators who focus _as little as possible_ on nationalities and medal counts. Home media secondary coverage can do whatever it wants, but the main feed should be managed by the Committee, with the monies going to meet event costs rather than big media profits. To accomplish this, the present structure of the Olympic Committee needs to be thoroughly revisited; we won’t get something perfect but we may get something more custodial of the spirit and less self-reverential [spelling and meaning implied as given].

    The larger issue of tainted competition is a major issue, too. Track and field, cycling, and swimming are so severely corrupted by performance enhancers that, quite frankly, I wish they were banned as international sports for a period of time. Personally, I refuse to watch them; they have less than zero credibility. I also find it difficult to watch baseball—a game I love—but many other team sports are as bad or worse (did any of you look at some of those body types in the Rugby World Cup? Not believable), so it’s hard to know what to do. I will say this: No sport is sacred to the Olympics. It doesn’t matter how many people participate or what the history is, if a sport is in disrepute it should be dropped for a period of time to clean up it’s act. I would be willing to watch a Summer Olympics _without_ track and field, swimming, or cycling, but with ultimate fighting and squash (my favorite but they wouldn’t bribe the Committee chislers to get listed). I would love to see squash and field hockey, among the few modern sports in which Muslim countries have a long and deserved history of excellence, get the extensive media coverage they deserve, not least because they are beautiful games which reward superior fitness. If we get to the point that darts are the only sport without enhancers, then we should allow only them. We are all bigger than the cheats, and shunning their slumming is the only way.

    On the issue of protestors at Beijing, while I am sympathetic to most of the issues to which these disparate causes seek to draw attention, their enterprise at Beijing will be severely ill-advised. They completely misjudge the impact they will have on the authorities in China, to their own long-term cost. At the same time, it is they who disrespect the spirit of the Games to the larger extent also: is _that_ the message that they wish to convey, no fun ‘n’ games until [myissue] is addressed? And I hope that they are indeed prepared to be putting their lives on the line—some of them, domestic and foreign, may very well NOT survive the response of the crowd to be remanded into the hands of the Chinese authorities. And yes, lynchings of a number of demonstrators just might kill off the games also for now.

  2. Anonymous

    “The Olympics are a hypocritical, dishonest, corrupt and wasteful event.”

    Absolutely perfect.

  3. sk

    I do enjoy Willem Buiter’s blog and am glad you highlight it. Mostly tongue-in-cheek I do quibble about his derogatory reference to darts though :

    The BDO’s Mr Holmes said: “You didn’t see smoking or drinking because it is against the rules now.

    “We had to take the necessity for a change there about 10 years ago. Even though our sponsor is Imperial Tobacco, no smoking or drinking is allowed in the players’ arena.”

    Desperate to see the game recognised as a sport, the BDO also points to the fact their players are now “generally slimline young men”.

    “Raymond Barneveld is a big bloke, there’s no getting away from that, but he lost a couple of stones before the tournament.”

    ‘You have to be fit’

    “It’s not like snooker where they just walk leisurely around a table and just use their arms. You have to be much fitter to play darts at that level.”

    And tuning into the Embassy championship coverage has become trendy.

    “We’re glad of all coverage,” says Mr Homes, “Although a lot of the articles are poking fun at us. But who knows, we may end up with even more enthusiasts as a result of them.”

    I left the country around the time that Alex “Hurricane” Higgins went into his final alcohol fueled slide out of snooker game and Eric Bristow reigned supreme in the darts world so these modern day moderations are welcome but…. but.. its STILL darts.


  4. Steve

    The Games have returned to their ancient roots by featuring professional athletes. The 19th century revivalists’ emphasis on amateur competition was a class thing, not history. Maybe it’s time to bring back the pankration.

  5. Richard Kline

    So Steve, that’s a point well-taken, yes. I’d have no problem with admitting that atheletes are professionals and eliminating the amateur illusion. The Olympics needn’t offer cash prizes directly; the prestige is sufficient. A dilemma of course is that wealthy countries can pay their professionals more, and fund their organizations far more than can other country’s, for example France can outspend Kenya for middle distance runners if it chooses. But that happens now anyway, so let’s just call a spade a spade. The status of competing for one’s country can mean a lot, and should.

  6. Max

    I think it’s not about Olympics – most of the hysteria we hear (including Buiter’s) is directed towards China.

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