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What's the point of the Olympics?


London 2012Medal-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 female competitors form only a third of its total delegation).

The notion of sport as a great equaliser unravels further when we consider which nations have the most summer Olympic gold medals in history (excluding former Soviet Union countries and East Germany): Japan, Australia, Sweden, Hungary, China, France, Italy, Great Britain, Germany, and the United States.

The list mirrors the dynamics of power in other parts of the international arena, where the likelihood of success is not only correlated to GDP (or more precisely, the level of state funding for sport); it also fosters triumphalism and a sense of entitlement among lead nations.

In other words, the Olympics has become a circle-jerk attended by the sports elite, avidly filmed by the media.

It is a state of things far removed from the philosophy of the founder of the modern Olympics. Pierre de Coubertin envisioned an athletic competition where amateurs from different nations could compete as equals, promoting intercultural understanding and peace.

'Wars break out because nations misunderstand each other,' he said. 'We shall not have peace until the prejudices which now separate the different races shall have been outlived. To attain this end, what better means than to bring the youth of all countries periodically together for amicable trials of muscular strength and agility?'

As a pedagogue, Coubertin knew the value of experience in transformative learning.

But will our athletes bring home more than medals and become ambassadors for peace? Will the goodwill fostered among representatives from over 200 hundred nations make way for concrete action to address global inequity? Will the funds generated from broadcasting rights ensure that poorer nations are able to develop national sports programs that benefit all and not just Olympians?

If the answer to these questions is 'no', then what is now the point of the Olympics?

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based writer, and tweeter

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Olympics, London 2012, Opening Ceremony, Mr Bean



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Existing comments

Could not agree more Fatima. This is the best article I have read in Eureka St over the past five years, particularly your point about the disconnection relating to gender and stating the dissonance between the games and reality. Spot on. I look forward to more of your thoughts. Byron

Byron Lazarides | 01 August 2012  

Despite all the justified criticism of the Olympics, I believe the world would be a bleaker place without them. Athletes are competing for their country and, more importantly, for the sport they love and are devoted to. This applies to male and female athletes. Yes, we do get parochial about "our" team, we want them all to win, we want other nations to say "well done, Australia" and this can tip over into hubris. As lovers of sport, though, I think most Aussies can applaud a fine performance wherever it comes from. Poorer nations cannot allocate as much money into sport as the richer nations and this inequity perhaps could be addressed by the IOC in a more active way - Fatima's suggestion of funds generated from broadcasting rights being diverted to help poorer nations is a great idea.

Pam | 01 August 2012  

I understand the point of this article, and agree that the Olympics have strayed from their original ideal, helped along by a media obsession about medal-counts. However sport has an amazing capacity to unite people and lift them out of their circumstances, and perhaps the Olympics, of all global sporting events, are the best example of this. For two weeks every four years, most of the world watches as occasionally, nations which have been at war with each other, are able to come together in a sporting contest and display a spirit of friendship that puts their political leaders to shame. The idea that anyone can be involved in the Olympics is a wonderful analogy for the kingdom of God. Jesus talks in Luke’s Gospel of the great banquet to which everyone is invited regardless of status, gender, ethnicity or any other barrier that we tend to put up between ourselves and others. What a great opportunity to see the Olympics as an analogy (albeit a flawed one) of the Gospel of the kingdom coming on earth as in heaven where everyone is invited to celebrate together.

Nils | 01 August 2012  

Fatima finishes her article with three questions, to which I give three answers. 1. No. Our athletes will not bring home more than medals and no they will not become ambassadors for peace. Very few will bring home medals no matter how strenuously and fairly they compete. 2. No. The goodwill (such as it is) will not make way for concrete action to address global inequity. There are forces more determined than goodwill loose in the world militating against global equity. (Some of these forces can be seen in the money certain countries put into winning atheltic supremacy - imagine what they would do for more wealth, more possessions, more power, more prestige.) 3. No. Money from broadcasting funds will go only a small way paying off the expenses of the games and the IOC officials. So what is the point of the Olympics? They fend of boredom, cynicism, guilty consciences for a couple of weeks and then it is back to the daily grind of making a living in an economic system that most of us who are not movers and shakers just have to do the best we can with limited talents of body, mind and spirit.

Uncle Pat | 01 August 2012  

Thanks for the comments so far. I'm glad I'm not alone in my thoughts! I should qualify that I do get the benefits of sport, and do not intend to dismiss truly inspiring moments in Olympic history. I agree with Nils that media coverage leaves a lot to be desired. It feeds the hubris and parochialism that Pam mentions. We have to ask ourselves, who is being left out in the storytelling?

Fatima Measham | 01 August 2012  

Thank you Fatima. An argument very well made without the use of the outrageously immoderate language I fell to when trying the same.

Dick Danckert | 01 August 2012  

Astutely and beautifully said, Fatima.

Vacy Vlazna | 01 August 2012  

The summer olympic games is a great international sports festival as are other sports festivals such as the winter olympics, the soccer world and european cups and the Tour De france cycle race. These festivals also contribute in a small way to better human rights for women, children and other disadvantaged people in various parts of the world. The only downside for these festivals is the crass heroworship parochialism of the mainstream media. Most media commentators, including some retired athletes, can only appreciate performances by both teams and individuals by reference to meaningless statistics and celebrity nonsense. The media always like to focus on negative aspects of these festivals and question great performances by some competitors. I believe that all competitors do their best and they should be humble with the final result. I was dissappointed with the lack of humility shown by the Australian backstroke swimmer Emily Seebohm in winning a silver medal; instead of whinging that she failed to win the gold medal, she should have been gracious to the winner Missy Franklin. Contrast this to the graciousness and humility shown by another Australian Christian Sprenger who won a silver medal and the Japanese swimmer Satomi Suzuki who won a bronze medal. In my opinion the two outstanding swimmers have been the Chinese woman Ye Shiwen and the Lithuanian woman swimmer Ruta Meilutyte. The most entertaining events are the men and women teams competitions in handball, volleyball and badminton. The idea that a portion of the broadcasting rights go to poor countries for sports development is a good thought but a bit naive because of the complexity of politics and economies. There are also more important priorities in the poorer countries than sport such as needs for better services in education, health and housing.

Mark Doyle | 01 August 2012  

A great article and timely. The spirit of the games cannot be lost in the hype and failure of athletes to live up to the enormity of any natiion's expectation. I too, think few will be ambassadors for peace and they will not make the slightest difference to human poverty in the most part. One thing I do think, is that athletes must learn to be able to lose graciously - surely some training goes into reaction to disappointment and feeling the weight of a nation. What I hope for all of them is that they gain from participation and maybe, just maybe, like Steve Waugh, give something back to those who struggle. There is a man whose captaincy was superb but his life after cricket is defining him as a man of immense and enduring character

Jane | 01 August 2012  

The Olympics are certainly not a cure-all for the problems of the world. But in the light of the saying, "It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness", the Olympics is one small step towards progress. Another is the Nobel Peace Prize. On a lesser scale are the national recognition of Community Service by selfless individuals, and events like Harmony Day. Perhaps, to combat the self-centered negativity of the Media, Party Politics, and the tensions between the Haves and the Nots, some sort of award could be divised to promote Statesmanship and promotion of a better World. Perhaps New Years Day, which the whole world observes, could be used to elicit and highlight National Reports:- what each country has done, or intends to do, to promote a better future for the World.

Robert Liddy | 01 August 2012  

Along similar lines of thought as Uncle Pat, the only good thing about the Olympics and sport in general, is that it is physically very healthy for our bodies and therefore mentally and hopefully spiritually (at it's best). I reckon we humans still have many primeval, instinctual drives and sport is a healthy way of burning up that psychic and physical drive (for the players that is, not so much for the couch potatoes). If we didn't have it, we'd be like frustrated blue heeler cattle dogs tied up by their owners on a short leash - we'd start chewing things up, biting and generally behaving badly. Even if there is violence in sport now and again, I think sport maybe helps keep a healthier equilibrium to reduce domestic and street violence.

AURELIUS | 01 August 2012  

The author of the article says what's the point of the Olympic games.She is entitled to her view. I do understand very well the economic problems facing Greece and don't need others to tell me so. As a person of Greek origin, I support the concept of the Olympic Games.

Terry | 01 August 2012  

The point of the Olympics is that the question has been asked.
Thank you !!!

bernie introna | 01 August 2012  

Fatima, I still get a thrill from seeing women's sport getting so much attention! Yes, there is dissonance, but there is also great beauty and strength on display.

Beats rugby league, anyway.

Penelope | 01 August 2012  

My reply to Fatima's 3 questions is definitely "NO".
The Olympics - summer or winter - have turned into a game of lobbying (from the decision where the games will take place to the sponsors. Who pays the most makes the rules.
How can it be that McDonalds doesn't allow any other supplier to sell potato chips in the Olympic grounds?
Who speaks about thousands of Londoners of lower social status who have been "driven out" from their homes and gardens to create a 15 billion Euro gigantomania area? It will not be THEM who will rent the flats after the Olympic Games but wealthy people from Russia, Arabia ......

There is no way anymore to unite people of the world with this kind of "sports competition".
It is a waste of money and energy.

Wilma, Vienna

Wilma | 03 August 2012  

Thank you Fatima for clearly articulating what most of the world's population is thinking or at least surmising. If only mainstream media would publish your article to educate the ignorant!

Helen Malley | 06 August 2012  

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