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Essay: Why Do We Go from Here?

6 minute read
Roger Rosenblatt

Or should we create an event called the embarrathon? No outright boycotts permitted, but somewhere on the regular schedule of every Olympics would be an occasion for any participating nation to needle or humiliate any other nation. Medals would be presented, as in the athletic events, but in the embarrathon both winners and losers would be asked to mount the platforms so that the world might jeer or smirk as it chose. Or are we getting desperate?

It may be heartening to point out that in the long and murky history of the Games things have looked considerably bleaker. For centuries after their founding, write John Kieran and Arthur Daley in The Story of the Olympic Games, the Olympics provided “the great peaceful events of civilization.” Yet eventually, as Greece gave way to Rome, “they lost the spirit of the older days. Winners were no longer contented with a simple olive wreath as a prize. They sought gifts and money. [Heartened yet?] The games, instead of being patriotic and religious festivals, became carnivals, routs and circuses.” Halted by the Roman Emperor Theodosius in A.D. 393, they did not resume until 1896, in which hiatus the world spun reasonably well without them.

Now, the question of the day seems to be: Where do we go from here? There is no fixed agreement. Many suggest that for the Olympics to survive their geopolitical wars, there should be a) a single permanent site (Greece seems the favorite), and b) a denationalizing of the events (no flags, anthems or colors; just individual names). If nations are serious about mucking up the Games, however, a single site would not deter them. No permanent location would prevent an act of terrorism such as made a tragedy of Munich in 1972. And if the will is there, an individual name can take on the magnitude or onus of a nation.

But the more sensible question may be: Why should the Games continue at all? After last week’s announcements that the Soviet Union and East Germany were pulling out of the events, most American commentators sounded fed up with the whole business. Perhaps justifiably. Since 1968 every Olympics has been spoiled by some act of political protest or violence, and during that same period the Games have grown gargantuan in size, stakes and influence. Until the Soviet decision, it was estimated that this year a television audience of 2½ billion people would watch the events, “more than half the living, breathing people on earth,” as Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee President Peter Ueberroth once described the crowd.

Politics dogs power. In part the Soviet pullout appears to be a getting-even with Jimmy Carter’s 1980 boycott after the invasion of Afghanistan. But since the Soviets were always intent on showing their displeasure with Ronald Reagan, they could have chosen no better theater.

Then there are the dollars, billions of them as well. When athletes who are supposedly amateurs stand to make fortunes in a pole vault, winning and profit become the same thing. Soon ends justify means. Soon other value misjudgments in society (military, ethical, intellectual) are reinforced. Soon everything is spoiled.

So why go to the trouble of holding these events? By now more than half the living, breathing people on earth know perfectly well how politicized, professionalized, commercialized the Games are, how hypocritical and often shameful their history, how short-winded the international camaraderie they engender. Would it not be cleaner to avoid the quadrennial razzberries of the superpowers by simply holding a Soviet Olympics, a NATO Olympics, the Apartheid Games?

Two reasons why not, both fragile and shaky. The first is that the Olympic ideals of virtue in competition are, from time to time, actually realized. They seem in fact to be realized normally in the Winter Games, which for some reason (not the cold, surely) have managed to remain incident-free. The Olympic ideals have less to do with the familiar end-of-Games scenes of Mississippians hugging Muscovites than with the direct appreciation of sport. Not that one mutters, “I marvel at Olga Korbut; therefore I love all nations.” Rather it is a matter of noting, usually in silence, the common human displays of excellence and struggle, both against oneself and against time. Down on the track a hurdler runs like mad to beat time. Up in the stands the aging spectator beholds the perpetually young. They are connected not by nationhood.

Second, the Olympics are a good place to let off the world’s steam. Orwell criticized the Games as “war minus the shooting,” but given the alternative, that seems no condemnation. There has always been a lot of sociological fretting about the bellicosity of sport, how smoothly the exercise of aggression transfers itself to swords and guns—most of which seems nonsense. But even if a line may be drawn from the playing fields of Eton to Waterloo, still the playing fields must be judged preferable; better to be akin to war than in one. What gets observers of the Olympics down may be pure exasperation: Why should the world give up on one international activity that at least has the potential to offer more pleasure than pain?

One would think that the governments of the world might show more pride in their capabilities not to let so simple a problem get out of hand. Here, after all, is the entire challenge: as heads of state and their armies go about their customary business of covert operations, assassinations or gas attacks, a group of young people in shorts would like to show how long they can jump, how far they can toss a hammer, how accurately they can shoot a ball into a basket. Can the mighty nations conspire to let them have their way? Is the technology there, the power? Putting things in terms of bureaucratic efficiency: If governments cannot make a foot race work, what can they do?

The Games will probably outlive this recent tit-for-tat. The Soviet action was not really tit-for-tat anyway; the invasion of Afghanistan is not to be equated with a punitive response to that invasion. Still, as long as excellence requires excellence to test its worth, the Olympics are likely to find some way to continue. It often seems the task, the desire, even the natural calling, of bureaucrats to find a way to damage or curtail individual value. Yet, fortunately, it also seems the nature of excellence to seek its own level. This is the game behind the Games, and it goes as long as the earth.

—By Roger Rosenblatt

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