This article discusses some aspects of Olympic Games in general: past, present and future - and in the end I suggest some changes.
Parts of this article were originally written a few days before the opening of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (8 to 24 August 2008). The Appendix was written after the games. It is important to remember that the specific comments of the Appendix, and a few comments of section IV, refer to the Beijing Games, not to any later games. I still chose not to remove them, they have general pertinence.
I. The Ancient Games
The Olympic Games were dedicated to Zeus, and according to one legend, Zeus himself founded the games in remembrance of the defeat of Cronus.
This was when the gods took over from the Titans, who were nothing but the older generation of gods. Zeus (a god) dethroned his father Cronus (a Titan) and threw him into Tartarus, an abyss below Hades, the hell of Greek mythology.
Another myth ascribes the games to Hercules, but the most important founding legend is associated with Pelops (from whose name Peloponessos is derived). At the location of ancient Olympia, he should have defeated the king of Elis, Oenomaus, in a chariot race, thereby winning Hippodameia, the king's daughter, as his wife. Pelops won, but only by bribing the king's charioteer and following the latter's sabotage of the king's chariot. The king died, and Pelops had Myrtilus, the charioteer, murdered.
Betrayal and murder, an ominous beginning of the Olympic tradition!
What we know is that there are lists of winners from 776 BC, which is often stated as the year of the first Olympic Games. There is no reason, however, to believe that games had not taken place for some time before that.
The Olympics of Antiquity came to an end in 393 AD, when Roman emperor Theodosius banished them.
Why were the games held? What was the purpose of athletics? Peculiarly, many sources claim that games and athletics were held as a part of religious practice. Despite the references to Zeus, and despite games being held at religious centres as Olympia and Delphi - there is no reason to believe that religion had more to do with them than with anything important that took place in a religious society. It is quite clear that their purpose was military training.
II. The Modern Games
Everyone knows that the modern games started in 1896, in Athens.
But did they indeed?
This cherished, official "truth" does not withstand close scrutiny. Actually, the Greeks revived the Olympic Games in 1859, and held two more games (1870 and 1875).
Pierre de Coubertin, the official creator of the modern Olympic movement, is said to have had the idea from the French loss of the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871), where the Prussian soldiers were fitter, due to gymnastics. So the French needed athletics! How this fits into the supposedly internationalist ideals of the Olympic movement is - to say the least - unclear.
The story is pure nonsense. The British doctor, W. P. Brookes, promoted the idea long before that. Evidently Coubertin met him and was deeply influenced by him. Yet modern Olympics were discussed even earlier: by the Englishman R. Stower in the 17th century, and by the German GutsMuths.
Coubertin managed to suffocate the Greeks' initiative by his own vision, and he did it so effectively that the games prior to his first game in 1896 were almost forgotten.
The motto of the Olympics is "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (Swifter, Higher, Stronger); and the Olympic rings are well-known as a symbol. But how old are they?
In their book "History of the Ancient Olympic Games" by L. and G. Poole (1963), there is a picture of an ancient stone altar the authors found in Delphi. They write:
"In the stadium of Delphi, there is a stone altar on which is [sic!] carved five rings symbolic for the quinquennial timing for the celebrated games. The design of five circles form a link between ancient and modern Olympics."
There is not much that is right here - yet this "information" still turns up now and then. Even the IOC made it a part of their official material for a time (it has been removed now).
The truth about the circles on the altar is that Leni Riefenstahl had them carved into the altar in 1936, when she wanted the effect for her film "Olympia". The altar might be ancient, but the rings are not. Actually, the symbol with five interlocking circles was designed by Coubertin in 1913. Originally meant to represent the five first modern games, they soon came to symbolise the five continents.
Another striking detail about the altar is that it was found in Delphi. There they had their own games, the Pythian ones. Delphi had nothing to do with the Olympics. Many Greek towns had their own games, and the Olympics were held in Olympia. Awareness of this could possibly have prevented the misunderstanding about the altar, or at least caused some doubt.
IV. Olympics & Politics
From the beginning based on manipulation and deception (not to mention betrayal and murder), the Olympics just got worse over time - not at least by an increasing amount of political implications. They were always there, but starting with Hitler's magnificent propaganda games in 1936, politics came to rival sports in importance. And there is no change in sight. This year China does everything to make the games a political manifestation, and participants use the games to criticise China politically. I heard a representative from one of the participating countries say that the whole reason for letting China host the games is to be able to criticise the Chinese system and draw attention to it.
No matter what one might think about Chinese (or any other host's) politics, it has nothing whatsoever to do with sports or with the Olympics. Every attempt to politicise the Olympics must be seen as abuse.
Many people seem to think that the IOC has, or ought to have, some sort of responsibility for the conditions in hosting countries. I absolutely disagree. Their concern should be sports only, and I would rather say that it is their obligation to prevent the games from being used as an excuse to interfere into others' business.
I suggest that participants of games, including officials of any kind, who - in their capacity of participants - publicly express any political message during or in association with Olympics be banned from participation for life. (As private individuals they may hold or express any opinion about anything, but it is essential to distinguish between one's different roles.)
Some political implications could be eliminated if we banished all symbols of nationality and citizenship in connection with the games. Remove the team sports from the Olympics, and let individuals come and participate as individuals only. No flags, no national anthems, no nationality on lists of participants...
But what about the hosts? Can we eliminate the political propaganda value of Olympic Games? Yes, abolish the hosts! I don't suggest removal of real countries, but to build a permanent Olympic arena in Greece, on the site of ancient Olympia, and hold all games there. Then we would get rid of another abomination automatically: the haggling and manipulation behind the appointment of host countries. The games could be more neutral.
V. The Special Purpose State of Olympia
My most radical suggestion is to create a Special Purpose State on the site of ancient Olympia, solely for the purpose of organising and holding games, and to uphold the Olympic tradition.
What is a Special Purpose State? I would define it as a state which is: territorially small; has a specific and well-defined purpose which cannot be changed by public politics; has no compulsory citizenship, and no residents who are not directly or indirectly involved in the "special purpose" - and actively choosing to be so.
Presently there is only one Sovereign Special Purpose State in the world, the Vatican. It meets all the criteria, and the best is that no one is forced to be there. It is based on principles not everyone can agree to, but no one has to take part who does not like it! That is a win-win situation.
Athos, the monastic free state in Greece, is an Autonomous Special Purpose State. Autonomy is weaker than sovereignty, less independent, but it can also have advantages. Unless it is forced to conform to a surrounding Public State in any way whatsoever, autonomy (but not sovereignty) can free resources to the "special purpose" that would otherwise be needed for foreign (political) relations.
Even if the few applications of Special Purpose States today are religious, there is no reason why the purpose could not be almost anything. Indeed, this could be a very useful way to organise things that should be kept out of Public State Politics. The Olympics are, I think, very suitable for this.
Whether it should be autonomous (within Greece) or sovereign, is a question I will not elaborate on here and now, but it is definitely time to set up the Special Purpose State of Olympia.
(Written a month later, after the games)
After his eight gold medals in the Beijing Olympics, it is widely claimed that Michael Phelps is the greatest sportsman ever. That is a preposterous claim. He is a great swimmer, yes, and he has more Olympic gold medals than anyone else, but it is impossible to compare different sports. As a matter of fact, his feat is possible only in swimming, and that says more about how swimming is organised than about how great a sportsman a swimmer can be. There certainly is something wrong with a sport where eight gold medals for the same individual in the same Olympics are possible. The different strokes and distances of Olympic swimming are far too similar, and need to be drastically reduced.
Some readers have been confused by this [The Olympics of Beijing 2008] being the 29th and the26th Olympics at the same time. Let us clarify this.
This [2008 in Beijing] was the XXIX Olympiad (the 29th), counted from 1896; but the games were the 26th, because WWI and WWII caused three to be cancelled.
An Olympiad is a period of four years and should not be confused with the games as such.
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Wonderful piece... Haven't read your articles in a while, been busy with school.
This caught my attention because it sounded so familiar from some video games i played where they talked about the history of Olympic games and how it all came to be... This just made it more clear.