Updated: Mar 6
The Olympic Games are a worldwide spectacle in sports. Every two years, the world watches the summer or winter version of the games as athletes, who have been waiting years or even a lifetime, prepare to give their all.
But not every sport at the Olympics uses the competition as a benchmark. For instance, winning a gold in tennis or golf is meaningful, but it's not the pinnacle of the sport. Similarly, ultimate bragging rights in soccer are achieved outside the Olympic Games. The World Cup is the pinnacle of international soccer, on both the men’s and women’s sides.
The men have used the Olympics as a U-23 competition since the 1992 games in Barcelona, Spain - a move that FIFA made to make sure that the Olympics didn't overtake the World Cup in terms of status after professional players were allowed to compete in the 1984 games in Los Angeles. Can some of the reason for that move be chalked up to FIFA wanting the men’s World Cup to be separated from every other major international competition? Yes. FIFA's leaders want those sweet dollars, euros and yen to flow to them and not to the Olympics. But the distinction does give the World Cup a different place in the hearts and minds of soccer fans--and frankly, general sports fans--around the world.
It’s time for women's soccer as a collective to stop treating the Olympics as comparable to the World Cup in the women’s international game and turn it over to the U-23s.
Like any media person in the year 2020, when I had the idea for this piece, I turned it into a Twitter poll, to see what people thought of the Olympics becoming a U-23 competition on the women's side.
The arguments against the proposal fell into the following camps:
The Olympics give national teams exposure that is necessary for survival.
The Olympics increase interest in professional club teams.
The Olympics are a one-of-kind, top-level sporting event and should be treated as such.
These points are not unreasonable on their face, but they do lend themselves to a perspective that I believe overstates what the Olympics mean to international soccer. Let's break down why they don't hold as much weight as they might seem.
National Teams Need the Olympics
In a world where there was no World Cup and the women’s version of the World Cup wasn’t moving to 32 teams in 2023, I might find some daylight in this argument. But it's a hard case to make with the World Cup happening the year before the Olympics and with the teams in the Olympics so often being the same teams from the World Cup - in Europe it is the case because the World Cup IS the qualifying event for the Olympics.
Yes, teams outside of Europe do have qualifying games for their confederation, so they do get exposure from that. But as we’ve seen in CONCACAF and with a team like Jamaica, Olympic qualifying doesn’t seem to be enough pressure for federations to behave without intervention from their confederations or FIFA. Not that FIFA is often a paragon of good behavior.
US Club Teams Need the Olympics
The USWNT has historically done very well at the Olympics - 2016 not withstanding. The U.S. team has won a medal at every other Olympic Games since 1996, when women’s soccer was added to the games.
And yes, that interest does translate to some degree to games in which you can see the players outside of their USWNT kits. However, the boost that the NWSL does get from the Olympics is smaller than the already-smaller-than-it-should-be boost from the World Cup. While there are new fans being drawn to the league because of the USWNT, the USWNT is more popular now than it has ever been.
If the NWSL's deal with CBS happens the way that it’s being reported, that might put as many new eyeballs on the NWSL long-term as the Olympics will in the short term. Olympic bumps tend to appear as an effective but fleeting social media campaign. And the Olympics are pulling some of the top players off their NWSL teams during the season, creating a lesser draw for fans made during the World Cup.
The Olympics ARE the Olympics After All
The Olympics are a unique experience. Major athletes from different sports come together to try to beat the crap out of each other in the hopes of taking home gold, silver or bronze.
The Olympics matter in the same way anything that is old, makes a lot of money for some people, and can be draped in the flags of different countries matters.
For some sports, this is athletes' biggest stage and what they will be remembered for. Track and field, gymnastics and swimming all are tied to the Olympics in the minds of most, even with their own world championships. But soccer isn’t linked to the Olympics in the same way. The World Cup will always outshine the Olympic Games in the minds of true fans and in the culture surrounding it.
Even if the Olympics were to remain a senior level competition, an 18-player roster the year after the World Cup does not a great soccer event make, especially when the Olympics are unwilling to go past 12 teams. Even if the games were open to 16 teams or 24, the outcome wouldn't change. The window in which all the games need to be played is too small for a proper senior level event.
Right now there is no major event for U-23 teams. The U-20 World Cup tends to be the last major event before these players make their way to the senior teams. Mal Pugh burst on to the scene for the USWNT, but she and players like her could benefit greatly from an event like a U-23 Olympics. It gives these players a huge event that would both highlight their talent, show them off as the full national team starts to gear up for the next World Cup, and give up-and-coming teams a way to get ready for the limelight of the senior level World Cup.
The Olympics are a unique event, but they don’t need to be all things to all sports.