The nearer we come to the opening ceremony in London, the more piffle we’ll have to endure from the media about the “Olympic ideal” and the “Olympic spirit”. No international event is supported by so much unquestioning hype about its origins and traditions. What’s forgotten in all this is that the games have undergone huge changes in their 116-year history. In many fundamental ways, the “Olympic spirit” is now the opposite of its initial expression.
Not long ago any competitor found to have even the hint of professionalism about them had their medals taken back by the International Olympic Committee. The Games themselves were commercially pure, with no sponsorship or advertising allowed. Now, the same IOC negotiates billion-dollar deals with sponsors and TV networks.
For London 2012, these “worldwide partners” — the current euphemism for multinational sponsors –include such health-promoting corporations as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Dow Chemical (the wonderful people who brought India the Bhopal disaster). Most of the athletes are full-time professionals paid to train and compete by their governments, and contracted to endorse the clothing and equipment they use.
But big money is not the only change. The event itself has grown and mutated into a grotesque version of its original ideals.
The modern Olympics are largely the invention of the French aristocrat, Pierre Frèdy, (aka Baron de Coubertin) who was entranced by the rigorous “mind and body” sporting ethic he saw in the great 19th-century English public schools, especially at Rugby. As a classicist, he transmuted his ideas about how physical exercise promoted moral and social strength into a romantic re-imagining of the games of ancient Greece. Those games had been held at three other locations throughout Greece, but he decided to idealise only those held at Olympia every four years.
From the outset, de Coubertin’s concept of the original Olympics was founded on two major misconceptions. First, the ancient competitors weren’t noble amateurs competing only for the glory. Most were hardened professionals — especially the boxers — and richly rewarded for their success. Nor did the games bring peace between the ever-warring city states of Greece. It’s likely the only peaceable concession was to allow athletes on their way to the games free passage across the warring internal borders.
It’s important to also bear in mind that de Coubertin and the early supporters of the games were all upper-class males, steeped in the aristocratic prejudice of maintaining the strict gentlemen v. players divisions in sport. Their long resistance to any form of professionalism at the Olympics wasn’t so much a moral allegiance to the ethics of pure amateurism, but a policy designed to keep out the “paid to play” riff-raff. De Coubertin himself was disappointed that polo wasn’t included in the first Games.
These days, even though the old professional/amateur exclusions have long since been discarded, some of their weird contradictions remain. In soccer, the world’s most popular professional sport, the Olympic teams are nominally under-23 sides so as to prevent nations packing their teams with seasoned superstars. Yet in tennis, any of the top players from the ATP and WTA circuits — all squillionaires — are free to compete for a vanity gold medal. The inconsistency is obvious, yet nobody complains.
Elsewhere, the class-ridden, euro-centric origins of the Games still peep through. Many sports survive in the Olympic program even though they would seem to have been the preserve of Western elites for more than a century.
Fencing? How many people around the world do a quiet bit of épée work to relax? And what could be more upper-class than clay pigeon shooting, a ritualised pantomime of the landed gentry potting pheasant and grouse — but without all that tiresome tramping through the woods?
Elsewhere, the First World/Third World divide of the Olympics is inescapable. For the past 20 years runners from Africa and the Caribbean have been able to dominate in athletics, largely because running is a pure sport that needs no special equipment.
But what chance, for example, do athletes from poor land-locked nations such as Chad or Bolivia have in sailing? And there’s not much opportunity for aspiring white-water canoeists to hone their skills if they happen to live in the Sudan.
Meanwhile the modern pentathlon — run, swim, shoot, fence and ride — is still in the Olympic program despite being an entirely invented discipline that mimics the accomplishments expected of 19th-century military officers, to the manor born.
Equestrian events (where the horse does most of the work anyway) are perhaps the ultimate expression of the upper-class skew of the Olympics. It’s impossible to compete at international level without huge financial resources. There’s not much dressage or three-day-eventing going on in East Timor.
And for those who think the Games may finally be ridding themselves of this euro-centric, trans-Atlantic bias, the news isn’t encouraging. The two new sports for 2016 in Rio will be golf and rugby sevens.
*Part two tomorrow: the way politics and the media have corrupted many of the original Olympic ideals