Citius, altius, fortius
Ignore the cynics - the Olympic Games still allow us to glimpse greatness.
* Swifter, higher, stronger.
‘Round up the usual suspects’ could be the motto for the stories that have emerged so far from the Olympic Games in Athens.
Reams of news and commentary rehash the discussions that have become so painfully familiar in recent games. How evil and disrespectful to the Olympic spirit is all this drug-taking. How distasteful the commercialisation has become, as is indeed the competitive edge itself. And more locally, because I doubt that anyone else cares, how poorly the Brits are performing – despite all that lottery money.
What is the big deal about drugs anyway? When asked his opinion about stimulants to improve performance, Jacques Anquetil, who won the Tour de France five times in the 1960s, replied obliquely that you couldn’t win such a demanding race as the Tour on mineral water. Every athlete who stands a chance of an Olympic gold prepares meticulously and leaves nothing to chance in the effort to win immortality. Where do we draw the line between what is legal and illegal in this pursuit? In the necessary combination of mental toughness, physical conditioning and the coaxing of the body to supreme effort, the attribution of illegality has all the consistency of a fickle god such as Zeus himself.
The disqualification of Greece’s two top sprinters hardly tarnishes the Olympic gold standard as some seem to think. The circumstances of the motorcycle incident involving Kostas Kederis and Ekaterini Thanos after they missed a drugs test have all the elements of a French farce rather than a Greek tragedy. But we should recall that Thanos only had a silver anyway and I think most people, outside of pub quiz aficionados, would have been hard put to remember the name of the Sydney 200 metres gold medallist (Kederis).
Winning a gold medal is a necessary but not sufficient condition of immortality, and the aspiration to immortality is what the Olympics are all about. Although it beggars belief that such performers have kept the illusion going for so long, their sub-Olympian international reputation has always been a true measure of their achievement.
When chasing the drugs becomes a sideshow, the concerned sporting journalist and jobbing feature writer turn to the soft target of commercialism – and if they really want to push the boat out, then the idea of competition itself takes a beating! One or the other or both are vulgar and demeaning. The rhetorical question is put – commercialism and winning at the expense of taking part, do they not contravene the spirit of the games bravely resurrected by Baron de Courbetin? In the case of competition, definitely not – competition is the only thing about the Olympics which is not vulgar and demeaning. The struggle to win is what makes the games so special and compelling.
The ancient Greeks would probably be able to grasp the idea of commercial interest; after all, millionaires did bank roll chariots and thoroughbred horses. They may not quite have got branding the games with a soft drink rather than Olympian nectar. But they would have certainly got as bored as us, and as quickly, with the ponderous analyst pointing out that the goddess of victory is now, wait for it, the sign of a range of sports apparel.
The necessary sub theme to the travails of Team Great Britain is, after the first silver medal, the discovery of how important synchronised diving is. There I was thinking that the only reason for its existence was that it gave a chance to people who couldn’t dive properly. If they could, they would be doing it on their own. Synchronised diving has as much place in the Olympics as the games on ITV 1’s Simply the Best, a cross between It’s a Knockout and Gladiators, a show I encountered for the first time on Saturday while trying to avoid the synchronised diving.
I was pleased to see, after everything had been such a success at Sydney, that the Greeks have had a healthy disrespect for table tennis, beach volleyball and even tennis and football at the Olympics. Someone should tell Tim Henman that a ritual humiliation once a year at Wimbledon is enough pleasure for all of us.
The return of the Olympics to Greece has added one new ingredient to the discussion. TV documentaries and publishers have deployed, for 15 minutes, platoons of academic classicists to reveal to us the shocking truth: the ancients were not interested in taking part; they only wanted the glory of winning.
The classicists must have been boring their mates with this fact every four years for as long as they could parse a sentence. This desire to win, whatever the cost, still seems to come as a surprise to many, if not as something to disown in more enlightened times. Yet the necessary single-mindedness was something a champion such as Michael Johnson can relate to. This is why he won – and why I, for one, will always remember 19.32 seconds, 1 August 1996, Atlanta.
In my utopian moments I hope that the lessons from the Greeks could go one step further. The ancient athletes did not represent a country or a nation but themselves, as individuals. Their city rewarded them but the glory was theirs. So there’d be only one person on the rostrum, each with their own choice of music – at the risk, of course, of many renditions of ‘My Way’ or ‘Keep On Running’, which a pub on the Isle of Dogs sadistically plays, time after time, at about the 20-mile point of the London marathon.
The final and most seductive story about the Olympics is that all human life is there. The reflective commentator will draw on Shankly’s delicious tongue-in-cheek aphorism that football is more important than a matter of life and death. He adds a dash of CLR James’ reference to ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’, to suggest that the Olympics and sporting endeavour is a metaphor for life. The glory, the disappointment, the hard knocks we learn so much from, and the friends we make for life. If they are especially sophisticated, the politics and corruption are part of the subtlety of the comparison.
Well, the Olympic Games are nothing like life – that’s the point. And that is why they can be – not always or even most of the time, but can be – great.
The point and the meaning is that human beings will do certain things, not synchronised fencing or salsa gymnastics (limbo dancing), but running faster, leaping further, being stronger, that resonate with us. We know enough to recognise that with a dedication and determination that we have not exercised ourselves those individuals have done extraordinary deeds.
The great athlete’s self-belief and ambition has a hubristic quality, because to fail is to enter a realm of desolation that like the glory is denied to us. The Olympian enters into a challenge outside the scope of ordinary life, and that is the games’ compulsion.
We do not know whether Athens will produce a new member of the pantheon like Jesse Owens, Berlin 1936; or Abebe Bikila, illuminated in the torches on the Appian Way, Rome 1960; or Beamon refusing to land in the rarefied air of Mexico City in 1968. Perhaps Haile Gebrselassie will be the first ever to take three consecutive gold medals in a track event. It probably won’t happen. Time and injury will take their toll, and his compatriot, world champion Kenenisa Bekele, will triumph. But what if…?
And that’s why I’ll be watching, waiting and hoping to touch and recognise immortality.
Alan Hudson is director of studies in social and political science at the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education.
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