Twilight of the Olympic Idols
This new Olympic flame behold, that once burned bright in Greece of old;
This new Olympic flame behold,
that once burned bright in Greece of old;
with happy hearts receive once more
these Games revived on London's shore.
Thus begins the Pindaric ode composed by Oxford academic Armand D'Angour, commissioned by Boris Johnson and recited by the London mayor before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at the Opening Gala for the 2012 Summer Olympics. By Johnson's own estimation, the work "breathes new life into the ancient custom of celebrating the greatness of the Games through poetry." At a ceremony where pomp trumps majesty and delusion trumps reality, this seems a fitting appraisal.
It is true that the Greeks celebrated their athletic feats with poetry and that the modern Games find their origin in ancient Greece. But as with much that has been inherited from that peerless age -- e.g., science, philosophy, democracy -- the spirit that animated the Greek festival is largely incommensurable with what inspires the Games of modern day. The mere fact that we refer to them as games is revealing. There is a certain insouciance that inheres in that word, especially when compared with the Greek agôn (contest, struggle), which is what the Greeks understood their "games" to be and from which decidedly less insouciant words such as "agony," "antagonism," and "paragon" are derived.
The Greeks were a fiercely competitive people whose interminable quest for glory, power, and pre-eminence continually threatened to destroy their civilization. (In the end, it did.) Montesquieu observed that in order to understand them, "one must regard the Greeks as a society of athletes and warriors."
The Greeks believed that physical training was necessary for man's development -- for his complete development. A human being who cultivated his mind but failed to cultivate his body would be something of an aberration. Accordingly, athletics constituted a part of the Greek education every bit as central as reading, writing, and arithmetic do in our own. Indeed, in some communities, gymnastic training was a condition of citizenship. Thus, competitors at the ancient Olympics were not professional athletes (owing to the fact that there were no professional athletes in ancient Greece), but rather were (extra)ordinary citizens who vied to secure their own glory and, in so doing, the glory of their respective city-states. To appreciate the significance that the Greeks ascribed to these athletic contests, one need only consider the divine context in which they were situated: the festival at Olympia was intended to honor Zeus, whose home was on Mount Olympus, and for whom the agones, with their evocations of human excellence, were thought to be a befitting spectacle.
There is no commensurately transcendent aim to the modern Games. The Olympics are a spectacle not for the gods, but for ourselves. While the Greeks were a society of athletes and warriors, mankind now comprises nations of shopkeepers -- a phrase Napoleon pejoratively applied to England, but from which fewer and fewer nations are exempt, not least of all Napoleon's own. One can appreciate why those who wish to celebrate the modern Games attempt to link them to the grandeur of that ancient festival, but that narrative is a myth, and by the standards of the Greeks, a rather paltry myth at that.
Perhaps it is through not competition, but rather camaraderie that the true spirit of the Olympics is revealed, and in this regard, one could argue, the moderns have been faithful to the ancient ideal. As had the festival at Olympia, the modern Games, wherever they may be held, peaceably bring together athletes who hail from different homelands -- homelands that not infrequently maintain hostile relations with one another -- and permit those individuals to exhibit their athletic talents on a grand stage. Indeed, the moderns have gone so far as to restore the ancient Greek tradition of the ekecheria (literally "holding of hands"), replete with a U.N. resolution that "urges Member States to observe the Olympic Truce from the seventh day before the opening and the seventh day following the closing of each of the Olympic Games," so that the goal of the Olympic movement -- "to build a peaceful and better world" -- can be realized.
Tabling the fact that the Greeks had no desire to build a peaceful world and discounting the irony contained in the fact that the truce lasted up to three months for a people that revered war and only a month for a people that hallows peace (presumably, faster means of traveling permit people to get to and from the Games in less time, and, as a logical consequence, to reinstate hostilities with greater celerity as well), to argue that the modern truce is reflective of an esprit de corps comparable to what reposed in ancient Greece is just further paltry mythmaking.
The Greeks felt themselves to be Greek in a manner that has no parallel in today's international arena. It is why the city-states, though mired in perpetual conflict, fought together to oppose the barbarians -- i.e. those who were not Greek, who threatened Hellas. As Herodotus recounts, on the eve of the Battle of Platea during Persia's second invasion of Greece, the Spartans were worried that the Athenians would form an alliance with the Persians, who had sent an envoy to Athens for that purpose. In response to Sparta's concerns, the Athenians declaimed (emphasis added):
No doubt it was natural that the Lacedaemonians should dread the prospect of our making terms with Persia; none the less it shows a poor estimate of the spirit of Athens. There is not so much gold nor land so fair that we would take for pay to join the common enemy and bring Greece into subjection. There are many compelling reasons against our doing so, even if we wished: the first and greatest is the burning of the temples and images of our gods - now ashes and rubble. It is our bounded duty to avenge this desecration with all our might - not to clasp the hand that wrought it. Again there is the Greek nation - the community of blood and language, temples and rituals, and our common customs; if Athens were to betray all this, it would not be well done.
Though we are inclined to regard mankind as being concrete and not an abstraction, nothing analogous obtains today. The Greeks did not require the Olympic festival to feel Greek. Rather, their sense of Greekness preceded the festival. Today, the converse prevails. As current IOC president, Jacques Rogge has expressed on a number of occasions that the Modern Olympic Games will create a spirit of community, brotherhood, and world citizenship. But to what community of blood and language do the 204 National Olympic Committees that participated in the 2012 Olympics belong? What temples and rituals do they consecrate in concert? What common customs bind them together? It is all well and good to speak about brotherhood and community and world citizenship, but for these principles not to be vacuous and chimerical, something more than the bonds forged through athletic competitions is needed.
However quixotic the Olympic Movement may be, one might be inclined to extol it all the same. Of course the Olympics will not bring peace to the Middle East or unify the Korean peninsula. But the principles embodied in that movement and upheld on the international stage for all to see make the modern Games inspiring and worthy of emulation. But even in this far more modest regard, the Olympics fall hopelessly short. On the 40th anniversary of the Munich Massacre, when Rogge's refusal to set aside a commemorative moment of silence has engendered so much indignation and when the impolitic tweets of a couple of twits has garnered so much attention, it is remarkable that the actions of the Lebanese Judo team did not create more of a stir. At the official training facility at Redbridge, in East London, Lebanon's two judokas refused to practice in view of the Israeli judokas who were scheduled to use the gym at the same time. Although, as stated in the official Olympic Charter, "any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement," the Lebanese complaint somehow failed to violate the spirit of the Olympics. Acquiescing to their demands, officials erected a barrier so that the Lebanese judokas would not have to gaze upon their Israeli neighbors. Had the situation been reversed, one suspects that the outcome would not have been the same.
Consistency has never been a hallmark of the IOC. The same committee that waxes eloquently about peace, tolerance, and brotherhood unqualifiedly permits nations who flout those ideals -- and often do so with brazenness and brutality -- to participate. If the presumption is that by welcoming them into the fraternal order they will behave more in a more brotherly way, adherents of the Olympic Movement are sadly deluded.
Just how wide the gulf is between the Olympian ideals of the modern Games and the practical -- and political -- reality that surrounds them is betrayed routinely by the very people who champion those ideals and organize the Games. This may be lamentable, but it should hardly be surprising. At bottom, the modern Olympic vision is utopian through and through. One might find in this a further instance of honoring the ancient Greeks who bequeathed to posterity the first utopian vision in the form of Plato's Republic. But as with the argument that the modern Olympics restore an ancient tradition, this notion is utterly fanciful and fallacious. Unlike classical utopianism, modern utopianism fails to distinguish dream from reality, which is why it is so pernicious.
The ancients tell us that to demand a perfect society in the foreseeable future is to be mad; while to expect a perfect society to exist at all, at any time, is to be utopian. By the standards of the ancients, the modern era and its modern societies are suffused with quite unreasonable expectations, and have therefore an equally unreasonable attitude toward political reality. We confuse words with deeds, philosophical dreams with the substantial actualities of human existence. And, of course, the ancients anticipated that from such a dire confusion only disaster could result. (Irving Kristol, Utopianism, Ancient and Modern.)
The Olympics are not likely to sow disaster anymore than they are to forestall it. But if the IOC really wants to right the wrongs that pervade the world today, it would be better to actually address them rather than ignore or, worse still, legitimize them. On the whole, it would be judicious for the IOC, as steward of the Olympic Movement, to temper its political passions and to recognize its own limitations. The Games should not be propagandized as a performance that will dispel discord from the world; rather, they should be glorified for what they are: an event where paragons of athleticism compete on the world stage and where the human body and spirit are exalted for all to see. By doing so, the modern Olympics would do much more to honor the legacy of the Greeks and much less to tarnish its own.