World leaders are wringing their hands over this summer’s Games in Beijing, but politicians’ discomfort that the Games somehow legitimize human rights abuses reflects romanticized history. Since the end of the Cold War, the Olympics have thrown off the corrosive chains of ideological battle to revert to their original values. Among these values, the dominance of the personal over the national and the economic over the political.
The standard view of the Greek Olympics was a festival uniting amateur sportsmen in the name of peace. It was invented by aristocrats like modern Games founder Pierre de Coubertin. Hitler, who staged the 1936 Games had a similar romantic vision.
The ancient reality could not have been further from these misconceptions. Athletes competed for filthy lucre and armies routinely violating the Olympic truce.
The modern Games broke with their predecessors. They allowed politics to overshadow sports. The Communist bloc used the Games as an ideological showcase. While the Western world lay mired in stagflation, the Olympics lost their ancient bearings.
Today’s proliferation of commercialism is a positive step. The Olympics have returned to their fitting role as a forum for athletes seeking fame and riches — and showing the rest of us a good time. Tradition meet meritocracy, Coubertin meet Milton Friedman; The Games have reverted to their entertainment, ritual, and financial essence.
So when the torch came to San Francisco, Arnold Schwarzenegger defended the right to censure China, but he opposed a boycott because sports, he said, “should not be used … to do diplomacy.”
History shows that the Governator — a former Mr. Olympia — is right: Spotlight the horrific Chinese actions but don’t use sports for political purposes. Boycotts are a Cold War relic and a departure from the economics-focused origins of the Olympics.
Ilya Shapiro discusses the 2008 Olympics on Marketplace (July 10, 2008) [MP3]