The Olympics and the Presidential Games

Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that our presidential elections are held the same years as the summer Olympics? Or is it the natural affinity of one sporting event for another? Americans are so obsessed with sports that even our legal trials have become gladiatorial duels between attorneys, with the judges acting as referees. So, it's not surprising that our elections have also become athletic events.

Consider the language. While a Frenchman or German "places himself" for public office, and an Englishman "stands" for a seat in parliament, an American "runs" in the election "race". But U.S. politics involves more than sprints. A presidential campaign is as diverse as the Olympics, with its own pentathlon-the hat-in-the-ring toss, accusation hurl, issue sidestep, mud sling, and conclusion jump-and a marathon of such ferocity and duration that it makes iron-man triathlons seem easy. And just as with the Olympics, we begin with qualifying trials, or primaries, and then repeat the whole thing in the actual election.

But this athleticism is not necessarily a bad thing. C. Northcote Parkinson, of Parkinson's Law, suggested that candidates for public office should be selected by a series of tests based on the qualities required, with painless execution for those who fail. If we want a prime minister to have courage, each candidate should have to fight three rounds with the current heavyweight champion. If eloquence is necessary, require all candidates to persuade a Baptist Convention to rock and roll. Parkinson claimed that if you set the bars high enough, only one man would apply and he'd be the right one.

In a sense, our presidential games do use this method by means of their whistle-stop tours, TV debates, and behind-the-scenes horse trading. The campaigns have evolved into a grueling test of each candidate's physical stamina, skill in negotiation and compromise, ability to form a team and pick the right advisors, and capacity for endless talking. We don't test intelligence or knowledge or statesmanship but we at least test a candidate's ability to seem to possess those qualities. We don't determine whether a candidates will really give the people what they want but we do test his ability to make the public believe that he will do so. So our Presidential games insure that, when the public gets the candidate it thinks it wants, he will have at least some political skills.

Unfortunately, the Olympics and the Presidentials are both vulnerable to corruption by money, vote tampering, and artificial enhancement.

During the past century, money has steadily increased its domination of both events. Back in 1912, the Olympics were so scrupulous about banning financial support that Jim Thorpe was disqualified for having earned a few hundred dollars in town-league baseball. But by 1980, when it had become painfully obvious that Soviet-bloc athletes were getting much more than emotional support from their governments, the subsidy rules were relaxed to accommodate them. Now the degree and source of support for Olympic athletes varies enormously from one nation to another so that government-funded support in China is something like a hundred times greater than the private/community support available to American athletes.

The funding playing field is similarly tilted for the Presidentials. A candidate relying on federal funding may be at a severe disadvantage if his opponent can raise bigger bucks by selling as much of himself as possible to big contributors and PACs -- or his campaign may be greatly aided by the activities of separately funded 527 groups that just happen to be opposed to his opponent.

Both types of games are tainted by vote tampering. In the 1970's, Olympic judges from Soviet-bloc countries developed a peculiar aberration of vision so that they could only see the accomplishments of Soviet-bloc athletes. The corresponding problem, known as ballot stuffing, is endemic to American elections. Since 2000, Democrats have been chanting (like Randolph's whippoorwill) "Florida...Florida...Florida" but the practice is much older and often more blatant.

We currently worry about tampering with voting-booth electronics, but other kinds of political machines, such as ACORN and the Daley organization  in Chicago, have developed their own mechanisms http://www.bandersnatch.com/chicago2.htm for adjusting election results. Thanks to their efforts, elections have now become so democratic that even teenagers and the dead get to vote.

But money and vote tampering are secondary to the primary Olympics problem of artificial enhancement. That's what steroids are -- a way of making an athlete look better than he actually is, giving him an artificial boost in performance that he wouldn't normally have. This is worse that subsidized athletes or biased judges because it destroys the very idea of honest competition. So far, despite elaborate surveillance and testing, the Olympics commission has barely managed to keep one jump ahead of drug developers.

Not to be outdone, US elections have developed their own form of artificial enhancement -- media hype, which can puff up the image of a candidate so that he seems larger than life. Since 1960, when the power of a candidate's television image was first demonstrated, campaign managers, like their advertising brethren who sell the sizzle instead of the steak, market the image rather than the real candidate.

So far, Olympics judges haven't started handing out steroids to some athletes while denying them to others. But the Presidentials have already stooped that low. This year, the media have been so blatantly partisan that even "Saturday Night Live", (hardly a bastion of conservatism) has snickered at the high-school-girl crush that journalists have on Obama. During June, the New York Times printed 64 pro-Obama vs. 22 pro-McCain articles. and then chose to print an Obama op-ed while rejecting a rebuttal by McCain.

To sum up, even Parkinson couldn't question McCain's courage.. With the big money, the most flagrant ballot tamperers, and the mainstream media all allied against him, he must feel like an American athlete competing in the Moscow Olympics.

Someday, if the public gets disgusted enough, fair systems for Olympic athlete support and campaign financing will be enacted and uniformly enforced. Someday, perhaps, our technology will be clever enough to detect all biased judging, steroid users, and vote tampering. Someday, the American public may learn to vote with their heads instead of their viscera, on the basis of issues and track records instead of charisma. They may even become critical enough to ignore media bias and button-pushing TV ads. But until then-let the games continue!
Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that our presidential elections are held the same years as the summer Olympics? Or is it the natural affinity of one sporting event for another? Americans are so obsessed with sports that even our legal trials have become gladiatorial duels between attorneys, with the judges acting as referees. So, it's not surprising that our elections have also become athletic events.

Consider the language. While a Frenchman or German "places himself" for public office, and an Englishman "stands" for a seat in parliament, an American "runs" in the election "race". But U.S. politics involves more than sprints. A presidential campaign is as diverse as the Olympics, with its own pentathlon-the hat-in-the-ring toss, accusation hurl, issue sidestep, mud sling, and conclusion jump-and a marathon of such ferocity and duration that it makes iron-man triathlons seem easy. And just as with the Olympics, we begin with qualifying trials, or primaries, and then repeat the whole thing in the actual election.

But this athleticism is not necessarily a bad thing. C. Northcote Parkinson, of Parkinson's Law, suggested that candidates for public office should be selected by a series of tests based on the qualities required, with painless execution for those who fail. If we want a prime minister to have courage, each candidate should have to fight three rounds with the current heavyweight champion. If eloquence is necessary, require all candidates to persuade a Baptist Convention to rock and roll. Parkinson claimed that if you set the bars high enough, only one man would apply and he'd be the right one.

In a sense, our presidential games do use this method by means of their whistle-stop tours, TV debates, and behind-the-scenes horse trading. The campaigns have evolved into a grueling test of each candidate's physical stamina, skill in negotiation and compromise, ability to form a team and pick the right advisors, and capacity for endless talking. We don't test intelligence or knowledge or statesmanship but we at least test a candidate's ability to seem to possess those qualities. We don't determine whether a candidates will really give the people what they want but we do test his ability to make the public believe that he will do so. So our Presidential games insure that, when the public gets the candidate it thinks it wants, he will have at least some political skills.

Unfortunately, the Olympics and the Presidentials are both vulnerable to corruption by money, vote tampering, and artificial enhancement.

During the past century, money has steadily increased its domination of both events. Back in 1912, the Olympics were so scrupulous about banning financial support that Jim Thorpe was disqualified for having earned a few hundred dollars in town-league baseball. But by 1980, when it had become painfully obvious that Soviet-bloc athletes were getting much more than emotional support from their governments, the subsidy rules were relaxed to accommodate them. Now the degree and source of support for Olympic athletes varies enormously from one nation to another so that government-funded support in China is something like a hundred times greater than the private/community support available to American athletes.

The funding playing field is similarly tilted for the Presidentials. A candidate relying on federal funding may be at a severe disadvantage if his opponent can raise bigger bucks by selling as much of himself as possible to big contributors and PACs -- or his campaign may be greatly aided by the activities of separately funded 527 groups that just happen to be opposed to his opponent.

Both types of games are tainted by vote tampering. In the 1970's, Olympic judges from Soviet-bloc countries developed a peculiar aberration of vision so that they could only see the accomplishments of Soviet-bloc athletes. The corresponding problem, known as ballot stuffing, is endemic to American elections. Since 2000, Democrats have been chanting (like Randolph's whippoorwill) "Florida...Florida...Florida" but the practice is much older and often more blatant.

We currently worry about tampering with voting-booth electronics, but other kinds of political machines, such as ACORN and the Daley organization  in Chicago, have developed their own mechanisms http://www.bandersnatch.com/chicago2.htm for adjusting election results. Thanks to their efforts, elections have now become so democratic that even teenagers and the dead get to vote.

But money and vote tampering are secondary to the primary Olympics problem of artificial enhancement. That's what steroids are -- a way of making an athlete look better than he actually is, giving him an artificial boost in performance that he wouldn't normally have. This is worse that subsidized athletes or biased judges because it destroys the very idea of honest competition. So far, despite elaborate surveillance and testing, the Olympics commission has barely managed to keep one jump ahead of drug developers.

Not to be outdone, US elections have developed their own form of artificial enhancement -- media hype, which can puff up the image of a candidate so that he seems larger than life. Since 1960, when the power of a candidate's television image was first demonstrated, campaign managers, like their advertising brethren who sell the sizzle instead of the steak, market the image rather than the real candidate.

So far, Olympics judges haven't started handing out steroids to some athletes while denying them to others. But the Presidentials have already stooped that low. This year, the media have been so blatantly partisan that even "Saturday Night Live", (hardly a bastion of conservatism) has snickered at the high-school-girl crush that journalists have on Obama. During June, the New York Times printed 64 pro-Obama vs. 22 pro-McCain articles. and then chose to print an Obama op-ed while rejecting a rebuttal by McCain.

To sum up, even Parkinson couldn't question McCain's courage.. With the big money, the most flagrant ballot tamperers, and the mainstream media all allied against him, he must feel like an American athlete competing in the Moscow Olympics.

Someday, if the public gets disgusted enough, fair systems for Olympic athlete support and campaign financing will be enacted and uniformly enforced. Someday, perhaps, our technology will be clever enough to detect all biased judging, steroid users, and vote tampering. Someday, the American public may learn to vote with their heads instead of their viscera, on the basis of issues and track records instead of charisma. They may even become critical enough to ignore media bias and button-pushing TV ads. But until then-let the games continue!