Peace through Olympic Sport?

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.

September, 2000