The Olympic Conundrum: A Better World for Whom?

By: Alan Tomlinson

August 22, 2016

Olympic Values in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio

The modern Olympic Games has throughout its history balanced the promotion of nationalist aspirations and national pride alongside an idealized universalism fostering international understanding. The Olympic Games could not have survived without this ideological balancing act. The founder of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, believed that international sporting competition could generate what he called a free-trade of the future, a form of transnational cultural encounter that could create understanding between diverse cultures and national rivals. He and his associates, whose commitment to the revivalist Olympic cause nudged the Olympic Games into life in 1896 in Athens, also referenced the truce that was observed between warring city-states when the Olympic Games came around in ancient Greece.

But the project was from the start rooted in contradictions. Athens in 1896 sparked a nationalist surge in Greece that was to lead the country into a disastrous conflict with Turkey; the Summer Olympic Games in Athens in 2004 symbolized a fragile Greek economy that began to overstretch itself and imploded in the 2008 economic crisis. Any visitor to the neglected and weed-strewn Olympic Park in Athens can see the speed with which a grandiose Olympic vision can collapse, becoming evidence not of the potential for human excellence but of the vainglorious posturings of careerist event-mangers and politicians. If the IOC, or the Olympic Family, as its idealists and apologists like to label the organization, really wants to contribute to peace and understanding in a troubled world, why not mobilise some of its vast resources from its “partners”—sponsors and broadcasters—and transform the Athens site into a haven for refugees, sustained by a local community that knows what it’s like to see a future with limited promises and populations?

So as IOC president Thomas Bach carefully chose his words describing the Rio de Janeiro Olympic experiment—the first time the Olympic Games have been staged in South America—as an “iconic” event leaving a “unique legacy,” what currency do the games still have, particularly in relation to humanitarian goals? The ideological tight-rope act remains pretty much the same; how can human feats of physical excellence and often spellbinding aesthetic bodily performance sustain relevance in a conflict-ridden world characterized by increasing threats of terrorism and armed conflicts both within and between nations and polities? 

The chief organizer of the Rio Olympic Games has called them “a great challenge” but also a “great success.” They came in on time, we grant him that. And of course the visually seductive setting of Rio is an irresistible visual gift to the telecasters and the reporters. Nevertheless, rows of empty seats, at venues large and small, stick in the spectatorial mind. But why should Rio’s citizens find obscure forms of cycling of great interest, or bother with esoteric forms of martial art such as the parvenu taekwondo? And of course the cost of admission, for the vast majority of the Rio population, was out of reach. Brazil mustered seven gold medals, including the men’s football gold after three final losses in 1984, 1988, and 2012; a raucous and celebratory crowd filled the Maracana for this, a kind of redemption for the traumatising loss by 7 goals to 1 to Germany in the final of the World Cup in the stadium two summers previously. History wouldn’t be concerned with the fact that these were totally different line-ups from 2014; in the Olympic soccer teams, all players but three are under 23 years of age. And superstar Neymar, hacked out of the tournament in 2014, led the cathartic charge to gold. But apart from moments like this, the host population let the games go by, oblivious to the lofty idealism of de Coubertin and the contemporary Olympic Family.

Essentially, the Olympics survives as, in George Orwell’s unforgettable formulation, a form of war without weapons, offering a forum for international rivalry benignly expressed in the sporting arena, and tempered by a widely expressed mutual respect between competitors. The respect didn’t always hold: Soviet swimmer Yulia Efimova, twice-banned for doping, was booed and commented “Rio was awful. It was war.” Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes branded the U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte, lying his way out of Brazil, a weak character with personality flaws. Some individuals can, though, utterly transcend the political or cultural moment, whether this be Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s triple treble over three Olympics; the charm and effervescence of U.S. gymnast Simone Biles; or the triumphs, replicating his London 2012 achievements, of the United Kingdom’s Mo Farrah in both the 5,000 meter and 10,000 meter events. And the IOC did some good work in approving the squad of Independent Olympic Athletes, as it did in Barcelona in 1992 in the wake of the Balkan crisis. In Rio, 10 athletes from four countries made up the “team.” Two of these, from Kuwait, whose Olympic committee was suspended due to governmental interference in sport, won medals for shooting.

But if the IOC is to continue to claim that it is “committed to building a better world through sport,” it should look at itself more closely and ask what some of its long-term individual members have contributed to the cause. And remember, as the IOC states, its members “are representatives of the IOC in their respective countries, and not their country’s delegate within the IOC.” So if international cooperation, global amelioration, peace, and international understanding are vital to the IOC and its future, rather than just pleasing the corporate partners and the media barons, perhaps it could ask more of its privileged membership. How, for instance, have the IOC’s representatives His Highness the Sovereign Prince Albert II of Monaco (elected 1985), His Royal Highness the Grand Duke of Luxembourg (elected 1998), Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal (elected 1988), and the veteran royal member Her Highness the Princess Nora of Liechtenstein (elected 1984), contributed to the humanitarian ideals whose rhetoric is still sustaining a bloated behemoth that runs the risk of becoming a vehicle for United States—and perhaps even British—triumphalism?
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