Monday, August 29, 2016
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
WHAT’S THE POINT OF THE OLYMPICS?
Believe me, I do not like launching into yet another think-piece criticising the sports–worshipping mentality. On this blog I have already talked about the foolish jingoistic nationalism that enters into any international sports competitions, the ill will they often generate, and the delusion that competitive sports somehow make for a more fit country. (See my earlier posts Not My Religion and Hans Off and Other Nonsense.)
But the Rio Olympics force me to revisit some of these issues. Here’s an expensive international competition staged in a city wracked with poverty. Huge facilities siphon money away from necessary social programmes and the slum-dwellers quite rightly ask why they should be burdened with even more debt and why their lives should be ignored for the sake of what is in effect a huge Potemkin village.
I ask some overwhelming questions too: What is the purpose of the Olympics anyway? And is there any way they can be made into something honest?
From 1896, when the modern Olympics were devised, their propagandists have told us that they are a festival of international peace and cooperation. The best athletes in the world get together to show off their skills in an atmosphere of mutual goodwill. This has, of course, always been a lie. From the very beginning, the modern Olympics have been pre-eminently displays of national chauvinism. The example of the Berlin Olympics hosted in Nazi Germany in 1936 used to be cited as an aberration. A dictator was hijacking the Olympics to make nationalist (and racist) propaganda. But nationalist display is the essence of the modern Olympics and 1936 was no aberration. All that parading of flags and tallying of medals. All that jockeying to become host city. The boycotts, as when the West boycotted the Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and African countries boycotted the Olympics after New Zealand insisted on playing a minority tribal sport with old South Africa. The obscenity of the defunct little statelet of Communist East Germany ramping up its medal count by drugging its athletes up to the eyeballs and filling women with testosterone. The Soviet (and continuing Russian) pretence that their athletes are “sports students” when they are to all intents and purposes state-funded full-time professional athletes. (Speaking of which, the old concept of “amateur” status has long since gone by the board everywhere.)
International goodwill is not promoted by the Olympics. It is regularly undermined.
Further to old East Germany’s pharmaceutical victories, it has been national chauvinism more than anything else, which has regularly fuelled drug cheating. “It is not the winning, but the taking part” ???? Bollocks. For nationalist purposes, winning rather than good sportsmanship is the prime goal, and winning means the systematic poisoning of athletes. Once there was an age of relative innocence, when the great public assumed that medical assistance given to competing athletes was simply humanitarian. But much of the pharmacopoeia presented to runners and jumpers and discus-throwers before the Second World War consisted of drugs that would now be regarded as illegal. Jack Lovelock was injected in the knee with a “pain-killer” before his winning 1936 dash. The injection administered would now probably count as drug-cheating.
To give you some context. New Zealand’s Valerie Adams (formerly Valerie Vili) has an impeccable record as an honest, drug-free athlete who has played by the rules. In the women’s shot put she has been twice an Olympic gold medallist (and since Rio a silver medallist as well). Once she was temporarily deprived of a gold medal when it was first awarded to a woman who was later proven to be a drug cheat. But it has been shown that the best-ever distance thrown by Valerie Adams (21.24 metres) wouldn’t even place her in the top twenty compared with (Russian, Chinese and East German) women shot-putters in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. The reality was that gold medals were routinely won by then-undetected chemical substances.
I had assumed that the more efficient detection of illegal drugs would gradually eliminate this sort of imposture – but a biologist informs me that the next big thing will not be drug-cheating but gene therapy. Gene-splicing will enable doctors to create unbeatable athletes from the cradle (or the womb, or conception), so that the notion of “the best” competing will again be determined by things other than what happens in training.
To this I add the obvious fact that Olympic-level sports do not promote healthy lives. “Flo Jo” (Florence Joyner), America’s four-time gold medallist at the 1988 and 1989 Olympics, was touted as the fastest woman in the world and a role-model for young athletes. She was dead at the age of 39. Illegal use of drugs to enhance performance was suspected but never proven. At the very least, speaking as an overweight, un-athletic 64-year-old, I can say that her sports career did not make her life longer or healthier.
I have ticked off national chauvinism, drug-cheating, bad sportsmanship, competitiveness and the promotion of unhealthiness as the routine blights of the Olympics movement. Add to this the relatively recent addition of the crass showbiz razzmatazz that is now the Olympics opening ceremony; and the way that any city foolish enough to host the Olympics is certain to face a huge and unrecoverable bill. As a cultural phenomenon, the Olympics now have very little to offer the world.
So what is to be done?
My suggestions are radical ones.
(A.) Finally decide on three or four cities in the world which will, in turn, ALWAYS host the Olympics, with necessary facilities and accommodation for visitors paid for by international levy so as not to burden these host cities with unsustainable debt. That will put an end to the bidding for host status and all the international ill will that goes with it.
(B.) Remove all flags, national uniforms and national insignia. Individual athletes (track-and-field etc.) will compete in plain numbered uniforms. Obviously team sports will require team uniforms, but these will not be national ones. They will be a range of standard Olympic uniforms. [“But how will teams be picked if not on a national basis?” you ask. Fair question – the aim here is to turn down national feeling. Utterly abolishing it may be impossible.]
(C.) When athletes win, there will be no acknowledgement of their nationality. They will be honoured as the individual athletes they are. Nationality will presumably have to be acknowledged for teams, but there will be no tally of medals won by different nations. Media outlets that make up such lists will be permanently banned from the games. Of course such tallies with inevitably be made by someone – but as I said, the aim is to turn down national feeling, not accomplish the impossible.
(D.) All athletes without exception (i.e. including members of teams) will be tested for illegal drugs, by an international panel, every day for two weeks before the games begin; and again immediately after any event in which they are placed first, second or third. This will mean that no placings will be announced until after the results have been published of such post-event testing. With the new threat of gene-tampering, all athletes with have to provide authenticated certification of all medical procedures they have undergone.
(E.) Among other things, this will mean ending the podium ceremony (invented only in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics) where too often people are awarded medals they have not deserved.
(F.) And finally, abolish the irrelevant opening ceremony. It has nothing to do with sportsmanship. The focus of the games with be on athletic and sporting achievement; not on showbiz.
Of course it is highly unlikely that any of my proposals come to pass. But until they (or something very like them) are implemented, the Olympics will continue to be the tacky, chauvinistic, expensive, dishonest breeders of international ill will that they currently are.