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What's the point of the Olympics?

  • 01 August 2012

Medal-counting continues to drive London 2012 coverage, leaving us lost once again in fevered expectation. As a proxy for political, economic and cultural rivalries, the Olympics is perhaps the only time when we can be effusively parochial without slipping into bogantry.

Yet only last weekend, the Games of the XXX Olympiad began with a different spirit. It is difficult to come up with a similar event that is as intensely imbued with internationalist symbol as the opening ceremony.

One need only reflect on the significance of the torch relay, the lighting of the cauldron and the parade of athletes. The latter can be quite moving for no more reason than that each of the 205 participating nations gets to have a place in the procession regardless of size, location, wealth and age.

It is also escapist spectacle, where the flags of Iran, Palestine and Syria flutter — seemingly without irony — on the same hillock as those of the United States, Israel and Turkey. Meanwhile, delegates from Spain and Greece wave at the crowd as if their fractured economies have not rendered the Eurozone unstable.

One the one hand, it is tempting to argue that such escapism is precisely what the world needs: a diversion from the inevitable tensions and crises that arise from occupying the same planet. After all, the truce that lies at the heart of the modern Olympics borrows largely from its ancient origin.

But the dissonance between the games and reality has become incredibly difficult to ignore in a world of simultaneity — where we find out that army tanks are heading toward Aleppo as we watch Mr Bean daydreaming about Chariots of Fire.

There are further disconnections. Even as the IOC president pointed out that every participating country had sent a woman to compete for the first time, some of these female athletes flew to Europe in coach while their male counterparts were booked into first class. Boxing and badminton officials considered making female competitors wear skirts before being forced to ditch the idea.

Gender equality is not always available in athletes' home countries. Saudi Arabia may have sent female competitors for the first time, but it was rated last month by experts as the second-worst country to be a woman (after India, whose