The Olympics: the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful

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Publicdomainpictures.net

Have you noticed? The Olympic Games set aside the usual categories and reshuffle us into new social groupings. We become addicts, cherry pickers or complainers; yawners, cheerers or weepers; sleep-challenged alarm clock setters or casual, occasional checkers-in with one eye on Facebook. We may reschedule our lives or cut media contact to live on a Rio-free planet if we can find one. And politically, ideologically, we may clash again on social media as we embrace a symbol of a better humanity or condemn a bright, gaudy and wasteful spectacle obscured by murky shadows. Because I’m a cheerer and weeper liable to recklessness with an alarm clock, a whooper for the Brits who considers patriotism a dark force, and a Green who doesn’t fly, I’m aware of the contradictions in my own love affair with Rio, exciting as it is. So maybe I’m ideally placed to make the case for an Olympic Games in the twenty-first century, and against.

FOR

It’s something nations of the world can do together, irrespective of religious or political status: compete without dropping bombs on each other. By highlighting what we have in common – the ability to enjoy running, jumping, swimming etc – the Games celebrate our shared humanity as a human family. The people of the world may be less likely to want to make war on each other as a result.

AGAINST

Unfortunately governments and armies, state or terrorist, operate – like the arms dealers – outside the morality of the average individual. And some of them will transfer to sport their ruthless pursuit of power as victory, by cheating and punishment of failure. There may be light in the hope of unity, shared goals, the thrill of what human beings can do, but there’s also the dark shadow of a mind-set that only recognizes triumph as a kind of annihilation, with no rules.

 

FOR

The Rio Opening Ceremony became an opportunity to acknowledge the biggest problem we face as human beings: climate change. Thrillingly, stunningly and vividly, it faced the truth as ducked by our media and challenged a global audience with a call to action. I was in tears of shock, relief and gratitude that at last the silence was broken at a moment when billions of people were listening.  (Footnote: Only once, in 1968, has such a powerful statement been made on the world stage, when two black American athletes made a ‘Black Power’ protest on the rostrum, backed by a white Australian. All three were punished and abused for their courage before America recognised their contribution to change.)

AGAINST

Drama, poetry and data will not save us. Governments need to respond. And for individuals, recycling wine bottles and cans won’t be enough. The carbon footprint of the Games is vast, even in flights alone, never mind building and powering the stadia. A forest planted by athletes is a beautiful symbol but it can’t undo the environmental damage done even before the first event begins.

 

FOR

Among the competitors there is a great deal of visible comradeship, support, respect and team spirit that crosses national barriers.

AGAINST

A cyclist who would, as a human being, stop and dismount to show concern for another human badly injured by the side of the road, responds differently as a competitor and races past. Boxing is violence with rules. When the first gold medal was won, with a rifle, by a country where more people were killed last year by toddlers with guns than by terrorists, I can’t have been alone in wondering why that country sees fit to glorify shooting or indeed why it’s an Olympic sport. The unresolved issues of doping lead to suspicion and grievances, undermining the unity the Games represents and sneaking in on us as we cheer, because a part of us must doubt the medal-winning performances of the greatest. Will some be stripped of their titles and will some continue to cheat uncaught?

 

FOR

There are events in which poor countries can excel. Running is an obvious example. In an unequal world, an athlete from a remote Kenyan village can defeat a rich middle-class American who benefits from an entourage of support, sponsorship and the most sophisticated facilities and equipment. The joy of such achievement in a country unused to success is hard for us in the West to imagine: a national holiday, a heady elation for all, evidence of God or magic or hope that defies probability.

AGAINST

There are events in which the poor have no chance: equestrian, sailing, cycling, rowing, gymnastics, tennis… For some viewers, the skills expensively honed in these arenas must seem alien, vivid illustrations of a gulf the Olympics can’t hide. It’s like collecting for refugees and finding among the donated goods the plush magazines of a private school where pupils have all the privileges Syrian children might have enjoyed if they’d been born in Hertfordshire too.

 

FOR

Brazil is a poor country with a chance, at the Games, to celebrate its national identity and history of diversity, to improve infrastructure and to leave for the people facilities they can use to enhance fitness and health.

AGAINST

Brazil remains a poor country with ghettoes, crime and all the social problems that arise from inequality. The poorest are not helped or encouraged by the Olympic Games. Money and labour that could have been used to improve their lives is spent on stadia where they can’t afford to spectate.

 

FOR

For those of us who live in a media-shaped universe, the world seems more dangerous, hate-filled and frightening, more war-torn and toxic, than ever. In the UK the majority of us are appalled by our government’s policies and whatever your views on Corbyn or the coup, as a party Labour is currently in a mess. A gold medal for Adam Peaty offers us a lift. Instead of depressing us with the conviction that humanity is incurably sick, our screens show us a better way of being: courageous, disciplined, sacrificing, grateful, sublimely beautiful in movement. In the era of the corporate machine we can root for the individual. Our mental health cries out for treatment like this. Often ashamed of Britain, we’re grateful to feel redeemed. We use words like inspiration and for some of us they go deep and they stay with us, reshaping who we are.

AGAINST

It’s a sideshow, a distraction, bread and circuses. The darkness lifts briefly and closes again. A dominant nation that beats its chest in competition might be quicker to make war. The sense of failure bred by an assessment-dominated education system is already disempowering; some may feel smaller and weaker, their lives more hopeless, by comparison with the golden gods we revere. Nothing that matters most is competitive and we need to rethink our definition of success.

 

The Olympic Games is a party and no one likes a party pooper. Like the government and media, sport is tainted by corruption. Change will only come if we work for it, if we commit to it like the athletes commit to their training. Only in a just, peaceful and equal society where everyone is valued – not just the fast, the strong and the financially successful – can we look to the future with hope rather than fear. Addressing climate change is now so urgent that no other form of human endeavour can have more than a momentary meaning. And whatever anyone achieves on or off the track will count for nothing if we don’t heed the message of the Opening Ceremony. The party has begun and there’s no harm in enjoying it, respecting determination and excellence, sharing the emotion of one of the great days in someone’s life. But let’s not be doped ourselves. We are one and we must strive as one to survive.

LAP OF THE GODS is a historical novel that climaxes at the Ancient Greek Olympiad.Lap-Of-The-Gods-588x900

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Olympics: the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful”

  1. How true, every word you have written, Sue. What a tangle of contradictions modern life generally and the Olympics specifically present to us. How about the irony that the 1980 Moscow Olympics were boycotted by the USA because of Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan, or the tragedy of the Munich Olympics, but the Olympic ideal survived into this century! I too am a mass of contradictions. Yes, having an Olympics, a World party, has to be better than not having one; we must remember the personal stories, Team Refugee, the Korean girls’ selfie and the fun and excitement for the people in Rio and the millions just watching the Goggle box. But we can still have jokes and gripes. Shooting a sport? No way, all they have to do is lift their arms and it’s totally boring to watch… and why do we get excited about our girl boxer when we are trying to stop men boxing…. and I could have been a three day eventer if I had been born into the right family, but I still love to watch the horses….. Here’s hoping the rest of the party goes well.

  2. Some deep insights here, Sue. I must confess to being a bit of a fanatic when it comes to the Olympics. What drives me? The passion, the dedication, the commitment, the dream, the drama. All the ingredients of a soap opera (which I loathe) but in real life.
    Yes, we sometimes see arrogance, but we also see deep humility, comradeship, compassion, fire. I’m not so keen on the commercial side of it, but for the most part, I find it inspiring.

  3. Rio turned me from a cherry picker to an addict! I love seeing the human spirit overcoming challenges more than anything. I especially loved seeing the refugee team this year. You’re right though, politics will always spill over to any event on the world stage but let’s hope the positive can continue to outweigh the negatives. 🙂

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