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.).