A Discussion with Sir Timothy Lankester

With: Timothy Lankester Berkley Center Profile

July 16, 2012

Background: This exchange is based on a presentation by Tim Lankester at the London Symposium on Olympic Values on July 1, elaborated in subsequent exchanges with Claudia Zambra and Katherine Marshall. He emphasizes the significance of the core values that lie behind the Olympic Movement, and their broader implications both for British and global society. Above all he stresses the potential good that can come from emphasizing enjoyment from sport and social inclusion, as a foundation for equity, human dignity, and human rights. He reflects on the pros and cons around two critical challenges to Olympic values: nationalism and money and on the significance of changing implications for core values over time. The gaps between ideals and practical application over time is critical—from the Ancient Greek realities of cheating and conflict as well as heroic performance, to today’s challenges of doping and the excesses of nationalism. He reflects on the great but largely untapped potential of the Olympic Truce. Sir Lankester also highlights the fact that access to many sports favors wealthier families and nations, and that to a degree the social, community benefits of sporting events as social glue have been threatened if not lost.

In the run-up to the Olympics, and as someone who lives in London, have you seen special emphasis on Olympic values?

In mounting the Olympic Games in London, the organizers in their publicity—especially in schools—have made much of the three Olympic values:

•Respect: fair play and accountability for one’s actions.

•Excellence: achieving the highest possible standard, how to get the best out of oneself, participating and progressing according to one’s objectives.

•Friendship: how through sport we come to respect each other despite our differences.

On the surface, these values seem designed to apply principally to the athletes. But if their effect is to be maximized, they need to apply to the many million spectators who will see the Games in the U.K. and on television around the world.

Both for the athletes and spectators, I would suggest the three values can easily, and logically, be expanded to include the following objectives:

•Enjoyment: the sheer pleasure of taking part in a sport or in seeing high quality athletes in action.

•Social inclusion, equity, human dignity and human rights.

•Cooperation and friendship between nations.

How do the current games differ from their predecessors? Do you think the values, or their interpretation, has changed over time?

Let us not be too misty-eyed about the past. The ancient Olympics in Greece often fell far short of the ideals I have just enumerated. The second century A.D. historian Pausanias gives examples of a runner, Parthenopeus, being disqualified for grabbing an opponent by his hair, another athlete, Calippus, and his home state, Athens, fined for bribery, Lycidas banished from Greece for asking his friend, Megacles to compete in his own name (though it had a happy ending), athletes from Lacedaemonia banned because their home state continued fighting during the Games, and on one occasion, there was actually a pitched battle between two states in the Olympic stadium during the Games.

The ancient Games were often brutal—wrestlers and charioteers regularly died in combat. And of course, there was no place for women as athletes or even as spectators. Winning was everything—there were no prizes for coming second and little respect for just participating. The city states of Greece prided themselves on their list of Olympic conquerors.

The ancient Games, however, were not just about sporting endeavor. They were also considered an important opportunity for Greeks from the various city states and their colonies to get together and engage in political discourse—an antidote and a counter-force, if you like, to the regular warring between the states.

Sponsorship and professionalism were features from early on, but increased over the centuries. According to one writer for the New Yorker magazine in 1928, it was “when athletes became out and out professionals, abandoning all other occupations, interest in the Games began to abate. This was the beginning of their decline. The famous Olympics of Greece, conceived in the spirit of purity, became a victim of professionalism, and after a period of over 700 years of existence, came to an end in A.D. 293.”

And yet, there were certain ideals from the ancient Greeks—however compromised they were in practice—which the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron de Coubertin, sought to replicate: especially, the ideal of the Whole Man, combining athletic prowess with intellectual and aesthetic excellence; and the idea that the four-yearly contest between the best athletes in the known world, competing according to agreed rules, could help to prevent wars and maintain the peace between nations. Back in 776 BC when the Olympics were re-founded, the founder, King Iphitus, believed that the safety of Greece depended on their re-establishment. The Olympic Truce, which made it possible for athletes to travel to Olympia through hostile territories, was a practical application of this ideal. The good Baron added on to these ideals the sporting ideas of the famous English headmaster, Thomas Arnold—for whom fair play and taking part were more important than winning; and an eclectic and somewhat paradoxical mix of the values of the aristocratic amateur and the inclusiveness of Social Democracy.

What are the good elements and the bad elements, or realities that surface in spite of the Olympic ideals, that have been present at past Olympic events, and are likely to be found in this month’s London Olympics?

Each of the Olympics since 1896 has exhibited good elements and bad elements against Coubertin’s ideals. The most extreme was the 1936 Olympics in Berlin which Hitler used ruthlessly to promote Germany’s political and military ambitions; but also where the black athlete and four-times gold medal-winner, Jesse Owens, showed Hitler and the world that the color of one’s skin had nothing to do with ability—though it took a world war and many years of further struggle before that idea was universally accepted. And it was in 1948 in London that the four-time Dutch gold medal-winner, Fanny Blankers-Koen, showed that women’s athletics could be just as heroic and illustrious as the men’s.

I have no doubt that the British organizers, whilst subject to the constraints and conditions laid down by the International Olympic Committee, have worked hard to act in accordance with Coubertin’s ideals. But they would be first to admit that the actuality is likely to be imperfect—not least because there are bound to be certain trade-offs, and because the Olympic Games to some extent can only reflect the wider values of our societies.

What do you think are the main challenges to the Olympic values in today's games?

In my view, there are two main challenges—nationalism and money. But neither of these is altogether negative: they both have certain benefits which can actually further Coubertin’s ideals. As so often in life, there has to be the right balance.

Nationalism is much less of a threat to the Olympic values at this Olympics than it has been in the past. The British government is certainly keen to show what this country can achieve in mounting a successful Games, but it is not using the Games as a vehicle for projecting Britain’s political power (albeit a second-rate power) in the world as some of the bigger nations have done at recent Games. The positive side of nationalism is that the natural affinity which athletes and spectators feel towards their own countries provides one of the bases for striving for and supporting individual excellence. Obversely, identifying with athletes from one’s own country contributes to a greater feeling of nationhood, which in itself—and within limits—has to be a good thing. Without a strong sense of nationhood, it is unlikely that host governments would be willing to spend the vast amounts of money needed to mount the Games and for all governments to support their athletes.

The negative side arises with the near obsession with how many medals each country wins; when loyalty to one’s country displaces respect for, or even interest in, the excellence of athletes from another country; and if it gets in the way of the cooperation and friendships which the Olympics are supposed to nurture.

The U.K. is as prone to this as any country. We are constantly being told of the number of medals that the British Olympic authorities aim to “deliver”—as if this is the main thing, or even the only thing, that matters to us Brits and as if the individual athletes are inanimate units of production. Of course, we do want our athletes to win; but it is the excellence of whoever wins, as well as the excellence of some who don’t win, that we really ought to be giving pride of place to. Unfortunately, the overwhelming focus on national winners is promoted by governments as a way of justifying all the tax payers’ money they spend on supporting the Games and individual athletes. They do this at their peril since the number of medals won is unlikely ever on its own to justify for sceptical taxpayers the amount of money spent—and the more so since so often the actuality falls short of public expectations.

Our media also contribute to this way of thinking. At the recent Wimbledon, I watched the unseeded and almost unknown Czech tennis player, Lukas Rozal, defeat the second seed Rafael Nadal. It was possibly the most impressive, and beautiful, example of power tennis in the history of Wimbledon. And yet, the following morning the BBC sports coverage spent as much time describing the rather boring win of a moderately good British woman player as it did the Nadal/Rozal encounter. Later in the final round, the BBC’s palpable bias in favor of the home-grown and eventually defeated Andy Murray meant that many British viewers would not have fully appreciated the supreme artistry of the winner, Roger Federer.

I hope that the BBC won’t devote as much of their coverage as they usually do to the triumphs and tribulations of the British athletes at this month’s Olympics. We shouldn’t confine our celebrations just to those relatively few sports in which our athletes are amongst the best. We should celebrate the best irrespective of the athletes’ country of origin.

Does the focus on nationalism have any repercussions on the idea of the Olympic Truce?

Nationalism and national self-interest make it less likely that the much talked of Olympic Truce Resolution, endorsed by the UN Assembly last October, will have any major effect. Whilst the sixty plus conflict resolution initiatives that have already been registered under the UN Resolution, are seemingly worthwhile, to what extent are they no more than a dressing up of existing initiatives? And it is noticeable that they appear to be largely at a very local level: if the initiatives were to match the Olympic Truce of the ancient Greeks, they would need to encompass conflict resolution initiatives between states, and there appears to be no sign of these. In short, despite the valiant efforts of parliamentarian Michael Bates and the exhortatory words of Prime Minister Cameron when proposing the UN Resolution, the follow-up work on the Resolution lacks real ambition and commitment on the part of States. For the Foreign Ministries of the major capitals, the Olympics and their potential for enhancing international cooperation at a political level do not seem to have seriously registered. This is a wasted opportunity.

What is the impact of money and commercialization on the Olympic movement and values?

One distinguishing feature of the Olympics is that there are no money prizes—only medals. But there are many ways in which money and commercialization come into play. The Olympics have to be paid for—through ticket sales, through government subsidies, through broadcasting rights, and through commercial sponsorship. Most if not all of the athletes benefit from financial support from their governments or national Olympic associations, and some Olympic associations are reported as having promised financial rewards to their athletes who win medals. In many sports, medal-winners stand to gain lucrative sponsorship deals. And in a few Olympic sports, such as tennis, cycling and soccer, enormous financial rewards already exist in competitions outside the Olympic framework. There is little doubt that in some ways the increasing “monetization” of the Games has had its beneficial effects. It has enabled superb facilities to be built, which will leave a lasting legacy when the Games finish—provided they are not left to decay as the Athens facilities were after the 2004 Olympics. In fact, there are concrete plans in place so that this does not happen.

The increased financial support for athletes in most countries in their preparation for the Games is likely to mean ever higher standards of performance. The promise of sponsorship deals may mean that some will strive even harder for glory. And the availability of financial support to talented athletes, irrespective of their family background within individual countries, has greatly widened the talent pool; and in doing so it has contributed to greater social inclusion in our societies.

In the case of Britain, though, still approximately half of this year’s British Olympic team were educated privately and thus had the advantage of generally much better sports facilities and coaching than is available in state schools. And there is a different kind of inequality in the USA where, if you wish to be an Olympian, you practically have to attend a college or university in order to benefit from their facilities and training. From the point of view of equity, this may not matter for the major sports for which admission and scholarships are easily available; but for the minor sports, it is undoubtedly a barrier to broader participation at the highest level.

“Monetization” has its downsides. Let us start with the conduct of the athletes. One must be careful not to look back with false nostalgia on the conduct of the sporting amateur—one of the most shocking examples of bad sportsmanship in the history of sport was orchestrated by Douglas Jardine, the quintessentially upper class amateur captain of the England cricket team in the infamous “body-line” series in Australia in 1932 in which England’s bowlers aimed to practically decapitate the opposing Australian batsmen.

Nonetheless, the experience of sports where financial rewards have been ratcheted sharply up over the past decades is that honor, sportsmanship and respect generally decline. The record is by no means uniform and the ways in which this shows up differ from sport to sport. Soccer players routinely engage in so-called “professional fouls,” feign injury, and berate referees in a way that would be unthinkable for rugby players. But rugby players have long been prone to engage in foul play when the referee isn’t looking. With the growth of professionalism and large salaries and winning bonuses, the conduct of players in these two sports in their different ways has almost certainly deteriorated. Some highly paid tennis professionals, like Roger Federer, conduct themselves impeccably; others conduct themselves atrociously. At the last major tournament before Wimbledon, the Argentine David Nalbandian was disqualified in the final for injuring a line judge. Just as egregious were the calls from some spectators for his reinstatement.

Two sports, neither of them in the Olympics, in which high rewards seem to co-exist with generally high standards of conduct are golf and cricket. In the case of golf, is this because it is a sport traditionally favored by middle-class individuals with law-abiding attitudes? Or is it because there is less scope for breaking the rules without being spotted or for querying their interpretation? Cricket is different because there is plenty of scope for unfair play and for querying the umpires’ decisions. Here there is a long tradition of fair play, whether in the amateur or professional game and notwithstanding the counter-example of the 1932 “body-line” series. The most striking example of this is the practice of batsmen “walking” (i.e. giving themselves out in the face of a decision in their favor by the umpire). Hence, the old axiom “It’s just not cricket” to describe unfair play in life. It is a puzzle why professional cricketers, with the exception of golfers, do seem conduct themselves rather better than most other professional sportsmen. Maybe it is because the financial rewards are less extreme. Some have suggested that cricket’s record of fair play should make it a strong candidate as an Olympic sport. But even cricket is changing—with the recent exposure of match-fixing by Pakistani cricketers. In all sports, the conduct of women appears to better than that of men. Is this because their financial rewards are less; or is it because women conduct themselves better in life?

So far the level of financial rewards, actual and potential, in most Olympic sports is relatively low. But going forward, Olympic organizers need to be aware of the corrosive effect high financial rewards can have on the conduct of athletes; and at these up-coming Olympic Games, officials must have no truck with unfair or unsporting conduct. The Olympics are still seen by athletes and spectators—though not by all—as somehow sacred. We expect the highest standard of conduct and most Olympic athletes seem to understand this. Assuming high standards can indeed be achieved at this coming Olympics, one of the legacies should be to influence the way athletes conduct themselves in other competitions.

With the monetization of sports, there is also an inevitable trend toward specialization or professionalism in sport, including examples which you already mentioned. How does this trend fit with the Greek ideal of the whole man? How does it affect competition between nations in the Olympic games?

With increasing rewards and professionalism—and the emphasis on winning at all costs—athletes become more and more specialized, and less rounded human beings. They spend so much time training that they have no time or inclination for other pursuits. The Greek ideal of the athlete as the whole man, to the extent he ever existed, becomes more and more remote.

Life surely becomes less interesting for the athlete when he or she is entirely devoted to the one sporting activity, and arguably for his or her competitors. I recently read that the British tennis star, Andy Murray, has said he is going to concentrate exclusively on his tennis at the London Olympics. He said he really enjoyed the Beijing Olympics because he spent time with athletes from many other sports; but, he went on to say, this was why he was defeated in the first round of the tournament. I find his decision to focus just on his tennis in London rather sad, though perhaps inevitable given the pressure—partly self-imposed, partly driven by the media and other stakeholders—for him to succeed: it strikes at the heart of the idea of Olympians coming together to build friendships and understand each other.

For spectators, there is also something intangibly lost when the athletes they are watching are through and through full-time professionals. It may be unrealistic ever to expect again that a trainee doctor like Roger Bannister could be a world record-holder in the one mile; a philosopher and psychoanalyst like Michael Brearley could captain a series winning England cricket team in Australia; or an educator like David Hemery could win an Olympic gold medal in the 400 meters hurdles. There is a special magic in the achievement of the gifted amateur or part-time professional that we are increasingly losing.

Nonetheless, in contrast to the ancient Olympics for which support is said to have declined as professionalism became more pervasive, the increased professionalism of contemporary sports has had no such effect. If anything, quite the contrary: as sports have become more professional, support for them has generally increased. Whether this is as a result of clever marketing, the extraordinarily high standards of performance in many professional sports or the increased acceptance of money values in contemporary society, is not clear: probably a mixture of the three.

In his recent book, “What money can’t buy; the moral limits of markets,” the American philosopher Michael Sandel discusses the consequences of market values expanding into spheres of life where they don’t belong. He argues that marketization and putting a price on some of the good things in life can corrupt them and debase them. One example Sandel discusses is American baseball. He suggests that baseball traditionally acted as social glue; baseball matches were more like public festivals and a matter of civic pride. As ticket prices sky-rocket, as corporations invest in sky-boxes for their wealthy and privileged clients, and as they imprint their logos on whatever they can get their hands on, the essential commonality of the spectator experience—the idea that the sporting arena is a grand convocation—diminishes; and the magical element of the sport is intangibly degraded. All this is of course highly contestable, but what cannot be denied is that money and markets have intruded into sport. At the very least, sporting bodies need to debate and be wary of their possible consequences for the character of individual sports. By their actions or inactions in respect of commercialization, professional sports organizers have the capacity to affect the character of their sports without fully realizing it. Unfortunately, we cannot expect much help from would-be corporate sponsors who will normally put short term profit ahead of the possible negative effects of their sponsorship.

One final topic I would like to touch on is inequality in sport between nations. I have argued that increasing professionalism has improved social inclusion and equality of opportunity in sport within nations. But this is probably not the case between nations.

If we start from the rough premise that innate athletic ability is randomly distributed across populations, then—if everyone had the same sporting opportunities—one might expect each country to achieve the same number of Olympic medals per capita. Of course, this is not the case. An econometric study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in America in 2000 found that the overwhelming determinant of how many medals in relation to its population each country has won historically is the level of per capita income: the higher per capita income, the higher the number of medals in relation to population, and vice versa. There were two main exceptions to this relationship: countries with large populations did less well insofar as the Olympic rules allow more entrants per capita for small countries; the other exception was that host countries usually do better than they would expect if they were not the host country. So, apart from the host country effect, small, rich countries are likely to do best on a per capita basis; large, poor countries are likely to do worst.

It is arguable that, with increasing professionalism and the need for increased coaching and other support if athletes are to win, the “wealth effect” on medal wins is becoming ever larger. As countries like India, Brazil, Indonesia and China catch up in terms of their economic well-being, the analysis would suggest that they should also be catching up in terms of medal wins. At the same time, if we believe that we should be striving for equality of opportunity for all athletes worldwide and a “fairer” distribution of medals between countries, we need to ask what more can be done to help the poorer countries.

One option which might give the large, poor countries a better share of medals relative to population would be to allow them a larger number of entrants to the Games.

Another option would be to establish a substantial international fund, under the auspices of the UN or the World Bank, to finance support for sports education and training, and for improved facilities, in the poorest countries. This would need to be funded partly by the Olympic committees in the wealthier countries and partly by governments. Could this be another legacy of the London Games?

Providing improved sporting opportunities for young people in poor countries would not only improve their chances of doing well at the Olympics. Perhaps even more importantly, it would make a contribution to making sport a larger part of poor people’s lives and thus to improving their health and general well-being and the cohesion of their societies.

How will these considerations affect the London Olympics?

It will be interesting to see how much the London organizers have thought about these issues, and if they have, how much they have felt they had to compromise for the sake of the money. On the question of ticket prices, they have clearly got it right by not charging the full market price for seats in the main stadium. Of course, this has led to complaints from the hundreds of thousands (including myself!) who failed to get tickets; but following Sandel, lower prices—though still quite hefty—mean that there will be a broader mix of social groups in the stadium and the idea of the Olympics as a civic festival will be more likely to be assured.

Unfortunately, however, the privileges apparently accorded to the large band of officials from other countries—from multiple tickets to dedicated vehicle lanes, made worse by the recent discovery of corrupt on-selling of tickets abroad—have somewhat tarnished the “civic festival” concept and left a sense in the minds of many Londoners of a “them and us” event. But this is more the fault of the International Olympic Committee and their excessive demands and of national committees overseas than the fault of the London organizers. It remains to be seen whether the sponsorship and branding by corporates will unfavorably affect the character of these Games. The Los Angeles Games in 1984, where commercialism and sponsorship really came of age, show that the spirit and character of the Games need not be unduly affected. But these London Games are a lot more expensive and we can only hope that the organizers have worked within certain self-limiting constraints. Have they gone too far in allowing branding and other commercial activities for the sake of mounting a more lavish Games—more lavish than really needed? Again, there are no easy answers. Without yet knowing the overall picture, it has to be said that a few of the sponsorships do not seem to be particularly well judged. And why should McDonalds be given a prime site to sell 1,000 unhealthy hamburgers per hour when good health is a key marker of the Olympics? And, likewise, the prime position given to Coca Cola? These Olympics seem to be missing out on the opportunity to send out a strong message on diet and exercise to counter the growing epidemic of obesity across some of the richer countries.

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