The Games are the thing

Both critics and supporters of London 2012 have missed the point. The ‘legacy’ of an Olympics is about human struggle and sporting excellence.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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There are enough naysayers and critics of London 2012 to build a human tower to the top of Mount Olympus. As spiked has pointed out, much of this carping is fuelled by a broader atmosphere of fearmongering and miserabilism in society that has little to do with the Olympics themselves.

Yet the critics are not the only ones missing the point about the London Olympics. Many of the attempted ‘positive’ depictions of the Games, from officials, pundits and tweeters alike, are just as wide of the mark.

Contrary to the widely given impression, the Olympics are not about leaving a ‘legacy’ for London and the UK, whether it be economic, social, cultural or environmental. The Games are not a backdoor way of regenerating east London, or combating child obesity and domestic violence, or challenging climate change, or spreading the gospel of ‘inclusivity’, or selling the British design, IT or tourism industries to the world, or any of the other myriad instrumental tasks that have been hung around the Olympic neck like a stadium-sized lead medal.

The Olympic Games are a showcase only for sporting excellence, a global stage on which to push the human physical potential to the limit, and beyond. The Games are and have always been about winning – and losing; a fight to the finish between fiercely competing athletes, nation states and political systems.

These battles on track and field between the best athletes on Earth are what make the Olympics truly inspiring, rather than the sight of assorted non-sporting citizens and celebrities carrying a flickering torch down the street. The collective memories of awe-inspiring sporting achievements, triumphs and disasters will be the lasting ‘legacy’ of the London Games, far more than some smart stadiums and a shopping mall in my corner of north-east London. (Unless the Sex Pistols really were right to suggest, in ‘Anarchy in the UK’, that ‘your future dream is a shopping scheme’?)

The ‘Olympic Spirit’, we are always being told, was defined by the founder of the modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who coined the famous motto: ‘The important thing is not to win but to take part!’, which he apparently took from a bishop’s sermon delivered at the 1908 London Olympics. Yet the true spirit that de Coubertin sought to encourage through the Games was surely better expressed by the slogan he proposed before the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 (though it was not officially adopted until the Paris Games of 1924): ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ -  the Latin for ‘Swifter, Higher, Stronger’. From the first, the Olympics were about going faster and further than the rest – and possibly than anybody in history.

It is the breath-taking achievements of men and women doing things that we can all recognise as human in an other-worldly manner that make the Olympics so compelling for millions. That Olympic spirit reaches its peak in the mind-boggling spectacle of Usain Bolt running 100 metres in 9.69 seconds while waving to the crowd in Beijing in 2008, or perhaps (if you like that sort of thing) Nadia Comaneci scoring the first-ever perfect 10 in the gymnastics at Montreal in 1976.

Let’s not, however, fall into the alternative trap of imagining London 2012 as a carnival of ‘pure’ sporting achievement (whether or not athletes are caught using impure substances to help them achieve their goal). The Olympics have always been shaped by political games on and off the track, becoming a proxy battleground for all manner of rivalries and conflicts. That does nothing to diminish the sporting spectacle. Indeed, it has often added to its impact.

Baron de Coubertin’s motives in pushing for the introduction of the modern Games were not entirely altruistic. He was a French aristocrat who grew up with the humiliation of his nation in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, and of his class in the revolution of the Paris Commune that followed it. This experience was to shape his vision of the Olympic movement as a schooling ground for a new elite. The Duke of Wellington allegedly claimed that the battle of Waterloo had been won on ‘the playing fields of Eton’. Inspired by the sporting ethos of the English public-school system, de Coubertin hoped to use the Olympics to instil a similarly competitive martial spirit into a new officer class.

Ever since, great power politics have never been far from the surface of the modern Olympics, whether we are talking about the age of empire, the run-up to the Second World War, the Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union, or the current tensions between the West and the East.

Many of us who have no time for the politics of nationalism or imperialism have never allowed the politicisation of the Games to mar our enjoyment of the Olympics. Indeed, it is the combination of extraordinary sporting achievements in an extreme political context that has provided some of the most vivid and enduring Olympic memories of all.

For instance, political conflicts over race and empire were regular stars of the Olympic show in the twentieth century. Think of Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in the ‘Nazi Olympics’ in Berlin, 1936 – and then protesting that he had been snubbed, not by Adolf Hitler’s refusal to hand him his medals, but by US president Franklin D Roosevelt, who did not offer Owens so much as a telegram of congratulation. Or the barefoot Ethiopian Abebe Bikila becoming the first east African to win an Olympic gold in the marathon in Rome in 1960 – finishing under the arch of the Emperor Constantine, 25 years after his father had fought against the Italian fascists as they invaded Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia) to create Mussolini’s new Roman empire. Or the Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the gloved ‘black power’ salute on the podium after finishing first and third respectively in the 200 metres in Mexico in 1968, amid the turmoil of the civil-rights struggle and race riots back home. The Cold War era, too, had its memorable Olympic moments, none more so than Melbourne’s ‘Blood in the Water’ in 1956, when Hungary and the Soviet Union met in a water-polo match shortly after Soviet tanks had crushed the Hungarian Revolution. This time the Hungarians won the fight, the match and the gold medal.

These are such stuff as Olympic ‘legacies’ are made of. They were all politically charged and exploited events, a far cry from any mythical hand-holding ‘Olympic Spirit’. Yet they stand out in history only because of the remarkable sporting achievements underpinning them; thus in order to wear that black glove atop the podium, Tommie Smith had to break the world record for 200 metres. Sporting excellence comes first.

By contrast, the discussion before the London Games seems to reflect a culture ill at ease with ideas of sporting excellence, athletic elitism and being the best. Nobody has a good word to say about the playing fields of Eton today. While they are praying for some cyclists and others to win medals for Team GB and create a feelgood factor around London 2012, much of the emphasis from the authorities and the media in the run-up to the Games has been on the virtues of ‘taking part’ and ‘inclusivity’, as symbolised by the celebration of thousands of ‘ordinary people’ and media ‘personalities’ holding the Olympic torch. There has been more talk in recent weeks about the ‘legacy’ or security of the Games than about the actual sport. The atmosphere around the Olympics is, as ever, shaped by the politics of the time, only now that is likely to mean less the bold politics of empire or old-fashioned nationalism than the downbeat politics of fear or environmentalism (see Don’t let fearmongers kill the Olympic spirit, by Frank Furedi).

What remains great about the Olympics, however, is that once the sport begins it sweeps all of that cultural crap away.  The essence of top-level sport remains about winning, losing, breaking records and being the best, not equality or fairness. You do not have to be one of those ridiculous social Darwinists who mix up sport and society to understand that spectacle of human struggle as inspiring, not belittling, to the rest of us.

Yet neither the critics nor the supposed supporters of London 2012 seem able to face the fact that the Olympics should be all about sporting excellence and achievement. Take the distorted discussion about whether or not the Games have been a massive waste of taxpayers’ money. The point is that, of course, billions have been squandered to little effect – but not on the sport. It is the political obsession with security (when did the Olympic slogan become ‘Swifter, Higher, Stronger, Safer’?) and ‘legacy’ and all the other cultural baggage and propaganda that has pushed up the bill. From the moment London won the bid to stage the Games in 2005, it seemed clear that the few weeks of sport would be fantastic but, in the hands of the authorities who brought us the Millennium Dome, everything else about the drawn-out affair was likely to be at best dull and at worst a debacle. That race has run more or less to form.

Now as the Olympics finally get underway, let us focus on what matters and forget the rest. Even if, as in the 1948 ‘austerity Olympics’ in London, the athletes had to stay in Spartan army barracks and survive on rationed food, the Games would still be great. With the fantastic new running track and today’s other ground-breaking technologies and training regimes, all shown on wall-to-wall TV, it will be better yet.

All we have to get past is the cultural circus of the opening ceremony, a distraction and potential embarrassment that encapsulates all the worst aspects of the pre-Games hoopla. The ceremony has reportedly been shortened to fit in with the London transport timetables. Some of us might prefer it if they shortened the thing further still – say, to about 15 minutes – so we can get it over, get all of the sideshows out of the way (including the sideshow fringe sports), and get on to the track and field where the proper legacy of the London Olympics will be forged in golden memories and dreams both fulfilled and shattered. Then perhaps we can finally say, after the Jamaican bobsleigher in Cool Runnings, ‘I am feeling very Olympic today’.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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