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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.