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Insights: Sports—Do the Olympics Still Matter?

Reeling from scandal, the international games adapt to a tarnished image
George Vecsey
From the Print Edition:
Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

Welcome to the "Complete" Olympics.  

For the past century, they were called the "Modern" Olympics, to distinguish them from the Games of ancient Greece. Now the "Modern" Olympics are as dead as Plato and Socrates, changed forever by bribery scandals and ticket scandals and drug scandals.  

The Olympic movement has entered the Letterman age, best viewed with a self-mocking raised eyebrow as a gigantic scam. There is the stage manager, there is the cue-card man, and there is the bulging sack of goodies: a ham for you, my good man; a CD for you, nice lady; and for you, IOC delegate, a full scholarship for your child, and thanks for your vote.  

The Summer Games, which begin in Sydney, Australia, in mid-September, can no longer be viewed through the rose-colored spectacles and hushed voice of past Olympic documentaries, as if we were entering some holy shrine.  

Given that the Olympics--and most sports--have long since become driven by television, the real question this year is will people sit in front of the tube and watch these post-modern games? Or will the stink of human corruption drive viewers to something pure like college football or professional wrestling?  

Dick Ebersol is betting that people have short memories and comfortable couches. In fact, he is covering his bet with $705 million--the price his network paid for these Games. Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports, has come up with the phrase "The Complete Olympics" for this year's extravaganza on three--count 'em, three--television outlets, to say nothing of the bottomless maw of the Internet.  

The saving grace to the Olympics this year, Ebersol hopes, is that people will be able to watch hard-bitten millionaire basketball players as well as truly amateur kayakers. Even with tape delays because of the time difference, NBC and two affiliates will show huge chunks of real events. The Complete Olympics may feel like a sports event. What a concept.  

"Four hundred and thirty-seven-and-a-half hours," says Ebersol, who would know.  

The half hour is crucial. On September 15, Bob Costas will be the host of an introduction to this year's Games.  

"Half of that will be an extensive look at the last two years," Ebersol says, meaning the way officials of the Salt Lake City 2002 committee instinctively bribed visiting International Olympic Committee delegates to get votes, and how officials in Sydney instinctively hid tickets for their friends and corporations.  

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