TCS Daily

That's the Spirit! The Real Meaning of the Athens Games

By Ilya Shapiro - August 13, 2004 12:00 AM

As the Olympics' return to Athens, the media again remind us of how drugs, commercialism, and corruption have spoiled Greece's preeminent athletic invention. Pundits lament the passing of a purer age, when doctors trained to run four-minute miles in their spare time, when competition was its own reward, when a medal brought glory without endorsement contracts.

There's nothing new about these complaints. Cassandras have long predicted the demise of the Olympics as modern society wreaks havoc on the sacrosanct traditions of the ancient Greeks.

But the truth is that the Olympics always had elements of greed about them, and the 21st-century Games better reflect Greek visions than those that came before. It was the end of the Cold War that allowed the Olympics to throw off the chains of ideological battle and revert to their original values, among which were the dominance of the personal over the national, the economic over the political, and the athletic over larger concerns of the state.

The view of the Greek Olympics as a halcyon festival bringing amateur sportsmen together in the name of peace and athletic brotherhood is a 19th-century invention, institutionalized by aristocrats like Pierre de Coubertin, whose romantic ideas culminated in the 1896 revival of the Games.

The ancient reality could not have been further from these modern misconceptions, however, as Greek armies routinely violated the Olympic truce, and battle sometimes took place in the Olympic sanctuary itself. Individualism and athletic prowess were valued much more than participation; wealth superseded ideology; and athletes employed every means to win -- including supposed performance-enhancing potions.

Pindar, the lyric poet whose victory odes tell us much of what we know about the Olympics, wrote at the behest and patronage of wealthy athletes, who sought personal glory rather than the vindication of their city-state and its political system. And the great champion Alcibiades used his prestige to gain fame and riches, often at the expense of "national interest."

Further, the ancient heroes were Panhellenic -- Athenian kids cheered for a Spartan Michael Phelps -- and the victors' olive wreaths were worth as much as the medals to be doled out in Athens.

The modern Games, in allowing politics to overshadow sports, broke with their predecessors. The Greeks would have found bizarre Hitler's attempt to prove Aryan superiority in 1936, or the student uprising and police reaction that clouded the 1968 Games in Mexico City. And they would not have countenanced the distortion of subsequent Olympiads by the expansion and retrenchment of Communism in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, along with guerilla warfare, terrorism, and apartheid. As the Soviet Union and its vassal states succeeded in using the Olympics as a showcase for ideological superiority, and the Western world lay mired in stagflation and cynicism, the Olympics lost their ancient bearings.

Indeed, the 20th Century took us through almost continual political upheaval, with most of it defined by the bipolar Cold War mentality and the specter of nuclear Armageddon. As that edifice of pretension eroded, the Games were free to become athletic spectacles again.

The 1988 Seoul Olympics, which followed the tit-for-tat superpower boycotts in Moscow and Los Angeles, were a watershed. They were the first to be free from major political turmoil since 1964 and, more importantly, represented the last Olympiad of the Cold War. In place of monumental East-West clashes, government training programs, and national medal-counting, the collapse of Communism gave rise to an Olympics of inter-personal rivalry and a return to the desire for individual fame and lucre.

Under today's conditions of globalization -- cultural homogenization, economic interdependence, enemies not defined by nation-states -- international athletic competition assumes an ever-more parallel course to that of world society at large, and to ancient Greece. The Greeks would have approved of this emphasis on earthy human strengths and failings instead of geopolitical melodrama. Even the proliferation of "crass commercialism" is a positive step because it returns the Olympics to the role they fulfill best: providing a forum for the finest athletes in the world to compete for fame and riches, while showing the rest of us a good time.

The Olympics now bring us the absolute best, without regard to color, creed, contract, or Iron Curtain -- or Uday Hussein's torture chambers. The nature of the Olympic movement, meanwhile, has returned to the entertainment, ritual, and athletic core of the original Games. Gone is the sham of amateurism, as athletes are once more individuals, not tools of the state, and the world's professional leagues -- including, soon, Major League Baseball -- break to allow their champions to compete.

Tradition meet meritocracy; Baron de Coubertin meet Milton Friedman. Belying conventional wisdom, the symbiotic relationship between sports and society has returned to the original, proper form it had in ancient Greece -- just in time for the Athens Games.

Ilya Shapiro, who last wrote for TCS on intellectual property law, wrote his master's thesis at the London School of Economics on the transformation of the Olympic Games in the post-Cold War era.


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