The Ideology of the Olympics


Robert L. Kehoe III in The Boston Review:

We are used to the Olympics being sold as boons to economic prosperity. But they never seem to make good on that promise, not least because local communities can’t benefit from structural improvements if they are never completed. As Vanessa Barbara recently reported from Rio de Janeiro, “Bricks and pipes are piled everywhere; a few workers lazily push wheelbarrows as if the Games were scheduled for 2017. Nobody knows what the construction sites will become, not even the people working on them.” Rife with commercial and political corruption, the games in Rio are only the latest example of a now-familiar trend. But once the spectacle begins the cameras will capture sixteen days of drama, our eyes will delight in moments of heart-stopping beauty, and the leaders of the XXXI Olympiad will echo their claim that anything done in the name of sport is above and beyond public scrutiny or political protest.

This is a far cry from the way the Greeks would have seen it. According to historian Nigel Spivey, the games of antiquity never ignored or hid from their political significance, serving as an unabashed display of military power. Far from an apolitical exercise, stadiums were

decked with the spoils of armed conflict. Altars were attended by specialists in sacrosanct military intelligence; events were contested to the point of serious injury and fatality; and the entire program of athletic ‘games’ could be rationalized as a set of drills for cavalry and infantry fighting.

In other words, “all games were war games.” If the spectacular events we now watch in high definition do not portray themselves this way, it is largely due to the father of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who worked hard to obscure the political nature of sport.

More here.