Bernstein: Rethink Olympics With One Easy Rule

By Dan Bernstein

If the Olympic games are really all they’re purported to be, organizers could improve them by stripping them down from the bloated, wasteful monster they’ve become.

This is when the other athletes in the other sports become interesting, not those who attract most of our attention as fans. I wouldn’t otherwise be seeing synchronized diving or gymnastics or swimming on TV, and that is much of the point. I’d be watching Jimmy Butler play basketball, Rickie Fowler golf or Serena Williams play tennis.

Call it the Joe Sheehan rule, since the national baseball analyst put it succinctly in a tweet. “If the Olympics aren’t the top event in the sport, the sport shouldn’t be in the Olympics.”

Nobody cares that Serena was awful Tuesday, making 37 unforced errors and double-faulting regularly in a singles loss to Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, because everybody still realizes she’s the best at what she does, notwithstanding. Even the most ardent and flag-wrapped fans hadn’t pinned their hopes on her vanquishing the field in name of country. It didn’t matter what happened for her in Rio. As an athlete so proven on the world stage, she really had nothing at stake.

That’s not true for the table-tennis “stars” vying for gold, the weightlifters or the fencers. This is the pinnacle for them. It’s our chance to see the best at what they do, actually doing it in front of us.

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Draymond Green dunking on Pau Gasol, or Leandro Barbosa dribbling around Matthew Dellavedova isn’t exotic or special. We see such things every night in the NBA. It’s as fully internationalized a professional league as can be, with 2015-16 rosters featuring players from 37 countries and territories. It’s not as if talent is being siloed anymore behind brick walls or iron curtains.

No more secret Soviet teams exist to test the mettle of the good guys, nor are there Cuban boxing giants embargoed from professional competition. Everybody’s welcome to make big money where they can, and they do.

Look at the Olympics golf tournament, which is merely a stroke-play competition for the same guys we see every weekend. There’s no actual team component either, just a regular 72 holes of stroke play between players from Florida and California and players from other countries who now live year-round in Florida and California.

And the soccer is just another of the seemingly endless run of international tournaments on that sport’s calendar. If it’s not the World Cup, it’s the UEFA something or Copa America or CONCACAF or the playoffs in one of the individual leagues filled with players from all over the globe. Only the most discerning fans can keep it all straight.

So by all means, bring on the rowers and steeplechasers and pole-vaulters. Show me badminton and trampoline, because this is the one time when I’m up for it. I’m ready to see the best on the planet in the sports I don’t normally watch. I don’t need Kevin Durant or Sergio Garcia right now, but I am more than willing to learn more about the guy who just out-canoed his opponents to glory and now will sell me cereal.

Team handball and water polo are exciting and fun. I have no idea who any of the participants are, but I know their life’s work and dedication have come to this more than anything else. And for the two weeks of the Olympics, that kind of thing should matter.

Dan Bernstein is senior columnist on CBS Chicago and co-host of “Boers & Bernstein” on Chicago’s 670 The Score.

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