Olympic$ — Chasing the gold

The Olympics are on, and I am watching.   Well, perhaps more precisely, I am watching the parts of the Olympics that NBC have sanctioned, since, having soundly rejected cable-TV after for years having experienced Comcast’s relentless price increases and quality of service reductions (and their — acknowledged — corporate policy of price discrimination (see Timothy Lee’s excellent posting on Forbes here,)) I have been watching only over-the-airwaves TV for years.

NBC’s coverage of the Olympics is incredibly myopic and bordering on nationalistic, their commentators and interviewers make me want to tear my hair out (the standard question posed to the winner appeared to be —  I paraphrase and focus on questions for runners, but you will get the point — “What was your plan?” and inevitably the answer was “To run as fast as possible”… Duh! — ask a stupid question and what do you get?,) the rate of commercial assaults appear to have doubled, and Mr. Ryan Seacrest’s appearances make me want to tune out (and certainly mandated immediate depressing of the mute button.)

Although the focus of this post is the Olympics, I cannot help noting that Mr. Seacrest’s rise to fame on the backend of mediocrity is astonishing and probably reflects better than any other individual occurrence (including, yes!, Paris Hilton’s and the Khardasians’ meteoric rises,) what is wrong with TV and radio today.   When I view Mr. Seacrest traveling around the world, interviewing and/or having lunch with Olympic athletes, it is clear to me that NBC through its retainer-style agreement with Mr. Seacrest has invited a 40 feet white shark inside its kiddie pool and apparently have forgotten to tell Mr. Matt Lauder and Mr. Bob Costas, who are happily splashing around in the deep end, to watch out for fins.  In fairness, as reported by Mr. Brian Stelter in the New York Times in April of 2012, there is some indications that Mr. Lauder did indeed get the memo, which means that he at least had the chance to inch closer to the ladder with a $25 million contract in-hand, leaving Mr. Costas to fend for himself.

The economic weight of the three combatants make this spectacle even more interesting, with Bob Costas annual earnings being, I think, in the $3 million range, dwarfed by Mr. Lauer’s $25 million paycheck and Mr. Seacrest’s annual earnings in excess of $50 million. Clearly, Mr. Seacrest’s final objective is Mr. Lauer’s Today empire and the associated $25 million paycheck, but he will likely perform a simple Anschluss of Mr. Costas’ Olympic territory in order to get there.

Here are some of the things about the 2012 Olympics that stood out to me:

Courtesy of Andrew Magill under creative commons

  • Amateur sport no more…  When one of the coaches of the Japanese male gymnastics team handed over a ward of $100 bills to officials, causing these officials to change Mr. Kochi Uchimura’s score in the men’s team gymnastics event, which had been adversely affected by what is best characterized as a tumble, and, in turn, secured the Silver medal for Japan, bumping Great Britain to the Bronze medal level and bumping Ukraine of the winners’ podium, things looked very strange indeed.    

    Clarification, however, was quickly provided, stating that the Japanese team had filed an appeal and citing rules that states that an appeal fee must be paid in order to file a protest.As it is frequently the case when bureaucracies vomit up on-the-spot explanations, the clarification raised more issues than it resolved.Evidently, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) and, by proxy, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) impose the fee so as to, as Mr. Chris Chase puts in on Yahoo Sports, “cut down on frivolous challenges and make the process more streamlined.”  Having dealt with bureaucracies all my life, I probably am biased, but I would categorize  this reasoning a being classic corporate-weasel speak (similar to the annual letter from my health care provider informing me that they are forced to increase my premium and reduce my benefits in order to serve me better.)   FIG and/or IOC clearly saw a way to make a little bit more revenue and, as would any good for-profit organization masquerading as an altruistic force while spending most of its time worrying about fees, dues, partnership opportunities and licensing, it pursued it relentlessly.

    That rules were put in place that milk an unfortunate situation (after all an appeal is the result of an error — or a perceived error — on behalf of the judges and/or referees) and, frankly, makes for really bad PR (but interesting TV!) is probably something that the IOC and FIG’s president will not lose any sleep over (I suspect that they will simply change the rules, requiring payment after the event, removing the blatant TV coverage of exchanges of crumpled up dollar bills,  thereby minimizing the PR issue,) and is hardly much of a surprise.  However, these idiotic rules take another little step towards blind discrimination against amateurs and smaller countries in the Olympics, which is unfortunate for the spirit of the Olympics, and, so, they ought to be the subject to outcry by the general public and athletes.

  • Marked sportsmanship – how to do it and how not to…  What the appeal-for-cash incident did do, however, was to provide the Great Britain and Ukraine teams a unique opportunity to show true sportsmanship.  Rather than themselves appeal the appeal (either directly to FIG or through the media,) and then raising a spectacle similar to the Hamm-incident at the 2004 Olympics (as you may recall Mr. Paul Hamm, the gymnast from the United States, won gold in the all-around competition only to, after the event — and after the medal award ceremony, be challenged by FIG to surrender his medal to South Korean bronze medalist Yang Tae Young,) both teams simply shook their heads and, then, shook hands with the Japanese team. Cheers for Great Britain and Ukraine for embodying sportsmanship.   And loud jeers for the Chinese team who took the gold medal in the event and whose athletes pulled out and flaunted big gold stars while their competitors were still on the floor.  And let us not forget to send out some boos to the U.S. female gymnastics team who, in an exhibition, of exceptionally bad taste (pun intended) bit down on their gold medals at a photo-op at the medal award ceremony.
  • Gaming the system…  In a little talked about incident, four teams in the women’s double badminton were disqualified for attempting to throw matches in sets that were mostly characterized by exceptionally clumsy attempts at — well — losing and corresponding boos from the audience.  The transgression was, in fact, so gross that Thorsten Berg, the referee, stopped two of the matches, warning the players that they risked disqualification.  The objective of the suddenly very poorly playing teams was, of course, to secure better positioning in the quarter-finals, and some of the players’ coaches actually defended the behavior making it clear that it was simply another facet of competition.
  • Income tax no more… Mr. Marco Rubio, a Republican Senator from Florida, introduced the Olympic Tax Elimination Act, which, broadly speaking, aims at eliminating the income tax on Olympics winnings.  In a nutshell, the U.S. Olympic Committee provides awards to winners, ranging from $10,000 to $25,000, and the actual awarded medals have values ranging from $5 to more than $500.  Under the U.S. tax-code these awards are taxable as income, and that is something that Mr. Rubio wants to change. Mr. Matthew Yglesias in his Slate column called the act “dumb,” “pointless,” and a “tax gimmick,” and pretty much savaged the idea, pointing out how the Olympics is big business, focused on endorsements where, frankly, $25,000 in income and an associated income tax will make little or no difference.

    The point is, of course, that, as a general rule, the medal winners in the Olympics are also mostly professional athletes and mostly winners of large endorsement deals, dwarfing the $25,500 dollars or so booty that a gold medal award carries with  it (the olympic athlete profession are mostly an instance of Nassim Taleb‘s Extremistan, with the few top — and, therefore, medal winning — athletes earning more than the rest of the athletes combined (to understand the distribution of Olympic athletes’ earning, read Mr. Kurt Badenhausen’s articles in Forbes, listing the 20 best paid Olympic athletes and highlighting Usain Bolt’s earnings of more than $20 million per year.)

    Given the absolute idiocy of the act, it is, of course, already picking up steam in the regulatory process, and so we can look forward to another unnecessary complication of the tax code, which, without a doubt, will be exploited to the maximum extent possible by the large tax consultancies on behalf of their professional athlete clients, and, I predict, result in tax credits for Olympic winners that will be way, way, way in excess of $25,500.

    By the way, I would love to know if the IOC’s earnings are taxable and if the IOC officials and their entourages are taxed on the substantial benefits that they receive while “executing” their duties (see below.)  I suspect, of course, that the IOC as a non-profit organization is non-taxable and that the benefits are not recorded as such and, therefore, are not taxable.

  • Perks of the job…  The composition of the motley and incredibly extensive NBC front-of-camera crew working the Olympics defy explanation, and in my view must be ascribed to perks rather than necessity.   Perhaps Mr. Costas said it best when he introduced Mr. Mike Fallon and quipped that “… if they’re on the NBC payroll, they’re working here,”  but Mr. John McEnroe certainly deserves an honorable mention.  When pulled into the hot-seat with Mr. Costas to comment on the women’s rhythmic gymnastic (as part of what I am sure is a lucrative contract with NBC,) and after having opened the dance by declaring his total ignorance of not only this particular sport, but almost any other sport that he had been asked to comment on during this Olympics, Mr. McEnroe, without skipping a beat, offered his expert opinion on the performance of the athletes.
  • For the love of the game? I think not…   Michael Joseph Gross wrote a terrific Vanity Fair article providing insights into the economics of the Olympics and highlighting how London won the rights to the 2012 Olympics — and, consequently — the right to spend $14.5 billion — a tab that Londoners have to shoulder.   I strongly recommend reading Mr. Gross’ article, and I do not want to take away from it in any way, but his itemization of the stipulations of the contracts between the IOC and London, which evidently took East London activist and researcher Paul Charman two years of Freedom of Information requests to bring to light, is too good to not highlight here:

    The full stipulations of the Olympic contract … contain tens of thousands of binding commitments. To comply with its terms, London must designate 250 miles of dedicated traffic lanes for the exclusive use of athletes and “the Olympic Family,” including I.O.C. members, honorary members, and “such other persons as may be designated by the IOC.” (These traffic lanes are sometimes called “Zil lanes,” alluding to the Soviet-era express lanes in Moscow reserved for the politburo’s favorite limousines.) Members of the Olympic Family must also have at their disposal at least 500 air-conditioned limousines with chauffeurs wearing uniforms and caps. London must set aside, and pay for, 40,000 hotel rooms, including 1,800 four- and five-star rooms for the I.O.C. and its associates, for the entire period of the Games. London must cede to the I.O.C. the rights to all intellectual property relating to the Games, including the international trademark on the phrase “London 2012.” Although mail service and the issuance of currency are among any nation’s sovereign rights, the contract requires the British government to obtain the I.O.C.’s “prior written approval” for virtually any symbolic commemoration of the Games, including Olympic-themed postage stamps, coins, and banknotes.

    Limousines (top of the line Mercs, Beemers, or Jags with privacy screens and Champagne bars, no doubt,) dedicated lanes, and luxury hotels for principals, friends, and mistresses?  Sounds more like a totalitarian regime than a for-good, not-for-profit sport organization to me.   I think it may very well be time for some serious oversight here.

Rounding this posting out, I want to just touch upon one of my pet peeves, namely the constant referring to athletes as being heroes. Although I recognize that there has been a general degradation in the accepted definition of the term “Hero,” away from the original Greek meaning of a warrior, protector, or defender, and although I accept Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s contention that the definition of a hero is a function of the zeitgeist, I draw a line well before we reach the point of dumbing down the term to something as simple as a person noted for special achievement in his or her field, i.e. a synonym for celebrity. In my book one cannot achieve hero status unless one undertakes an act that centers around helping someone else in peril while exposing oneself to clear and present danger — and, importantly, not being forced or compelled to do so. There is a simple litmus test…. ask yourself if the person being considered for elevation to hero-status is indeed heroic in his or her acts and are performing these acts in the face of mortal danger.

Can you feel the weight of the word heroic? You should… it is like the tip of the spear of that which constitutes humanity. Alternative, ask yourself if the person’s acts compare favorable to, say, those of Mr. Raoul Wallenberg, or, more in the zeitgeist, perhaps, Mr. Abe Zelmanowitz who worked on the 27th floor of 1 World Trade Center, and on September 11th, 2001 refused evacuation, chosing instead to stay behind with a paraplegic colleague so as to comfort and protect him in what was unquestionably a life and death situation.

Are Mr. Michael Phelps and Mr. Ursain Bolt great Olympic Athletes? Without a doubt, yes. Are they heroes? Without a doubt, no. In my book, at least, they belong on the winners’ podium, but they have done nothing whatsoever that entitles them be on a hero pedestal with Mr. Zelmanowitz.

Wanna share your gold?

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