For most of history’s classical period, the Greek nation was a collection of city-states that spanned the southern region of the Balkan Peninsula. Though possessing a common language and culture, they spent much of their time fighting each other in small-scale conflicts for regional supremacy. It took the threat of an invasion from the Persian Empire to unite them in a common effort.
But before the brave Spartan sacrifice at Thermopylae, and the decisive Athenian-led naval victory at Salamis, the only thing that brought them together, was the Olympic Games. Dating as far back as 776 B.C., and taking place at the sanctuary of Olympia, they were held in tribute of Zeus, the god of thunder. The grand spectacle was a focal point for the celebration of the Panhellenic identity, featuring religious celebrations and artistic showcases along with the all-important athletic competitions.
One of the unfortunate consequences of the current pandemic was the cancellation of this year’s Olympic games. They were scheduled to occur between 24th July and 9th August 2020; they will now take place between 23rd July to 8th August 2021. In light of this delay, I decided to take the opportunity to discuss some aspects of the modern games.
Unfortunately controversy is something that the Olympics has never been able to completely insulate itself from. While it should be all about the athletics, it frequently becomes a very public forum where world issues and national agendas are on parade long before the opening ceremony begins. Even pertaining to some of its iconic symbols, like the ‘eternal flame’ and ‘torch relay’, these are rituals that were established as part of the Berlin games (1936); an impressive display of pageantry and propaganda aimed to glorify the Nazi regime.
Ideologies would again take centre stage a few decades later when the Olympics became a geo-political microcosm of the tug-of-war between Democracy and Communism. With teams U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. mutually boycotting each other’s hosting of the games (1980 and 1984 respectively); yet another effect of the Cold War. Even then not all disputes have been bloodless, as with the tragedy of the Munich games (1972) when members of the Israeli team were brutally murdered by Palestinian terrorists. The list of grievances, I’m afraid, is quite long.
Yet despite such upsets, the games have always persevered to maintain the focus on the athletes themselves. But as ecumenical as the involvement may be, like most international institutions, the contest unintentionally favours the countries of the developed world. In having an abundance of financial resources, they are able to field sizeable team contingents, which results in their achieving the lion’s share of accolades. But more than simply throwing money at the cause, there’s also their access to state-of-the training methods and equipment. It’s ironic then that the the track and field events – the minimal of events – are the true equalisers, giving everyone a “level playing field”.
So are the games all that it’s cracked up to be? Why would individuals want to spend their entire lives training, sacrificing, and dreaming of being an Olympian when there’s such a slim opportunity for success? Of course there’s no greater glory than winning a medal and being considered among the finest in the sport. But to do your best, especially when competing against the best, embodies the comradery and universal nature of sportsmanship. The official motto of the games, which was supplied by Pierre de Coubertin at the creation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894, is the Latin hendiatris, “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” translated as, “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” It simply and plainly emphasises its dedication to physical excellence. But there’s another, lesser known motto that was also suggested by Mr Coubertin which states that, “The most important thing is not to win but to take part.” It’s a brilliant sentiment, one that should be embraced in everything that we do.
If a Greek athlete who lived 2500 years ago were transported through time, he would look upon the modern Olympic Games as something that was both very strange and very familiar. He would probably think that our practices are ridiculous: like the number of sporting activities, the inclusion of women, and, most of all, the wearing of clothes. But he would none-the-less applaud the fact that the ‘spirit’ of the event is alive and well. Indeed there are few honours than can compare to representing your home country and being cheered on by your fellow countrymen. Because just as his ancient gods were pleased by blood, toil, sweat, and tears – so too are we inspired by feats of human greatness.