Clash of the Titans LXXXVI: The Olympic Games

August 8, 2008, 12:00 pm; posted by
Filed under Debate, Kaitlin, Steve  | 4 Comments

In this corner, opposing the Olympics, is Kaitlin!

And in this corner, supporting them, is Steve!

An honest, dispassionate evaluation of the Olympics, stripped of hype and emotionalism, will garner little more than distaste and disillusionment. “The Games have always brought people together in peace to respect universal moral principles,” declares the International Olympic Committee website. And yet the Olympic Games have been fraught with scandal, politicization, and shamefully extravagant spending. Those are, I suppose, universal principles, but perhaps not the ones the IOC means to evoke.

The 1952 Olympics, highly charged with Cold War hostilities, did little more than inflame already tense relations. “There were many more pressures on American athletes because of the Russians,” said U.S. decathlon winner Bob Mathias. “They were in a sense the real enemy. You just loved to beat ”˜em. You just had to beat ”˜em. . . . This feeling was strong down through the entire team.”

The 1976 Olympics resulted in financial ruin for host city Quebec. The debt they incurred took decades to pay off. The Nazis, during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, hoped to establish their country as a superpower by exhibiting their superiority. China\’s goals are much the same this year in Beijing.

Other inevitable consequences of the Olympics, both present and past: championing an ethos of winning at all costs, even if the costs include a foreshortened childhood or lifelong physical effects; xenophobia, especially if Americans win less and economically threatening countries win more; poor stewardship of both environmental and social resources.

Moreover, the Olympic Games throw into sharp relief the drastic differences in advantages of rich and poor countries. Between the commercial sponsors and the unavoidably constant testing of the human body to see how far it can go, the Olympics are practically just a giant, corporately backed, international science experiment.

To truly embody the spirit the IOC wishes to spread throughout the world, athletes should compete on a purely individual level, regardless of their nations of birth. By forgoing nationalistic divisions, the IOC might do much in the way of their cherished unity. Furthermore, the Games should be completely privatized. As Stephen Hugh-Jones wrote in More Intelligent Life, “If private sector companies choose to sponsor the Olympics, that\’s up to them. But why on earth hurl public funds at these tarnished saturnalia?”

I love the Olympic Games. In ’06, I watched as much as I could, filling up old videotapes with hours of skiing, skating, and the euphonious luge. I studied with the Games in the background, the hum of competition spurring me on to a more perfect knowledge of the UCC.

I freely admit that the Games suffer from corruption and waste, just like any organization of their massive size. I’m not wild about how the IOC rewarded a horribly repressive government with the honor of hosting them this year. And I understand that, as symbols go, the Games are incredibly expensive and frequently ineffective.

Yet I love them still. Here’s why.

As a universal, guileless language, sports are uniquely positioned to change the world. Take ping-pong diplomacy. Before Nixon could go to China, a hippie named Glenn Cowan had to board the wrong bus at the world championships in Japan; there he struck up an unlikely friendship with China’s best player. Mao saw pictures of the two exchanging gifts (in violation of Chinese policy), and suddenly the U.S. team was invited to China: the first non-Communist Americans to visit in 20 years. The tour was a grand success — tearing down stereotypes and clearing out Vietnam-era mistrust. 10 days after the team left, Nixon was formally invited to Beijing.

Governments only get away with things when people aren’t paying attention. Say what you will about the Games, but the world, billions strong, will be watching. And what will they see there? Each other. The Games are run by simpering bureaucrats, but Olympic athletes remain the most accurate representation of a nation’s people. Nations are ruled by a privileged few; the United Nations is full of diplomats, politicians, and (worst of all) lawyers. But Olympians are ordinary people — folks like you and me — with world-class talent. And inspiring stories: in 2000, Lopez Lomong, the American flag-bearer at the opening ceremonies, was a Sudanese boy in flight from genocide, catching his first glimpse of the Olympics on a black-and-white TV at a Kenyan refugee camp.

Eight years later, he carries our flag. He runs for us.

Human beings are made to play, made to compete. Just as capitalism harnesses our fallen nature for our economic benefit, sports allow us to divert our natural passion and aggression — even (gasp!) nationalism — into productive channels. Sports improve the body while they train the mind — to work together with others, to move gracefully through space, to demand more of ourselves than we ever dreamed possible. And in a world where truth seems all too elusive, where postmodernism rips at the foundations of belief, sports offer exactly what we crave: standards and objectivity, doled out by the hands of a clock and the numbers on a scoreboard.

Yes. The Games are expensive. But they are also useful, inspiring, fun — and part of what makes us uniquely human.

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4 Comments to “Clash of the Titans LXXXVI: The Olympic Games”

  1. Steve on August 8th, 2008 12:02 pm

    Oh, how I hate it when the poll won’t work.

    The Atlanta Games were largely funded by private industry and actually turned a profit; you’ll see little anti-privatization argument from me. But without tribal and national ties, what rational reason is there for one stranger to be interested in the athletic exploits of another? Of course you might argue that there’s no *rational* reason now…but that gets into the issue of the value of sports in general.

    I think, in the end, the problems with the Olympics reflect the problems of humanity, which, to me, makes the Games more attractive. We are messy, wasteful, and even occasionally xenophobic — but capable still of achieving great things.

  2. Kaitlin on August 8th, 2008 5:33 pm

    If “great things” are defined as vanquishing an opponent who only holds that designation because of his birthplace, and triumphing primarily because of the economic inequities that the winners almost invariably are privy to, then yes, we are capable of achieving great things. But like you said, this comes down to whether sports are even worth pursuing in the first place. I won’t deny that “bodily exercise profits a little,” but it’s not enough to justify billions of dollars in government spending.

  3. David on August 11th, 2008 5:40 pm

    All in all the olympics are worth it; and cheering for your nation is the only thing that makes it interesting enough to tune in. And actually we do not dominate like we should. I saw a comparison of Europe vss. The US and when you equal out the populations in that way we actually greatly under achieve based on the amount of medals we win.

  4. Steve on August 14th, 2008 9:33 pm

    Just overhauled our poll system, by the way.

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