The Lost Spirit of the Olympics

Photo: BBC

Bread and Games. That was the Roman emperors’ recipe to keep the people happy. In some way, we have lowered our expectations since that period, as we now have to work to win our bread. Now, our satisfaction is guaranteed through the Games only. For fifteen days, the world was turned towards London and as we watched thousands of athletes push their bodies to the limits as we forget everything else. We have forgotten Syria, where Bachar al-Assad did not stop the repression to watch the Games. We have forgotten world hunger, which touches so many of the countries represented in London. We have forgotten about our home politics, thanks to all the media who have put the Olympics coverage over other information. For fifteen days, the world has breathed, eaten and lived Olympics. Every night, thirty million Americans and seven million French watched the Games.

But what did those people watch? They mainly watched a commercial product. Yes, whatever the preachers of the Olympic spirit might say, the Games are first and above all a brand. And a successful one. The most valuable companies in the world fought to win one of the numerous official sponsorships. They paid millions for the TV channels to broadcast the same commercial over and over again. In many ways, the spirit of the Olympics has been lost to the free market. And as the market gained power, its flaws appeared, including when the British press revealed how some officials have tried to sell back to the black market the invitations they have been given by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Meanwhile, the IOC took whatever measures they deemed necessary to ensure the success of the Games. They re-enforced the private security companies by requisitioning British Army forces, while also applying a rigorous “apolitical” policy to the athletes who are forbidden to express any political message during the Games. This allows them to organise the Games in Beijing, China (2008) and Sotchi, Russia (Winter Olympics 2014), without the risk of bothering these regimes with political actions such as Tommie Smith’s black-gloved fist in 1968. Control over the athletes goes way beyond this. Not only are they not allowed to express personal political opinions, but they also have obligations to respond to the media, some of which are more polemical. For example, they must wear the contractual outfits, up to… their earphones. A British athlete could be sanctioned in the next few days for using her own material instead of the contractual one.

However, the IOC itself has worldwide political implications as it demonstrates during the Games by authorizing a Saudi athlete to compete with a veil. If this decision has shocked in France because of the “laïcité”, it can be understood in regards to the multi-national responsibility of the IOC. But the Committee has made other decisions even more controversial. For example, they deliberately refused the Paralympics to be hold at the same time as the Olympics. This means that in two weeks, handicapped athletes will compete in almost-empty stadiums without the Flame lit off and some installations being already dismantled. Ironically, this lack of respect is rather incompatible with the Olympic spirit. But, it does not seem incompatible with some allegations – yet to be proven – of corruption within the Olympic Committee.

The Games are more than a sports event: they are a market and the IOC has to make tough decisions to preserve them. They also represent  patriotism and national pride in an important political time when are these are, for the most part, universally accepted. The British, and as the Chinese and the Greeks before them, showed an immense pride in their organization of the Games, and received in exchange a large amount admiration for their culture. It is for this national pride, for receiving the world’s attention that Paris is looking one more time to candidate for the organisation of the 2024 Olympics.

But the pride does not lie only in the organization of the games. Victory plays also an important part in the exaltation of our countries. In this matter, the European Union was never as divided as during the Games. Each country fights for her name and often the commentators play on the old rivalries between them. In this matter, François Hollande said that if we should count the medals of all European countries together, it would make us feel more European than ever. This possibility of European integration through the sport, though it was made as a joke about the British dislike for the EU, is one of the smartest propositions that have been recently put out on the table and would allow the European Union to become legitimate rivals of the United States and China. In some ways, many countries, like the United States and China, have made Olympic competition a way to shine internationally. In that matter, the rivalry during the Games between these two, bears similarities to their competition for world influence. In order to win the most medals, they launched nationwide programs to select and train the best athletes in most disciplines. Britain also set up such a program this year so they do not look ridiculous in their own Games. In this way sports, like war, are then the continuation of politics through other means.

But this win at all cost has a price. We can wonder, with Carl Lewis, how athletes can beat world records that were established by athletes who have since admitted to doping; or equally when a 16-year-old girl swims faster than some older male competitors.

For sure, doping exists.

For sure, it exists within the greatest nations who can pay for pharmaceutical researches for their athletes.

For sure, controls cannot be carried out everywhere in the world. However, there is one thing that nobody can take away from the Olympics and it is the drama that surrounds such an event.

Stories are written during the Olympics that no one would think credible if it was written by some Hollywood director. That is why we were millions, billions maybe, watching the Olympics.

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