Less than a year on from the most obvious manifestation of economic hardship, social divisions and political discontent in decades (the opinion-dividing riots of August 2011), the Olympic Games 2012 were sold to us as a way of unifying a broken nation; a new lease of life for businesses, a way to show off London’s tourist attractions and, most importantly, a way of coming together, overriding our differences and celebrating community spirit and good-sportsmanship with the rest of the world.
Sounds like the perfect antidote to double-dip blues (it was announced today that our country’s GDP has sunk by 0.7%, negating the coalition’s attempts at economic recovery), doesn’t it? Yet a closer look, or even a casual glance, at the Olympic Games’ history proves that it is far from the society-improving event that it is claimed to be. Aside from the obvious paradox that the Games are supposed to ‘bring nations closer together’ through fierce competition, they have also been the vehicle of racism, human rights abuses and, most recently, shameless corporatisation. It is time to reveal the real Olympic myth behind the Games and accept it as yet another sporting competition in which we will be humiliatingly (but often hilariously) beaten, spend all of our taxes on entertaining foreign oligarchs and use it as an excuse to pull a sickie and stay at home watching the boxing.
The Olympic Games’ motto (did you even know there was one?) is thus: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” I wonder how many of the countries taking part in the Olympics next week pour money, time and effort into ‘the struggle’, or whether the purpose is to show themselves to be the stronger nation and bloody well win? Poor Usain Bolt failed to show up to a training session earlier in the week, apparently because the pressure upon him to up his game after a couple of false starts was too much. Certainly Hitler’s purpose in hosting the 1936 Olympics in Berlin was by no means to celebrate natural differences, but to prove to the world that his Aryan race was the fittest. Of course, this failed with the immense achievements of Jesse Owens, a black American track and field athlete who won four gold medals. Yet this was not enough to expel institutional racism from the Olympics; thirty-two years later, in 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were exiled from the Olympic village for threatening the ‘apolitical forum of the Olympic Games’ by doing the black power salute when receiving their medals for the 200 metre race on the podium. The ethos underlying the Olympics is clearly a political one; a kind of sporting version of a United Nations conference. What was really opposed, therefore, was the use of the Olympic Games to challenge existing social norms: in this case, racism.
The question thus posed is whether the Olympics can really be a ‘force for good’? In his autobiography, Smith claimed that it was not a “black power salute” but a “human rights salute”; a message which was devastatingly ignored by the Beijing authorities during the most recent Olympic Games of 2008. Aside from China’s failure to improve their human rights record (as promised in their bid to hold the Games), they also carried out forced evictions in Beijing to make room for the Olympics; the Games thus became an actual source of human rights abuses. Finally, the story of the cute little girl at the opening ceremony miming in place of a less attractive one singing backstage was frankly laughable. I suppose in some way the backstage girl at least ‘took part’, thus the Olympic Creed was superficially upheld. It does make one think, though, that if this is the length nations will go to in order to appear impressive, then international affairs are little more than a joke. The irony of McDonald’s sponsoring a sporting competition is not lost on the average Brit; it’s got to be more about the money (the Olympics has now been rated one of the biggest ‘brands’ in the world, second only to Apple, by Brand Finance) than the spirit of struggling for sporting achievement in order to make your nation proud.
Call me unpatriotic but it just makes me want to struggle through a Big Mac and leave everyone else to the ridiculous hype.