The Olympics: Plus Ça Change …

April 17, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on April 17, 2008.

With the crescendo of protests accompanying the Olympic torch relay, world leaders are caught in a bind over what to do about this summer’s games in Beijing. German officials announced that neither Angela Merkel nor her foreign or sports ministers would attend the opening ceremonies. Nicolas Sarkozy now contemplates making the same grand geste and Hillary Clinton has called on President Bush to follow his newfound transatlantic friends. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, defends protestors’ rights to “show how displeased they are with China” but opposes any sort of boycott because sports “should not be used in order to go and start to do diplomacy.”

More broadly, the media again remind us of how drugs, commercialism and the threat of terrorism have spoiled the world’s preeminent athletic event. Columnists lament the passing of a purer age, when doctors trained to run four‐​minute miles in their spare time, when competition was its own reward and a medal brought national glory rather than celebrity endorsement contracts. These Cassandras habitually predict the demise of the Olympics as modern society wreaks havoc on the sacrosanct traditions of the ancients.

But this prediction is based on bad information; politicians’ fears that the games may somehow legitimize human‐​rights abuses reflect romanticized history. Since the end of the cold war, the Olympics have thrown off the corrosive chains of ideological battle and reverted to the values of the original games, among which were the dominance of the personal over the national, the economic over the political and the athletic over the larger concerns of the state.

The standard view of the Greek Olympics as a halcyon festival bringing amateur sportsmen together in the name of peace and brotherhood is a remnant of nineteenth‐​century Romanticism, which was institutionalized by aristocrats like modern‐​games founder Pierre de Coubertin. Hitler, who staged the 1936 Berlin Games as a testament to the German people — and invented the torch relay in the first place — was taken in by a similar Olympic vision of nationalism via physical perfection.

But the ancient reality could not have been further from these modern misconceptions. Greek armies routinely violated the Olympic truce and battle sometimes took place in the Olympic sanctuary itself. Individualism and athletic prowess were valued much more than mere participation, and wealth superceded ideology.

Pindar, the lyric poet whose victory 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 — not the vindication of their city‐​state and its political system. And the great champion Alcibiades used his prestige to gain fame and riches, often at the expense of Athens’ “national interest.”

Further, the ancient heroes were Panhellenic — Athenian kids cheered for a Spartan Michael Phelps — and the victors’ olive wreaths were intrinsically worth about as much as the medals to be doled out in Beijing.

The modern games, as they developed during the cold war to allow politics to overshadow sports, broke with their predecessors. Mexico City hosted the 1968 Games amid the tumult of student uprising — and police reactions not unlike the Tibetan crackdown — around the globe. Black Power made its presence felt on the victory podium with a barefoot gloved‐​fist protest. Subsequent Olympiads reflected the expansion and retrenchment of communism in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, along with guerilla warfare and counterrevolution in Latin America.

The games of 1972 succumbed to the most dastardly terrorism ever visited upon the Olympic movement, with the murder of eleven Israeli athletes and coaches in Munich. The 1976 Montreal festival, which left a trail of debt that Quebec taxpayers have only recently paid off, saw the first of a series of boycotts, this time by thirty African countries protesting apartheid.

As the Soviet Union and its vassal states succeeded in using the games as a showcase for ideological superiority, and the Western world lay mired in stagflation and cynicism, the Olympics lost their ancient bearings.

Though nobody knew it at the time, the 1988 Seoul Olympics were a watershed. These games followed the tit‐​for‐​tat superpower boycotts in Moscow and Los Angeles and were the first to be free from major political turmoil since Tokyo 1964. More importantly, they represented the last Olympiad of the cold war, with the Berlin Wall falling the next year, followed by the dissolution of the Evil Empire, German reunification and the New World Order of globalization.

The twentieth century took us through almost continual political upheaval — not least within the Olympic movement — with most of it defined by the bipolar cold‐​war mentality and the specter of nuclear Armageddon. With that edifice of pretension eroded, the Games were free to become athletic spectacles again. In place of monumental East‐​West clashes, the fall of the Berlin Wall gave rise to an Olympics of interpersonal rivalry and a return to the desire for individual achievement.

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 world society 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 world’s best athletes to compete for fame and riches, while showing the rest of us a good time.

The Olympics now bring us the absolute best, without regard to color, creed or the Iron Curtain. The nature of the Olympic movement, meanwhile, has returned to the entertainment, ritual and athletic value of the original games. Gone is the sham of amateurism, as athletes are once more individuals, not tools of the state.

Tradition meet meritocracy; Coubertin meet Milton Friedman. The conventional punditry aside, the symbiotic relationship between sports and society has thankfully returned to its original, proper status under the ancient Greeks.

Thus returning to the Beijing dilemma, history demonstrates that the Governator — a former Mr. Olympia no less — has it right: spotlight the horrific actions of Chinese authorities but don’t use sports for political purposes. And remember that it is the unaccountable grandees of the International Olympic Committee who created this mess in the first place.

About the Author
Ilya Shapiro

Director, Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies, Cato Institute