In a follow-up to yesterday’s piece on the Olympic “ideal”, an examination of the way politics and the media have corrupted the Olympic tradition …
Much of what we accept as the treasured mythology of the Olympics is bunkum.
The most obvious example is the torch relay — these days invested with almost religious significance by Games organisers and the media. It was never part of the ancient Olympics, or the modern Games for their first 40 years.
The torch relay was invented by the Nazis for the 1936 Games. As we know, the Nazis had a thing about flames — the torch-lit Nuremberg processions, book burnings, the Reichstag fire, the concentration camp crematoria. And it’s no surprise that the original torches in 1936 were made by Krupp, the German armaments manufacturer.
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But maybe the most unsettling corruption of the original Olympic ideal is the media’s relentless insistence on framing it as a competition between nations. That was never the intention of Pierre de Coubertin and his supporters. They believed they had founded an international competition, not a competition between nations.
Yet now, the “medal tally” is promoted as the most important aspect of the whole event. Commentators blather endlessly about how “we” are faring against other countries. Government funding for elite sports development in Australia is politically driven and justified on the basis of our anticipated gold medal haul at future Olympics.
Those totals can be made to look falsely impressive because the Games themselves have inflated at an extraordinary rate. At the first modern Olympics, 52 contests were decided. Added over the decades to many of those basic sports have been a multiplicity of divisions and disciplines to synthetically expand the competition. These are usually based on body weight or endless variations of time, distance and numbers in a team.
In London there will be 302 medal events, including 10 separate sailing competitions, 13 in boxing, 14 in judo, 14 in rowing, 15 in shooting, 15 in weightlifting, 16 in canoeing, and 18 each in cycling, gymnastics and wrestling. Even if we halve some of those numbers for the men’s and women’s medals, the suspicion remains that the IOC has been creating distinctions just to bulk up the Games. In boxing, some of the weight divisions are now so narrow you could be eliminated in the morning session, tuck into a three-course lunch and come back in the afternoon to fight in the next higher group.
There is, of course, a well-worn argument that this approach has been created to give everyone a fair chance, but that principle is inconsistently applied. In many other Olympic sports where physique also has a direct bearing on performance — high jumping is the best example — there are no concessions to body type or size. Where is the high-jump division for sawn-off runts? Conversely, where is the hammer-throw division for sparrow-chested 60-kilogram weaklings?
The most overlooked example of these synthetic disciplines is in a sport where Australia always expects to do well: swimming. In London there will be 34 medal events decided in the pool. Surely the only fair contest over the various swimming distances is to let competitors get to the other end of the pool however they like. But no, we have a multiplicity of events in freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly, plus medleys of all four.
The utter nonsense of these separate contests becomes apparent if we compare swimming with track. Where are the gold medal athletics events for running backwards, or on one leg, or with both hands in the air? Too many of these multiple divisions and disciplines appear arbitrary and even ridiculous.
Maybe more to the point, any true test of athletic ability should be entirely individual. It makes a mockery of the original Olympic ideal to have 10 team members denied a medal because the 11th botched a penalty shoot-out. Genuinely fair competition should also exclude factors beyond a competitor’s control, such as climatic conditions. Nor should it be decided by performance levels that cannot be physically measured. It must also be free of the influence of varied mechanical equipment.
So let’s imagine, for a moment, an Olympic Games that adhered strictly to the actual values embodied in its founding principles, and the “Citius, Altius, Fortius” motto.
This pure Olympics wouldn’t include team sports (out go hockey, football, basketball, volleyball, handball and water polo). Sports that rely on subjective judging would also be excluded (gymnastics, diving, synchronised swimming, boxing), as would events that are influenced by weather or involve equipment with moving parts (sailing, shooting, cycling, archery).
These Games would certainly be short, but at least they’d be fair. Which, more or less, brings us back to what the historians believe the original Olympics in Greece were like when they kicked off around 776BC. They were straightforward athletic contests to establish which competitors were the fastest, strongest and could leap highest (or longest). And to make sure nobody cheated, all participants competed in the nude.
Now that might be something to lift the television ratings.
*Crikey sports-lovers: we want to document the most egregious abuses of the “Olympic spirit” in media coverage of the Games over the next few weeks. Send us the worst news report clichés and commentary hyperbole and we’ll find a prize for the best responses …