Stuff from Way Back #9: Olympics

          Once again the Olympics are upon us, as London hosts the quadrennial city-bankrupting festival that every city nevertheless craves.  Of course, now it is not just the expense of building new venues that will likely go unused after the event, but also the cost of providing security in a world descending into paranoid madness over the issue of terrorism.  A British warship come up the Thames to London, surface-to-air missiles on the roofs of apartment houses and with the failure of the contracted security firm more British military personnel than are currently fighting in Afghanistan.  You might guess that the Armada or Luftwaffe is heading towards the city.

On the other hand, since the site is London and not Beijing or Moscow or Riyadh there are no boycotts or protests to disturb the celebration of sport (and sports equipment) and no voices decrying the “politicizing” of the Olympics.  And the Cold War is over, which means no ideologically motivated second guessing of East Block gymnastic judges and no East German women with mustaches and bulges between their legs, always a favorite of the post-war games. Nationalism and patriotic tribalism are of course alive and well, but mobs chanting “USA! USA!” and individual athletes being absorbed into the national herd is not considered inappropriately political.  You may trumpet the superiority of your country; just don’t criticize it.

Is this not how it should be?  Pure sport (well, except for the nationalism), and amateur athletes (except for the professionals) competing simply for honor (except for the product endorsements).  According to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics: “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.”  Fine sentiments indeed, except that they have nothing whatsoever to do with the Greeks and the ancient games.

The strongest component of the Greek character was agōn, the need to compete or struggle, and this drive manifested itself in every aspect of their society, from sporting events and dramatic contests to constant political upheaval and warfare.  Unlike the Romans, the Greeks were definitely not team players, and even sex was viewed as a kind of competition, with a winner and a loser.  One result of this urge to competition was the fragmentation of Greece into hundreds of independent and narcissistic little political units, the city-states.  All life revolved around the city-state community, and you were not so much a Greek as you were an Athenian or a Theban or a Corinthian, willing to do almost anything to demonstrate the superiority of your city.

Since everything you did reflected upon your city, everything you did had a political aspect, and sport was no exception.  The original Olympics were consequently highly politicized, more so than their modern successors, and places like Argos and Chios had discovered the public relations value of athletic triumphs long before Berlin or Beijing.  And as far as lionizing our sports figures goes, how many mothers now pray to Jim Thorpe or Wilma Rudolph to cure a sick child?

Ancient Olympians were also hardly the disinterested amateurs of de Coubertin and Avery Brundage.  By the last quarter of the fifth century BC professional athletes were already dominating the games, which were rapidly evolving into pure spectator sport.  Competitors were financially supported by wealthy individuals or the cities themselves, and it became a common (and frequently derided) practice for a city to hire a successful athlete from another city, in effect a ringer, to compete as one of their own citizens and enhance their “medal count.”

But even before the emergence of the professionals the Olympics fell considerably short of de Coubertin’s dream of pure sport.  Amateur athletes expected serious financial gain from their victories, and although the big festivals at Olympia, Nemea, Delphi and Isthmia granted only wreaths, those victors could expect substantial material rewards from their cities.  Money, valuable goods, tax breaks, public support and even political preferences awaited the winners, all of which calls to mind the “amateur” Olympians of the former East Block countries, with their cars, apartments and special access to western goods.

Far more accurately than de Coubertin, Coach Vince Lombardi captured the attitude of the Greek athlete: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”  Greek society had little sympathy for life’s losers or those who tried their best and failed.  There was no second and third place, and losing brought dishonor and even public disgrace.  Consider the epitaph of Agathos Daimon, buried at Olympia: “He died here, boxing in the stadium, having prayed to Zeus for the crown or for death.  Aged 35.  Farewell.”

For all the pressure to win, however, we know of remarkably few instances of cheating in the thousand year history of the games.  For one thing, given the relative simplicity of the events and the lack of our modern pharmacopoeia, it was not that easy to cheat in the athletic competitions, though bribing judges in the more subjective artistic events was certainly possible.  More important, though, was the fact that the Olympic games were first and foremost a religious festival, honoring the god Zeus, and cheating meant that an angry deity would sooner or later be on your case.

In practice the ancient games were more politicized than their modern counterparts, and were it not for the fact that the classical world did not have a consumer market economy, they would almost certainly have been as commercialized.  Souvenirs were in fact sold, and had the Greeks discovered marketing, their businessmen would certainly have vied for the right to sell the official tunic or kylix or whatever of the Olympics.  Even the discoverers of rationalism and builders of the Parthenon could indulge in bad taste.

The modern games have left de Coubertin behind and now more closely approach the spirit of the ancient Olympics, celebrating victory and gain rather than simple participation and effort.  Only in their universalism can the modern Olympics claim to be something greater than the original.  The classical games were limited to able-bodied males (the Greeks would find our Special Olympics an obscene joke) and until the Romans took over, Greeks.  On the other hand, the Greeks considered anyone who did not speak Greek to be a barbarian, so why bother?

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