Counting Medals

The original Olympic Games dated from the eighth century. Legend has it that the games were initiated by Hercules after completing his many feats of strength and courage to thank Zeus. They were held during a “Sacred Truce. . . and no war between the Greek city-states ever prevented them from being held.”* The games involved various athletic contests such as wrestling, boxing, running, horse racing and the immensely popular chariot races. While they were intensely competitive they were praised by Plato for the refreshment and “wholeness” they bestowed on every participant. All hostilities were halted during the games — which was no mean feat since the Greek city-states were a bellicose group. “If states [that were] engaged in hostilities failed to lay down their arms for the duration of the truce a heavy fine was inflicted, its size calculated according to the number of troops involved.”*  The point is that the Games were regarded from the beginning as a time of peace and fellow-feeling among a group of people who had trouble getting along most of the time.

Contrast that with the modern games which have now a Summer and a Winter phase and involve more sporting events than anyone can possibly remember and pit one nation against another to see which can accumulate the most medals (“We’ve got more than you do: nah, nah, nah, nah, nah” ). As mentioned, there was always an element of competition, but it used to be among athletes and not among nations — or even the city-states — though there was doubtless some pride involved when a local man did well.

This is not to say that in today’s Olympics friendships are not formed and dialogue opened among athletes from different countries — all to the good. In addition, the athletes themselves enjoy what has to be a most remarkable educational experience — win or lose. And the athleticism is truly extraordinary. But the modern version of the Olympic Games reveals sharp contrasts with the original version.

The Olympic Games never involved professional athletes who were paid to participate –at least not until very recent times. To make matters worse, today’s athletes are beholden to their sponsors. Recently the I.O.C. had to employ extreme measures (in the spirit of the Olympics, I would think) to forbid the athletes from using social media to promote the products their sponsors are selling.  But — led by the U.S. athletes — the Olympians are incensed, as a recent story attests:

LONDON – American athletes risked disqualification by leading a revolt against the International Olympic Committee on Monday and its draconian laws of forbidding competitors from using social media to promote their sponsors.

It just gets worse. Not only do nations vie with one another to pile up the largest treasure in medals of all colors but we now must also have mounted anti-terrorist weapons on tall buildings and increased security lest someone repeat the horrors of Munich 40 years ago. The air is tense, even electric. In a word, the games are no longer about a time of peace amid the chaos of everyday warfare, but an extension of that warfare onto the court and the field of play — which is no longer play at all, but a contest to see who can get the most gold. Symbolic? I suppose so. But also sad.

The athletes, for the most part, seem to have the idea. To a large extent they exhibit the true spirit of the Olympic Games as the Greeks envisioned them. But the things that separate the ancient Games from the modern ones are the crass commercialism of the latter and the exploitation of the athletes by their corporate sponsors, N.B.C. television, and the countries that send them for the purpose of boosting national pride. But most distressing is the fact that these countries refuse to lay down their arms — even for this brief period — putting me in mind of Handel’s Messiah which asks the probing question: why do the nations so furiously rage together? Why indeed.


*Michael Grant: The Rise of the Greeks (New York: Macmillan Co.).

10 thoughts on “Counting Medals

  1. It Is also a convenient distraction as the populous looks at the shiny object instead of the economic and political horror shows playing out around the world. However, I am happy to take a break from reality and let my heart follow the shiny object and the ideals it projects. I like my bubble and will stay in it for awhile.

    • I am often found in the bubble! But I don’t want to stay there. We do need distractions. You are certainly right about that. Thanks for the comment!


      • The commercialism of the event is out of control. They seem to run as many commercials as events and the product placements make sure that we are always bombarded.
        With the geopolitical stuff, I think the Olympics is a good time to show what countries have in common. There are plenty of other opportunities to air out our differences.
        Thanks for the great discussion and post!

  2. I am with you on this. I think Jingoism is at its height during the Olympics. I watch for the competition on a variety of sports, yet I get frustrated by NBC showing too much American competition. I have never been a fan of the US sending its NBA players to the Olympics, e.g. To me that goes beyond the intent. This morning, I actually avoided the medal count in the paper, as it does not really matter. Thanks for the post.

    • I think the NBA players in the Olympics are the reductio ad absurdum of the whole professionalism thing that has spoiled much of the Olympics for me. Thanks for the comment!


  3. Great post. I see your point, especially about the corporatization and Old Fart’s point about the jingoism – I do wish they would show more of the highlights of other countries’ athletes, but I still think it is essentially about the people – the athletes, the parents, the young dreamers. There are very few opportunities for people to see countries coming together toward a common purpose – even if the purpose is just to put on a fair athletic event. I think we should build upon the successes of the Olympics and carry that good will to other areas to work on the issues that Katie raises. But at least we still have this one example. We can criticize its creep toward something less, but I would prefer to counter that by building on its strengths. 🙂 Great, thought-provoking discussion, as usual, Hugh!

    • I agree with you heartily. I do think there are many positives that come out of the Olympics — still. But I do think it would be a mistake to hide from the way we do things — and the out-of-sight-but-always-there violence that we know is present.


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