The Olympics are great. They bring the world together to celebrate and compete in an inclusive atmosphere. A host nation opens its doors to the world. Athletes from rival nations put aside political differences to shake hands after a match. Runners of all skin colors become one blur of humanity as the speed down the track. But there is an element of inequality that is ingrained in the Olympics as a result of handful of events that are non-inclusive. When you look at all the Olympic events together, you can clearly see that there is an Olympic sport for every social class. Including a shocking number that cater to the richest countries and people.
The original Olympic games featured events that required little more than the human body: running, throwing, jumping, and wrestling. These types of events are inherently inclusive. If you have able legs you can compete in a foot race. If you have arms you can compete in the javelin. We have retained these types of events through modern times and they represent the most accessible events. The training and equipment are lower cost, allowing smaller countries with less means to maintain an Olympic program for them. In the men’s 100m track event, Usain Bolt, a Jamaican and the fastest man in the world, will race against men from Antigua & Barbuda and Bahrain. These types of simple events where the human body is the only necessary equipment and as a result they are capable of drawing talent from all over the globe.
But even the ancient Greeks felt the need to make things more complicated. In 680 B.C. the Greeks added chariot racing to their games. This represented the first event that carried the need not just for skill, but for some capital to cover the overhead. After all, not everyone has their own chariot laying around to train and compete with.
Today we have a variety of events that fall into the same category of being technical, expensive, and thusly, exclusive. Sailing tops the list of sports for the upper class. Less wealthy counties have little prayer of fielding a competitive sailing team when the boat alone can cost 10 million dollars. And this year’s Olympic Games in Rio boast a predictable field of wealthy nations in the sailing events, headlined by European countries, Australia, the U.S., Russia, China, and a handful of the more developed South American countries. The list of medal winners is essentially the U.N. Security Council (with the Netherlands swapped for the U.S. which has not medaled yet in sailing).
The equestrian events are the other glaring example, dressage in particular. The dressage events are so heavily dominated by wealthy Anglo countries that Ireland starts to appear to be exotic when looking at the list. Which makes sense, because dressage is one of the most Anglo sports imaginable. It’s colonial era horse dancing.
As Americans, there are other events that we may not even realize are exclusive in nature to less wealthy counties. Golf, a new addition to the Olympics starting with these games, requires a tremendous amount of resources (such as water) to maintain a course. In some third world countries such a luxury would simply not be tenable. The addition of golf is particularly frustrating since other, somewhat more inclusive sports like baseball were eliminated despite tremendous popularity in relatively poor counties like the Dominican Republic. Cycling requires some serious investment in equipment to stay competitive with the European/Americans who will inevitably be riding the best machines available in the world. These are the games that just some the world can afford to love, even though the Olympics are an invitation for the whole world to compete.
Maybe these high class sports don’t need to be eliminated, but we encourage fans of international competition to gravitate toward the sports that lend themselves to true global competition. Sure, we can feel good about the U.S. equestrian program winning two bronze medals already, but we also have to realize that only about one in five of the counties in the Olympics will even compete in equestrian events. Participation in those types of events is an exclusive club that not all countries can afford to join. In that sense, the Olympics try to maintain an attitude of inclusiveness with a schedule of events that demonstrates otherwise.