Peace through Olympic Sport?
by Barbara Keys on Sep 12, 2000
They're the greatest show on earth, exciting the passions of
literally billions of people. But are the Olympic Games good for the World?
Proponents say the Games help create mutual understanding and
international peace. Our willingness to accept this lofty idealism is one
reason why recent corruption scandals, doping controversies and rampant
commercialism have done so little to dent the popularity of the Games.
Critics, on the other hand, claim that contests such as the
Olympics exacerbate conflict. "Serious sport," the English writer George
Orwell once said, "has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with
hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic
pleasure in witnessing violence; in other words it is war minus the shooting."
In reality the Olympics, in their own small way, do help promote
peace. But defenders too often cite the wrong reason. Proponents say the
Olympics create international harmony because the Games are apolitical.
But the Games aren't apolitical at all. Politics are inseparable from the
Games, and nationalism is a big part of what has made the Olympics such a
huge global success. In fact, nationalist politics are necessary for the
Olympics, but they can also be transformed — tamed and pacified, at
least in part — when expressed on the Olympic stage.
For defenders of the Olympics, occurrences such as the
American-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games and the murder of Israeli
athletes at the 1972 Munich Games are rare political intrusions onto the
terrain of sport. But politics have pervaded the Games from the beginning.
It's a myth that Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat who
founded the modern Olympics in 1896, intended to have athletes
participate as individuals, not as representatives of their nations.
Coubertin was a fervent patriot who saw international sport as a way of
reviving France's grandeur and might. By organizing the Games along
national lines, he deliberately tied them to national prestige.
With national honor at stake, the Games inevitably took on
political significance. It wasn't long before countries recognized the
propaganda value of gold medals and began to subsidize their Olympic
teams. Even before the First World War, sport had become, as one French
official put it, "a matter of state."
Politicians and the public came to believe that the Games tested
not just the valor of the athletes, but the health and vitality of the
nation itself. High medal counts in the Games produced national
exultation, while poor performances could provoke paroxysms of national
self-doubt. During the Cold War, many observers thought that all those
gold medals piled up by Soviet and East German athletes were a sign that
the "Free World" was in danger of losing to communism.
This thinking has given the Olympics a political importance that
makes participation imperative for all countries. But to participate is
also to accept the egalitarian ideology of the Games: the philosophy that
"the best athlete wins," regardless of race, creed or color.
It's a lesson Hitler learned in 1936. He held the 1936 Olympic
Games in Berlin to showcase the achievements of Nazism, and many foreign
visitors were impressed by the gleaming new stadiums and the efficiency
with which the Games were run. But Hitler couldn't stop Jesse Owens from
winning four gold medals — and the admiration of German spectators. The
African-American track star vividly disproved Nazi claims of Aryan
superiority. Hitler was livid.
What the 1936 Games showed is that nationalism pays a price for
its appearances at the Olympics. The price is recognition that our most
fundamental characteristic is not our national identity but our humanity.
This vision is intrinsic to modern sport, because to play the same game
on the same field according to the same rules is to acknowledge that
competitors share a common humanity.
It used to be that each culture had its own games, and the
outcome of physical contests was only of local interest. Now, physical
contests are global and their results become part of the permanent record
of human achievement. Athletes compete not just against their immediate
competitors but against all humanity — past, present and future.
This universalism, not the myth of apoliticism, is why we should
celebrate the Olympic spirit. The athletes gathered in Sydney are
competing under national flags, but ultimately their achievements can be
claimed by all of us.
In a world where ethnic and nationalist identities pit groups
against each other — Serbs against Croats, Hutu against Tutsi — with
increasingly murderous fervor, a festival that underlines our
commonalities ought to be welcomed. In today's world, we could use a
little more "war minus the shooting."
Barbara Keys is a doctoral candidate in history at Harvard University and a writer for the History News Service.