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Olympics a good time to start wars

Betty Cuthbert Statue at MCGSo the Beijing Games are on, even though it seems hardly a minute since 2004. The Athens Games were a long-awaited return to the country of origin, but the Beijing Games are more about politics: China is showing its friendly socialist face in an effort to make the wider world forget inconveniences like its treatment of the Tibetans, the Taiwanese, and a few million domestic Christians.

Sport, with its tribal appeal and its effect on adrenalin, is a great distraction of the bread and circuses kind. Then there's the patriotic angle: how many medals can each athlete collect? How many tears will be shed during the playing of the national anthems?

And let us not forget the money: the IOC stands to make about three billion dollars, 8 per cent of which will be spent on IOC staff members.

Another minute and London 2012 will be upon us. And what's this? Talk of a Brisbane bid for 2020 or 2024! One wonders why, really: the Modern Olympics have changed their nature so much since 1896. They've changed drastically since the 1956 Games in Melbourne.

I was a biddable child at that time, but I fell into a fit of pique when my parents refused to let me go on the school excursion. We were then living a good 250 miles from Melbourne, but how could I forego the chance to see Betty Cuthbert run?

I sulked, but soon recovered when I found Mum practically leaping around the kitchen in a state of high glee shortly after the broadcast of the women's 100 m freestyle swimming final.

'It's all-Aussie, and a world-record,' she warbled. 'Fraser, Crapp and Leech. Teenagers! That's shown the world!'

Other great Australian names marked Melbourne: veteran Shirley Strickland, Murray Rose. In a more innocent, amateur, and presumably drug-free age, Melbourne was called the Friendly Games.

But the Cold War was at its most frigid, and the Hungarian uprising had spiralled down into defeat a mere ten days before. Tensions ran predictably high, so high that the water-polo match between the Hungarians and the Soviets came to be known as the Blood in the Water match. Hungary went on to win the gold medal, and at the end of the Games, 56 Hungarians out of the squad of 113 remained Down Under.

The innocence of the Olympics was chipped away, I suppose, over the years, but finally died when Israeli athletes also died, and horribly, at the 1972 Munich Games. Nothing, and particularly not the Games, could ever be the same again.

I have long viewed politics as a necessary evil, and usually a necessity of a particularly evil kind, but the decision to continue with the Munich Olympics, despite such a breach in the notion of what it means to be human, was, I believe, the right one. But how unspeakably difficult it must have been to make it.

Fast forward to Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004. Friends in both places could not cope with either prospect, and so fled in order to avoid what they were sure would be disasters of various kinds.

But they made a mistake: in Sydney and in Athens, it was as if some kind of magic cloak of caring had been dropped over each city. The natives were graciously helpful, public transport ticked along like clockwork, and the people who left and those who stayed both took away happy memories.

But back to politics: the Games seem inseparable from this thorny fact of life. I live not too far from Ancient Olympia. Human nature does not appear to have changed in over 2,000 years. As you walk towards the stadium, you see statues that were built from funds accruing from the fines of athletes who had cheated. Still, there were the ideals of peace, of the suspension of whatever hostility-in-progress, and the notion of simply taking part.

And now, what's happening? PM Rudd recently pledged to raise contentious issues during his visit to Beijing. But since then, all hell broke loose between Russia and Georgia. I checked the internet, and discovered the assertion that August, when Europeans are on holiday, is a good time to start wars. Good? War?

And, said this cynic, the Olympic Games are on.

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 28 years. She has had eight books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances.

Flickr image, Betty Cuthbert statue at MCG, by mushroom and rooster


Topic tags: olympics, politics, beijing games, china, human rights violations, russia, georgia, melbourne 1956



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Existing comments

I enjoyed reading this article! mainly because I'm sick of the assertions that the Olympics have nothing to do with politics. Of course they do! and I find the athletes carry blinkers and have an enormous self-interest that seems to blind them to other people's troubles, especially the Tibetans. I had forgotten my ancient history: indeed, hostilities were suspended, and there was peace and safety in tavelling for those who took part in the games.

Nathalie | 15 August 2008  


I think it would be quite the time to launch a war when all the news in the news papers are choking with the 'news' of the Olympic 'games'. There's hardly space for advertising let alone an inconvenient war! I can't help but wonder which drug company or business is in front whenever someone stops me with more 'news' about gold 'we' won while tuning in and tuning out.

david akenson | 15 August 2008  

In 1936, when I was a nine year old then living in UK, I recall my father's concern that thanks to Hitler the innocent raisondetre of the Games, to take part but not necessarily win, was lost. Personal Best performances are what most importantly count not medals.

David | 15 August 2008  

"...Israeli athletes also died, and horribly, at the 1972 Munich Games." Indeed, horrible.
And 36 years later Palestine is still horribly occupied.

david hicks | 16 August 2008  

The innocence of sport, and no less the Olympic Games, is fast becoming a thing of the past.

It is refreshing to read of a spade being called a spade in this respect.
Thank you for your insightful article of our modern times.

John Whitehead | 19 August 2008  

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