I had planned to make this column an Olympics-free zone, figuring that games addicts would get more than their fill elsewhere. But then the Russians took the opportunity to invade Georgia, and the chance to make a few pungent comments on the modern Olympic tradition (as opposed to the ancient Greek one) was too good to miss.
The whole point of the four-yearly festival at Olympia in the western Peloponnessus was that it was a time when wars were suspended. Since wars between the many city-states of the time were more or less ongoing, this period of truce had enormous significance. There were occasional breaches, but they were very much the exception and the transgressors were thenceforth regarded as outsiders by the civilised world.
There were times when the tradition seemed to be taken to extremes: when the Persian despot Darius led an invasion of Greece and finally got past Thermopylae on his road to Athens, he was puzzled to find that the hitherto fierce resistance suddenly vanished. Puzzled, he interrogated some captured peasants who explained that it was the month of the Games; all wars ceased and the young men repaired to Olympia to compete for a wreath of olive leaves plucked from the sacred tree of Zeus. Fortunately they returned in time to defeat Darius at Salamis and Plataea and preserve both their traditions and democracy, but it was a close run thing.
Since the Olympiad was re-invented in 1896 wars have continued unchecked through the period of the games; indeed three times (in 1918, 1940 and 1944) they have been so intransigent that the games have been cancelled altogether. But as far as is known only the Russians have actually launched an invasion while the games are in progress. What’s more, this is the second time: they invaded Hungary during the Melbourne games of 1956, causing a savage outbreak during a water-polo match between the two countries.
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This, of course, is another great difference between the old and the new. The games of Olympics were contests between individuals, not nations. The young men of Greece competed for personal glory. Even the chariot races (the only teams event) was considered a contest between the individual owners. The idea of a country by country medal tally, let alone of politicians sitting in the stands and using the victories of their fellow countrymen as a photo-opportunity, is a parody of the tradition; indeed it is a contradiction in that it elevates the idea of nationalism, which is exactly what the original games aimed to remove from the festival.
The modern Olympics has been described as war without blood. The ancient Olympics was a great occasion, precisely because it was just sport — sport without war. This may now be an unattainable ideal, but at least the Russians could have waited another few days. Even a fortnight without anyone starting a war would be better than nothing.
The Northern Territory election was a nasty shock for Labor, and not just because of the size of the swing in a remote corner of the country. It suggested strongly that the advantages of incumbency have been greatly overstated, and is an ominous portent, particularly for the forthcoming election in Western Australia. The similarities are all too stark: an over-confident leader seeking to take advantage of a demoralised opposition by calling an early poll, without giving the voters a convincing reason why it should be necessary.
A sizeable number of Northern Territorians obviously felt that it wasn’t; they either refused to vote at all or took the opportunity to lodge a protest. In the tiny electorates of the Territory even a relatively small revolt can have a pretty big effect, as we have just seen. The reaction in the larger electorates of Western Australia may not be so drastic but there must be a few marginal backbenchers wishing their leader had been a bit more cautious and responsible.
There are, of course, other differences. The Country Liberal Party ran largely on a platform of law and order, which in the Territory (and in some other parts of Australia) is code for race: less welfare and more gaol for Aborigines. But the mere fact that this campaign took off could spell wider trouble. This was the first election to really test the political implications of the Howard intervention into Aboriginal communities, and the message appears to be that they liked Mal Brough’s gung-ho approach more than former Chief Minister Clare Martin’s more consultative one. It is to be hoped that other endangered Labor governments do not try and hang on to office using the same populist message.
And despite ever more strident pleas to p-ss or get off the pot, Peter Costello can still not summon up the strength to do either; obviously his working holiday on the beaches of Fiji has sapped what little energy he had left after a hard year of procrastination. However, his supporters, especially those on The Australian, report a glimmer of hope: their hero, may, just may, be willing to accept coronation as leader of the Liberal Party if, but only if, he receives no opposition of any kind and is not required so much as a finger on his own behalf.
Even then he is not making any promises, but it should be firmly understood that if the exercise involves any effort of any kind on his part, then all bets are off. It is not entirely clear whether this guarantee should apply only to the process of levering him into office, or whether it would extend to his full tenure as leader. But given his record, this probably doesn’t matter; it would make no difference either way.