Gigantism: A bane or a blessing?

China spent enormous amounts on stadiums for the 2008 Beijing Games. At right is the National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, and at left is the National Aquatics Centre, known as the Water Cube.-AP

Indisputably, the cost of hosting an Olympics today is mind-boggling. There is even a filament of inhibition among the bidding countries not knowing what lay in store for them once the financial commitment is agreed upon. Over to S. Thyagarajan.

Is gigantism casting a shadow on the Olympic Games? If true, is it a consequence of privatisation of the biggest sports spectacle on earth?

Rhetorical veneer notwithstanding, such posers cannot be dismissed as irrelevant.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is disturbed. Panels are studying the implications over the unbridled expansion of the Olympic Games and whether they may become unmanageable in the near future. Indisputably, the cost of hosting an Olympics today is mind-boggling. There is even a filament of inhibition among the bidding countries not knowing what lay in store for them once the financial commitment is agreed upon.

Yet the number of bidders is enlarging thanks to the cap put by the IOC over the quantum of competitors, officials and disciplines. Even the inaugural Games in Athens in 1896 were hard up for cash. Despite the involvement of royalty, headed by King Constantine, resources had to be raised through sale of stamps, souvenirs, until businessman Georgios Averoff donated a million Drachmas.

The progression since then served up to project the commercial might or convey a political message to the global audience. So intense was the competition that cities like Montreal and Athens sank into a financial mess.

Gigantism is perhaps a by-product of the clamour from federations to jump on the bandwagon. The more-the-merrier concept distorted the canvas so much that IOC thought it necessary to prune the number of disciplines. In fact, the all powerful IOC President, Avery Brundge toyed with the idea of leaving out team sports!

From 241 competitors in 1896, the figure rose to 10,310 in Atlanta featuring 271 events. In the last Olympics in Beijing, 10,900 athletes from 204 countries took part.

Chipping and chopping disciplines may appear to be an easy way out. But implementing it is extremely difficult. Every discipline enjoys a history and tradition. For instance, a suggestion to take fencing away brought enormous resistance from Europe, where the sport is tremendously popular.

The IOC did clip certain disciplines though. A look back shows a catalogue of several competitions struck out from the schedule. True, certain sports like hockey and tennis returned after establishing their popularity worldwide. Sports like golf, chess and squash are knocking at the door.

Equally, it is a misnomer to conclude that the huge expenditure incurred is on account of the Games only. Governments usually utilise the occasion to construct entire infrastructure, and even create a new metropolis with parks, roads, highways etc. Games Village and new sporting arenas account for a huge chunk of the expenses.

The construction costs are astronomical given the rivalry among the cities to convert the new theatres of excellence into architectural marvels. Apart from Los Angeles and Atlanta in 1984 and 1996 respectively, most cities opted for the construction of a new Olympic Stadium and other arenas, spending a staggering amount of money.

To achieve this objective and display opulence, seasoned and the best craftsmen, designers and architects, were commissioned at an enormous price for their services. Showpieces such as the Olympics cannot escape the accusation of gigantism even though the term remains undefined.

What exactly is the measure-up scale to fit the term, ‘gigantism?’ one is tempted to ask.

What probably escalated the cost is the extraordinary emphasis on ceremonies. The opening serves to set the tone and tenor of the 16-day fiesta. The organising cities are invariably keen to cash in on the mammoth TV audience across the globe, numbering in billions, who wait with bated breath to follow the Games.

Not until Moscow in 1980 was the Opening Ceremony the main feature. Despite the boycott, or because of that, the Russians painstakingly raised the contents of the Opening Ceremony into a deluge of aesthetic delight. The US Olympic historian, Bob Mallon, writes,” The ceremonies (in Moscow) were elegant, perhaps the most elaborately and best organised ever staged.”

That Opening Ceremony triggered the chase for “the best ever” norm. Perforce, Los Angeles, the first to be privatised under the enterprising travel agent, Peter Uberroth, had to prove its image as the entertainment capital of the world.

The LAOOC entrusted the Opening Ceremony to the award-winning documentary producer, David Wolper, who choreographed an extravagant extravaganza featuring 9000 artistes. There was a cinematic effect component that went on to make up the opening ceremony.

Wolper’s motto was simple: an Opening Ceremony should be “distinctly memorable but memorably be distinctive.”

Against this background, the challenge to Barcelona was phenomenal. As a city renowned for its architectural splendour and as the centre of creativity in art, music and Catalan culture the city reportedly spent around USD30 million on the ceremony.

From scene one, which saw Kristina Hayo, world’s best flamenco tap dancer, riding in on a horseback, to the mesmerising tenors by world famous Placido Domingo, to the climax of Antonio Robello firing the flaming arrow into the brazier, the ceremony did give credit to creators like Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso.

The compulsions to innovate and conceive situations that enhance emotional appeal to make the ceremonies a visual delight have pushed the cost to astronomical levels. They also mirror a message, as Sydney 2000 did by asking Cathy Freeman to light the flame before a billion people to display Australia’s tolerance towards Aborigines.

The components that constitute gigantism are not merely the expenditure on conducting the Games, including the cost of security since 1972, transport and media facilities. But they stem largely from inputs related to the frills, which many view today as more essential than scaling down the disciplines and competitors.