…And Why Activists Who Protest The Olympics Are Missing The Point.
I love the Olympics. I’m also a social justice and environmentalism campaigner – well, perhaps not as much now as I was in my 20’s.
So I have to tell you, when I read or hear of people condemning the Olympics for social justice or environmental reasons, I get irked.
Yes, I know that the Games are terribly commercial. Yes, I know that a lot of the athletes are paid professionals now. Yes, I know that the displays of national patriotism and pride can often get quite vulgar and obnoxious. And yes, I know that there are plenty of other important social causes that could have benefited from the money that governments spend hosting the Games or sending athletes overseas to compete.
Yes, I know all those things. I still love the games.
First: There’s a fallacy of false dilemma lurking in the way some activists criticize or ignore the games. For it is clearly possible to enjoy the Games without giving up one’s activist beliefs. Just as some anti-war campaigners say things like “Support the troops but oppose the war,” surely a similar proposition could apply to the Olympics. “Support the athletes but oppose the commercialism.” Additionally, it seems to me that refusing to watch the games on telly is a totally empty protest anyway. The organizers don’t notice, and so nothing changes. And finally, protesting the games by ignoring them does not feed the hungry nor shelter the homeless nor empower the powerless. And if the whole world ignored the games in protest against something, that would not stop the something being protested. That would stop the games, tout court.
Second: Sport is competitiveness properly channeled. In business, in politics, and almost every other field of human activity where competitiveness reigns, the nature of the competition is such that the losers must be punished and humiliated. In the competitiveness of warfare, the losers are killed. But in sport, the losers need not incur shame or punishment, and they don’t have to die. The comparison between sports and war-fighting is where this second proposition seems strongest to me. Sport is an endeavour in which human beings may experience the same, or very nearly the same, sense of adventure, drama, camaraderie, competition, danger, love, and the immensification of life, as many soldiers attribute to army life or to warfighting. But in sports, no one has to die.
Third: Olympians are sexy. I just watched today’s matches in women’s fencing, and it was probably the hottest thing I’ve seen in a very long time. When Elisa DiFrancesco knew she won gold, she roared at the crowd like a wild animal and then jumped on her coach in celebration, and I suddenly wished I could be just like her. And that’s to say nothing of the litheness of all those trained and muscular bodies, or the artistry of their movements on the gymnastics floor, or the diving board, or the running track, or – actually I’m not sure what this has to do with my original topic. Sorry for the distraction there.
Fourth: The Olympic are an instrument of world peace. Just think of all those countries in the world – countries who are otherwise at odds with each other, playing games of diplomatic one-upmanship, cheating each other on trade deals, or even licking their wounds after having openly fought each other on battlefields – all sending their elite athletes to a world class gathering dedicated to friendship and culture. The very idea is awesome! And the Olympics has sometimes (but very rarely) served as a global platform to make peace statements, such as Thor Heyerdahl’s call for peace in Sarajevo, during the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, 1994. The Olympics can also demonstrate other socially just and progressive values. For instance: this year, for the very first time, every competing country has women on their team. Of course, it can represent evil values too: the facist power displays of the Berlin 1936 Olympics is the often cited example. But today, some very strong social pressures are working to prevent that kind of thing from happening again, which were not as strong in 1936, making such things much less likely.
Finally: Human excellence deserves celebration. This is not just for the sake of creating role-models. It’s also that every record broken, every unexpected victory, every surprising strategic innovation, and so on, is an extension and expansion of human potential – an “edification of the type Man” to use Nietzsche’s terms. This is a spiritual thing: for this edification of the human is one of the ways that we mere mortals seek the highest and deepest things in life, address ourselves to the immensities, and sometimes achieve that wonderfully pagan kind of immortality: apotheosis.
This celebration of athletic excellence contributes something to the second proposition, that the Olympics is competitiveness properly channeled. For those who stand on the silver or bronze podiums, and those who didn’t quite get that far, may still be participating in the spiritual edification of humankind by the expansion of our athletic possibilities, and so they too are ‘winners’ of perhaps an existential sort. As are we all.
But given that human excellence deserves celebration, it is therefore entirely appropriate, I think, that the games should also be surrounded by quasi-pagan theatre and ritual in the opening and closing ceremonies. There’s the dramatization of sacred stories: the history of the games, and of the host nation. There’s the torch relay from a sacred centre, Mount Olympus, to the host city, and the lighting of a sacred fire. There’s the raising of flags, the swearing of oaths, the distribution of honours, and the procession of the magisters, also known as the political dignitaries and the athletes. There’s the ritualistic reversal of these actions in the closing ceremonies, providing a melancholy but aesthetically satisfying sense of completion. Finally there’s the totemic adoration of an icon with five rings, whose presence proclaims a set of shared public values, in a manner little different than the adoration of a God who proclaimed for us our laws. Done laughing? But the analogy is very real. For just as God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, so does Olympic Spirit gives us three commandments: “Faster, Higher, Stronger” – and in winter it gives us one more: “Unity Through Sport”. The Olympics celebrates human athletic excellence religiously, as it should. And sure, some of these theatrics might go beyond the ‘mean’, and stray into that vice which Aristotle called vanity: the excess of honour. But I see the risk of incurring that vice as just the price of admission.
Taken together, these ideas seem to me good reasons to celebrate and enjoy the games. Indeed, I see the games as the sort of thing that belongs in the socially just world that many activists, including myself, want to create. If you want the people to be free, let them have their games: for playing sports and games are things that free people do.
Some of these arguments may also apply to other large projects that could edify us all, even while there are also other pressing social problems. Building the Large Hadron Collider, for instance, or sending a robotic probe to Mars, need not exclude making education and health care more universally accessible, building decent infrastructure on First Nations reserves, or creating a progressive justice system that does not criminalize the poor. We really can have both at the same time – if we want them both and are willing to commit ourselves to them.
So sit down in front of your computer or your telly, tune into an Olympic event – any event, whether athletes from your country are competing or not – and celebrate that it is good to be human, and good to be alive on earth, because we human beings are actually quite amazing creatures. And if tomorrow you have some kind of social activism work you want to do, then go and do it. And if you think the Olympic spirit has been corrupted by commercialism, or that it only distracts us from other social problems or that it diverts resources from other needy causes, then go and protest those social problems. But don’t dismiss the Olympic spirit itself. And don’t disrespect the athletes.