The Olympics—in Ideal and Reality
LAST fall about one billion persons observed, either firsthand or on television, the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. Were you among those spectators? Looking back, what do you remember most about the Games?
For many people, the murder of eleven athletes and coaches is most outstanding. This brutal event all but caused the real Olympic spectacle to fade from view. Munich’s $750-million investment was threatened with ruin. But, as events worked out, the Games were only briefly delayed.
Nevertheless, suppose those killings had not taken place? Do the Olympic Games really live up to their own ideals? Let us examine those ideals in the light of what happened in Munich.
Free from Nationalism?
Theoretically, the Olympic Games should reflect “international cooperation and good will,” as stated by Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). National prestige and rivalry should be set aside. But were the Munich Games free from nationalism?
No. Political influence almost torpedoed the Games before they started. Some forty-five nations threatened to quit if Rhodesia competed. The Rhodesians, as a consequence, were ousted from the Games in a move Brundage termed “naked political blackmail.” Politics thereafter saturated the Olympics.
For example, charges of biased nationalistic judging were heard. This was particularly true in events where judges had to analyze a performer’s style. Almost a dozen judges were dismissed from boxing alone, and others were warned for their prejudicial rulings. Time magazine lamented: “Millions [of dollars] are spent on circus-tent publicity, but there is not money to pay for impartial and knowledgeable officials.”
Strong feelings were also evident in national ‘medal counting.’ Individuals win medals for victories in Olympic events. But during the Games observers were reminded of how many medals nations were winning. How well the United States was faring against Russia, or the non-Communist world against the Communist one, was highlighted.
So, regardless of the ideal of “international cooperation and good will,” political differences are really deepened, not resolved, by the Olympics. “No one can doubt now,” the New York Times said, “that the idea of an ‘Olympic peace’ is a mockery.”
But does not competition at the Games make for peace and friendship among athletes? Do they not accept the creed: “the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part”?
Winning Not Important?
In reality, winning is most important, as made clear when one considers the participants’ views.
One American jumper confessed: “What really bothers me, though, is the thought of going back home and, say I don’t win. Someone comes up and says, ‘Hey, how’d you do?’ and I tell them I finished second, and they consider me a failure. The first thing people always ask is, ‘Did you win?’ and if you say no, that’s the end of the conversation.”
Nor does strong competition build friendship among competitors. The opposite is achieved, as admitted by a United States runner: “The spirit of the Olympic Games is gone. . . . Track and field is fun, but here people keep making you want to hate your competitor. Why? It’s just a race.”
Hate, not friendship, leads to such violence as that shown in the water polo competition between Yugoslavia and Cuba. A United Press International report said: “The water in the pool was tinted with blood. Elbows were thrown, players were held under water and there were other forms of minor violence.” But intense Olympic competition has other bad effects.
Some athletes stimulated their bodies with drugs like ephedrine, only to be barred from competition. Others, whose particular sport demanded steady nerves, used tranquilizers. Did athletes drug themselves because they believed “taking part” was all-important? No! In reality, they were determined to win!
Only “Amateurs” in the Olympics?
Ideally, also, all Olympic participants should be “amateurs.” They should participate for love of sport and not for money. But the hypocrisy behind the ‘amateur status’ was pointed up in Esquire magazine:
“Often, amateurism is merely a matter of whether one gets paid openly or secretly. One ‘amateur’ runner recently received a reported $4,000 for a single race. A jumper admits to getting a $6,000 sports car for changing his brand of track shoes just before the Olympic final. In Europe, the payments are also made under the table, but the table is often out in plain sight. One American tells of being handed an envelope on the victory stand in full view of 20,000 Europeans. ‘Everyone knew what was in the envelope,’ he says with a laugh, ‘and most of them knew how much was in it. The guy who gave it to me was a member of the country’s Olympic committee.’”
So financial gain does motivate many “amateur” competitors. Not surprisingly, correspondent Eric Segal referred to the Games as “sick with commercial elephantiasis.”
Nevertheless, today, a clear distinction between “amateur” and “professional” is difficult. For instance, under the Communist systems all Olympic athletes receive food, housing and wages from the government. Yet they are not “professionals,” as there are no ‘professional sports’ in the Communist world. But Communists compete in the Olympics against athletes from nations who struggled to ‘pay their own way’ to the Games. Western nations say this is grossly unfair.
However, are Western teams entirely free from the same charges? Do not American universities grant scholarships worth thousands of dollars to “amateur” student athletes? Do not some American military men spend much of their entire service career, while being housed and fed by the government, competing as “amateurs“? Such practices are equally unfair to poorer athletes.
Because of the friction revolving around the ‘amateur status’ ideal, many Olympic backers prefer to permit all athletes, including “professionals,” to participate. Already, dropping “amateur” and “professional” labels has worked out favorably in golf and tennis tournaments.
Religion’s Role at the Olympics
The Olympics are spoken of as the world’s outstanding sporting event. But, in reality, many religious customs have been preserved in connection with the Games. Does that surprise you?
Well, the ancient Greek games, which started in 776 B.C.E. and continued into the Common Era, were essentially religious in nature. Today the religious tradition has been maintained. How? Consider what happened before the 1972 Olympics.
A woman, dressed as a high priestess, requested Zeus for his grace. She ignited a torch from a fire lit by the sun at the ruins of the Hera temple in Olympia, Greece. For four weeks this “sacred” Olympic flame was carried about 3,500 miles by relay runners to Munich. When it was used to light the Games’ “sacred fire,” there was a fanfare of trumpets, the releasing of thousands of doves and an artillery salute. Then followed a benediction and the Olympic hymn. Really, ancient Greek religious rites, though modernized, live on in the Olympics!
The Future of the Olympics
Olympic ideals seem noble to some. However, the 1972 Games again clearly demonstrated that these ideals are not attained. Some suggest making the Games smaller in the future, holding the swimming championship in one place, track in another, and so forth.
But, in reality, the Olympic Games simply reflect the problem-wrecked world they represent, filled with nationalism, competition and commercialism. The problems before the Olympics, like those facing the world, make some doubt that the 1976 Games will even take place.