One of the most iconic images from the childhood of every 90s Nigerian child is that of Nwankwo Kanu raising both arms to the sky in bliss following Nigeria’s victory over Argentina in the final of the 1996 Olympic football event. The Atlanta ‘96 Olympic Games remains Nigeria’s most successful outing at the quadrennial sports, which is not saying much because with a population exceeding 100 million and a total haul of 2 gold, 1 silver and 3 bronze medals, Nigeria was and remains by quite some distance the world’s worst Olympic underperformer relative to its size and athletic potential.
By the time Sydney 2000 came around, I figured out that expecting Nigeria to build on its Atlanta 96 exploits was a fool’s errand because to put it bluntly, Atlanta 1996 was a fluke. From the infamous “fire brigade” preparation to the accusations of theft by Sports Ministry officials to the ramshackle welfare given to athletes, Atlanta 96, Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, London 2012, Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 have been exactly the same tournament from a Nigerian point of view. Sure, there is occasionally a Dream Team here and a Chioma Ajunwa there, but nothing approaching progress has ever fundamentally been made.
Thinking about this a few days ago, I asked myself: from the point of view of a poor and disjointed nation state, why do the Olympics exist? What is the point of this competition? What does participation in it serve to achieve? If the medal table at the Olympics always closely matches the ranking of powerful nation states by population and GDP, then what is the purpose of participation by a country like Nigeria? If all a country like Nigeria is ever destined to do at the Olympics is to soil its nappies in front of the world every four years, then why should we even bother with this thing?
The Olympic hunger games
Recently a viral video made the rounds depicting Indonesian badminton athletes celebrating their Gold medal at Tokyo 2020 with much tears and jubilation. Along with the video came the information that Indonesia’s government pays athletes in excess of $340,000 for Olympic gold medals. Bearing in mind that the per capita GDP in that country stands at a measly $4,135 (2019 figures), this means that an Olympic gold medal in Indonesia is worth approximately 84 times the annual economic output of an Indonesian citizen.
If all a country like Nigeria is ever destined to do at the Olympics is to soil its nappies in front of the world every four years, then why should we even bother with this thing?
Is it truly the case that a round piece of metal coated with gold (yes, it is not in fact made of pure gold), is actually worth that much objectively? Is it the case that for an Indonesian born into poverty as many are in that country, outstanding athletic talents or abilities are the lever through which they can escape their circumstances – and it is the government that should reward them for being better at sporting pursuits than others? Is that really the job of a government overseeing a developing country with a significant poverty problem – to dole out lavish cash gifts to athletes whose exploits – while admirable – hold negligible social or economic benefits?
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Similarly poor countries like Nigeria, which have extensive programs for funding participation in sporting activities – at least on paper -, also devote large amounts of budget to rewarding people for running, jumping, swimming, hitting and ball-playing. Is this what the budget of a developing country should be spent on? In a country where health workers regularly go on strike due to unpaid wages, and with a brewing public finance catastrophe, how much sense does it actually make to devote $15,000 to athletes who won an Olympic event? Yes, the endorphins from our flag-waving moments are great, but are they worth $15,000? Especially when the opportunity cost of that $15,000 may be the annual wages of 3 doctors who save lives daily? What is the usefulness of the Olympics to poor countries exactly?
First world problems
As I mentioned earlier, the medal table at every Olympic Games in living memory has the USA, Germany, China and Russia somewhere near the top. The number of medals a country wins at the Games is directly proportional to the size of the funding pool available to its sporting programs and the size of its talent pool. Some countries with relatively small talent pools like Qatar, Spain and Portugal have mastered that art of buying talent from poor countries like Nigeria and thus artificially buying their way up the medal table. For reference, google “Francis Obikwelu” and “Femi Ogunode.”
The hosting rights of the Olympic Games, which were once hotly contested, are less desirable now, even to the wealthiest of countries. The experience of Greece and Brazil in 2004 and 2016 has made it very clear that when relatively less wealthy countries decide to invest in this gigantic vanity project that is hosting an Olympic Games, they end up with massive budget overruns, spiralling debt and giant white elephants that lie unused forever once the closing ceremony is over. Some have even suggested that the Olympic Games should stop being hosted in a roving fashion and should instead be permanently assigned to a city with proven capability like Munich or Atlanta.
Of course it will not escape your notice that the proposal for a permanent Olympic host does not mention the possibility of poor or developing countries. This goes to the heart of my argument today about why the Olympics are an expensive white elephant, with next to zero social utility – the only purpose of hosting the Olympics is for vanity and optics, and the only usefulness of winning medals at the Olympic Games is to revel in a flag-waving dopamine rush – which is to say, vanity and optics. Certainly, those are not the priority issues facing developing countries in the global south. Methinks the expensive flag-waving antics should be left to those who can afford it.
What do we need the Olympics for exactly?