As the Olympic hype-machine comes to a media outlet near you, it’s time to reconsider bringing back one of the more egalitarian Olympic sports: tug of war.
Take almost any Olympic sport in the modern Summer or Winter games, and you’re likely to find that, at best, a handful of countries are realistic medal competitors. In some sports, there are competitors and teams that are so much better than the rest of the field that the true competition is for second place. Athletes from different countries often benefit from advantages simply unavailable to athletes from other countries. For instance, Australia’s Olympic curling team doesn’t have any dedicated curling ice anywhere inside Australia. The Canadian team, meanwhile, can find a sheet of curling ice in just about every town of reasonable size. The US women’s softball team benefits from a deep pool of players produced by college teams while our ping-pong squad is hampered by a such a shallow recruiting pool it’s practically a puddle. China, on the other hand, suffers from exactly the opposite situation.
Beyond differences produced by culture and climate, finances can have a big impact on teams. Some Olympic squads get heavy government backing while others are largely self financed. Squads with fancy modern training facilities are more likely to bring home medals than those that hold bake sales just to get to the Games.
Which brings us to the NFL. The NFL may not be a popular sport the world over, but it does have one important lesson to teach the International Olympic Committee: parity breeds popularity. Since moving to a financial model that promotes parity throughout the league, it has grown to become the most popular sport in America. The phrase “any given Sunday” is the common shorthand for the belief that any given NFL team can beat any other NFL team any time, any where. Like most phrases of that nature, it grew in popularity because it contained a kernel of truth. The NFL has enough parity between teams that there are no sure things, even between the best team in the league and the worst.
A sport that truly gave the little countries a chance to compete with the big countries; or the cold countries a chance to compete with the equatorial countries; or the poor countries to compete with the rich is exactly what the Olympics needs. That’s the niche I believe tug of war could fill. Every country in the world has heavy, strong, big people. You don’t need much more than a strong rope and a place to pull it, so fancy training facilities wouldn’t be much of a benefit. Technological doping wouldn’t be much of an issue. There no benefit to making the shoes lighter, or the uniforms more streamlined.
If you want to get everyone interested in the Olympics, give them a team to support in a sport they can reasonably hope to win. That’s the niche tug of war could fill.