The Olympic Games—Really “for the Glory of Sport”?
A RELIGIOUS festival held in Olympia, southern Greece, over 2,760 years ago was the forerunner of events in Los Angeles, California, that have likely captured your interest. The festival was in honor of the god Zeus, who was supposed to rule on Mount Olympus. Out of it came the Olympic Games, first celebrated in 776 B.C.E. The different city-states of ancient Greece sent their best athletes to compete there every four years.
The tradition continued until 393 C.E., when the ancient games were held for the last time. The following year they were banned by “Christian” Emperor Theodosius who prohibited all pagan (non-Christian) practices in the Roman Empire. So how is it that they exist today?
In the late 19th century, Pierre de Coubertin, a young French educator, became impressed by the use of sports in English public schools. He was convinced that a balanced education should include sports. Later, as one biographer writes, “he became obsessed with [the revival of] the Olympic Games.” Coubertin campaigned successfully, and in 1896 the Olympic Games were renewed, appropriately in Athens, Greece.
Among other things, Coubertin felt that the Games, held every four years, would serve to promote world peace. On that score he was wide of the mark. Since 1896 they have been interrupted twice due to two world wars and have often been bedeviled by politics. In 1974 Lord Killanin, then president of the International Olympic Committee, was constrained to say: “I appeal to every single sportsman and woman not to come to the Olympic Games if they wish to make use of sport for political purposes.”
In 1976 and 1980 his counsel backfired. Many nations boycotted the Games precisely to highlight their political grievances. Then at the end of the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980, Lord Killanin made another appeal: “I implore the sportsmen of the world to unite in peace before a holocaust descends . . . The Olympic Games must not be used for political purposes.” The very fact that these appeals were necessary indicates the danger that politics represents for the Olympic ideals. The withdrawal of many communist nations from the Los Angeles Olympic Games lends further weight to this point.
“For the Glory of Sport”?
Were the ancient Olympic Games necessarily based on sportsmanship and fair play? In his critique of the book The Olympic Games: The First Thousand Years, British writer-scholar Enoch Powell commented: “They were essentially un-sporting and unsportsmanlike. The game did not matter: all that mattered was victory. There were no ‘runners-up;’ but a victory, even if gained by a punished foul . . . was a victory as good as any other. They were dangerous and brutal.” In fact, the book states: “Competitors prayed for ‘either the wreath [of victory] or death.’”
The modern Olympics ostensibly have a purer motivation. As the Olympic Creed states: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” One athlete repeats the Olympic Oath, or Promise, in the name of all at the opening of the Games. It was devised by Coubertin and states: “In the name of all the competitors I promise that we shall take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams.”
Certainly it all sounds very noble, but it has the ring of a different age. What is the reality today? Were these ideals truly reflected in Los Angeles, California, where thousands of athletes were competing for a few hundred gold medals? Were they competing according to Coubertin’s original ideals? What is the true driving force behind the Olympic Games? Is it sportsmanship and fair play? Do the Games promote international peace and friendship in a significant way? Or are they another cockpit where political rivalries are fought?
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The ancient Olympic Games were “essentially un-sporting . . . They were dangerous and brutal”