Olympism: magic, myths and mega-events

The forthcoming Winter Games in Beijing are already proving controversial – but from their modern inception, the Olympic Games have always been ambiguous, contradictory, and often mired in scandal. The only certainty remaining is physical excellence.

A poster for the Olympic Games in Antwerp in 1920.
A poster for the Olympic Games in Antwerp in 1920. Credit: CBW/Alamy Stock Photo

When the Olympic Games are held fairies circle the earth showering magic sporting dust. Old ladies who never look at a sports page in a newspaper study medals tables avidly. Young men who despise all sports except football leap off their sofas in support of cyclists and gymnasts. Busy married couples who otherwise would not know the difference between hurling and curling stay up far too late to watch Scottish women sliding pieces of granite across ice rinks. The combination of global village, physical prowess, patriotism and religiosity is too powerful to resist. A certain breed of academics convene and confer to produce work on ‘Mega-Events’; they conclude there are only two, the other one being the FIFA World Cup.

The Winter Games are coming up in Beijing in February 2022 – although the UK last week joined a growing list of allies, including the US and Australia, in announcing a diplomatic boycott due to the country’s record of human rights abuses. These are weighty issues; but at any Olympic Games, in any year, in all corners of the media and intellectual life sceptics and critics also assemble. They point out that the whole thing is an unholy alliance between media empires, for which the Games serve as a cash cow, and governments for whom they are a source of prestige and a mysterious entity called the ‘feelgood factor.’ Moreover, the governments that have gained most have been those considered most undesirable by the standards of liberals and democrats. They include the Third Reich, which is generally considered to have scored a massive propaganda victory in holding the Garmisch-Partenkirchen winter Games and the Berlin summer Games, both in 1936, and the USSR which dominated the medals table from 1952 to 1980. And now the benefits accrue mainly to China.

The Games have always rested on layers of deceit, say critics. The principal deceit was amateurism (or ‘shamateurism’) in the first eighty years after the modern Games began in 1896 – simply put, the Games would not have got off the ground unless they defined themselves as a strictly amateur event because they would not have had the cooperation of the existing sporting authorities where power lay in the UK and the US – this proved impractical by the 1980s when the power of the money generated by televised sport was too great to sustain amateurism. At the same time, since the 1980s, dishonesty has come in the shape of drugs and doping. This form of deceit probably peaked at the Atlanta summer Games in 1996 which was dominated by the widely-whispered secret that drugs were almost ubiquitous in certain sports, including swimming and running. Even so, nobody was found to have taken any drugs. (Those athletes testing positive for stimulants and disqualified by the IOC were later reinstated upon appeal; or simply reprimanded). This is a great betrayal of the original ideals of innocent participatory sport and international friendship. The acknowledged founding father of the modern Games, Pierre de Coubertin, must be spinning in his grave.

I have long been one of the carpers, churning out sceptical pieces in the media, as well as more balanced accounts in books on the politics of sport. Most of the indictments still stand in my view, but the question of whether what you see is any kind of betrayal is much more complex. There is a crucial passage in Coubertin’s Mémoires when he recalls a deceit of his own. It is Easter 1927 among the ‘age-old ruins of Olympia’ and the Greek government are presenting him with an award for his services to Greek culture. But he isn’t too bothered about Greek culture, and is thinking back to his visit to Rugby School in 1883 when he was twenty. The rest of his life was inspired by what he saw there.

First of all, he saw athleticism; a pride in physicality. His own Catholic lycée education, inspired by the writings of Bishop Dupanloup, had positively denigrated physical activity. In England, for that matter, though there was a growing cult of organised games in a few public schools, the high-minded intellectual elite thought of sports and games as outdated and irrelevant. The philosopher Harriet Taylor argued technology had rendered muscle and masculinity irrelevant, while her husband, John Stuart Mill, remarked he had never caught a ball in his life. Benjamin Disraeli, twice the prime minister of the UK, made the same remark, and many of the urban elite born in the first half of the nineteenth century could have said the same. If Coubertin could see our ‘mega-events’ in the twenty-first century, devoted to physical prowess, he would be delighted.

But at Rugby, he also saw a kind of revival of aristocratic values, a combination of courage and a code of honour which he called chevalerie, the ‘gentlemanly conduct’ which Thomas Arnold, headmaster of the school between 1828-1841, had insisted must inform organised games. The aspiration, at least, has echoed down to our own day. So, as a French aristocrat, a member of a defeated class and a defeated nation, Coubertin saw the means of revival.

He was responsible for the motto Citius, Altius, Fortius (‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’) and for outflanking Greek ‘ownership’ of the Games by insisting on circulating them between cities. But, otherwise, he was responsible for very little, because the Olympic Games were (and still are) dependent on what came to be regarded as a ‘three-legged stool’ consisting of the International Olympic Committee itself, the host city and the organisations of the included sports. It was the latter that brought Coubertin up against the Anglophone elite’s obsession with amateurism. Sporting bodies insisted the Games be an amateur event, because, in their view, professionalism suggested unfair competition for ‘gentlemen’ who could not be expected to train on a full-time basis. Moreover, the historical record of the main professional sports that had existed until the inception of the modern Games – horse racing and prizefighting – was laced with corruption. This meant that up until the 1980s events were largely won by ‘students’ and ‘soldiers’ from Communist countries. There had been no such issues in the ancient Games which made no bones about professionalism, and gave out lavish prizes. Moreover, the sport Coubertin actually invented, modern pentathlon (introduced to the games at Stockholm in 1912), was an opportunity for professional soldiers to show off their skills and, as such, excited strong disapproval from the amateur extremists.

In short there are many valid moral and political criticisms of the modern Games, but the betrayal of ideals is not one of them. The oft-quoted sentiment that the Games were not about winning, but about taking part was never really Pierre de Coubertin’s own, and was certainly not the sentiment of competitors who were, for the most part, intensely and even bitterly competitive from the start. Nor was it about hobbies or ‘avocations’ as the amateurs tried to insist, because Olympic glory was always going to define people’s lives. Olympic ideals were always ambiguous, contradictory, and compromised – only physical excellence remains as the primary and clearest ideal.


Lincoln Allison