The Games of the XXX Olympiad kick off in a few hours, and I for one won’t be watching.
In another age, another millemium, the Modern Olympic Games were conceived by an aristocratic Frenchman, Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin, back when sport was overwhelmingly regarded as an amateur conceit; it was largely the landed gentry who had both the time to practise their skills, and the means to travel to and participate in such events.
In fact, the notions of de Frédy—something of an incurable Anglophile, rare for a Frenchman—were largely influenced by Englishmen; specifically, surgeon and physical fitness advocate William Brookes, and Thomas Arnold, headmaster at Rugby School, whose eponymous football code de Frédy had introduced to France several years earlier. This should be no surprise to the student of history; sport—with all its connotations of morality and personal development, as opposed to merely games—is a uniquely English concept. There is no word in the French language for sport; they merely (and grudgingly) borrowed the English word. In fact, what Bill Gates tells me are the German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian words for sport—sport, sport, sport and Спорт respectively—indicate that neither the term nor the concept existed in any of these cultures prior to the advent of the Modern Olympics.
Back in the pre-industrial era, what we think of as “sport” was a primarily a leisure activity for villagers. Archery, skittles, wrestling and running races were a way for hard-working serfs to blow off steam. Proto-football matches were held between neighbouring villages, with goal posts often miles apart, and little in the way of rules. Few escaped injury of some sort. Here in colonial Australia, cricket matches between distant towns were once-a-year affairs that attracted thousands of spectators, and generally brought commerce to a halt for miles around. Back then, the idea that sport would one day become primarily a passive activity, with the majority of participants merely spectators, grouped around television screens and observing the exertions of a small number of highly-paid professionals, would have seemed absurd.
To the contemporary popular games were added to the modern Olympics, the martial arts of the day: swordsmanship, horsemanship and marksmanship. The modern pentathlon, comprising these three plus a running and swimming race, was designed to be a showcase the all-round martial skills of military officers, but which persists today as a kind of quaint anachronism. It does make you wonder: what are the Modern Games supposed to represent today? The Latin motto of the Games, citius, altius, fortius (faster, higher, stronger), was meant to encapsulate an elitist, amateur ideal, but today connotes any number of gross distortions.
Actually, I would say that my own country embraced the whole concept of sport about as perfectly as any other in modern history. Sport has been an essential part of our culture since federation, and indeed Australia is now one of only two nations (with Greece) to have competed at every Modern Olympics, and has won more medals per head of population—by a long margin—than any other nation. The 2000 Sydney Olympic Games (with which I was closely involved), in fact, could be described as our “moon shot”, and became the standard by which all subsequent Summer Games have been measured.
But the general absence of sport in the history of most cultures explains, to some degree, how the ideals of the founders of the modern Olympics were so quickly and easily corrupted. Countries whose cultures cannot begin to comprehend the British connotations of sport, can hardly be blamed when their governments view the Games as merely an convenient opportunity to express national pride, or whatever ideology they may happen to be pursuing.
Then there’s the commercialization of the Olympics, now taken to a palpably insane level. I quote from GE’s recent article, some of the more ridiculous examples:
Sally Gunnell photoshoot promoting easyJet’s new London Southend service in July 2011. Locog executive stopped photoshoot of her raising a Union flag above her shoulders. Union flag was removed & she had to change from a white tracksuit to an orange T-shirt.
Butcher in Weymouth. Was told to remove his display of sausages in the shape of the Olympic rings.
Olympicnic. A small village in Surrey has been stopped from running an “Olympicnic” on its village green.
‘Flaming torch breakfast baguette’ offered at a café in Plymouth to celebrate the arrival of the Olympic torch was outlawed by Locog.
‘Cafe Lympic’ & ‘Lympic Food Store & Off License’. Both had to drop the ‘O’ at the start of their names. But Alex Kelham, a brand protection lawyer at Locog, says: ‘The legislation actually catches anything similar to the word ‘Olympic’ as well. It’s not a fool-proof get-around.’
Florist in Stoke-on-Trent. Was ordered to take down a tissue paper Olympic rings display from the shop window.
Oxford Olympic Torch stalls. Traders will have to cover up their logos, and can only sell soft drinks from the Coca-Cola product range (inc. bottled water)
Webbers Estate Agents in North Devon. Threatened with legal action for displaying makeshift Olympic rings in its windows.
Not to mention the obsession with performance-enhancing drugs. These were administered routinely by the sporting authorities of totalitarian states during the 1960s and 1970s, but history has shown that athletes from all nations have sought whatever means they can get their hands on to gain an edge over their rivals. I seriously doubt that drugs will ever be eliminated from elite sport, particularly those events in which strength and speed are paramount. The motivations involved will ensure the users of these substances will always stay one step ahead of those trying to detect them.
I really hope, for the sake of my British friends particularly, that these Olympic Games come off as splendidly as they hope, and without major incident. They bequeathed the concept of sport to the world, and in fact developed and codified almost all of the popular sports themselves. Maybe some time in the future, the original ideals of sport can be re-discovered, instead of the silly circus all modern professional sport has become, of which the Modern Olympics is merely the most conspicuous example.