The Olympics are starting, which means that alongside the parade of athletes, we face a parade of grandees trying to use the Games for their own purposes. The International Olympic Committee thinks that this multi-billion-dollar sports spectacle is really some sort of movement for world peace, while domestic politicians see the Olympics as a canvas on which to project their views on economics, international trade, environmental policy, and anything else they can dream up.
They're all full of it. As I explain in the Huffington Post,
The ancient reality could not have been further from these modern misconceptions, as Greek armies routinely violated the Olympic truce, sometimes battling in the Olympic sanctuary itself. Individual achievement was valued much more than participation, and wealth superceded ideology.
Pindar, the lyric poet whose odes tell us much of what we know about the early Olympians, wrote at the behest and patronage of wealthy athletes, who sought personal glory rather than the vindication of their city-state and its political system. The great champion Alcibiades used his prestige to gain fame and riches, often at the expense of "national interest." . . . .
Under today's conditions of globalization -- cultural homogenization, economic interdependence, decline of the nation-state even with respect to our enemies in war -- international athletic competition assumes an ever-more parallel course to that of the world at large. As with all sporting events, the Olympics of the past two decades have become exponentially more entertainment-oriented. Even the proliferation of crass commercialism is a positive step because it returns the Olympics to the role they fulfill best: providing a forum for the globe's finest athletes to show the rest of us a good time.
The Olympics now bring us the absolute best, without regard to color, creed, contract, or the Iron Curtain. The nature of the Olympic "movement," meanwhile, has returned to the entertainment, ritual, and indeed athletic value of the original Games.
Ira Stoll makes a similar point at Reason.
Which isn't to say that the Olympics are no good -- I love them so much that I wrote my master's thesis on their post-Cold War transformation -- but that in enjoying them you shouldn't read in anything other than that you're watching the best athletes in the world show their stuff.
Let the Games begin!