The Olympics Have Become Ideological Rivalry Between Nations by George Friedman

The Olympics have begun in Rio.

The Brazilians greeted the games with massive demonstrations. With Brazil facing hard economic times, many thought spending more than $12 billion to host the games was outrageous. But supporters argued it would add to Brazil’s worldly luster.

The Olympics of ancient Greece focused on the individual athletes. Spectators knew which city the participants came from, I assume. Still, the glory went to the athlete, and it was his tale that was told.

The stories and poems of sacrifice and triumph carried the memory of the contest.

Records of ancient Greece are scant, but we remember its Olympics even after 2,500 years. It was this collective memory of true greatness that caused the Olympics to be resurrected in 1896 in Athens, Greece.

Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, Olympics
Photo by stux (Pixabay)

The modern Olympics are a contest between nations

Unlike ancient times, today’s athletes no longer stand alone. They are part of teams, and the teams represent nations.

In this contest, victory is measured by the medal count. Nations with more medals see themselves—and are seen—as having some virtue other nations lack.

It was the 1936 Berlin Olympics that definitively transformed the games into a national and ideological contest.

Hitler wanted the games to show German supremacy. When German boxer Max Schmeling knocked out Joe Louis, Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels wrote, “Schmeling’s victory was not only sport. It was a question of prestige for our race.”

When US track and field athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals, Hitler left the stadium. As a black man, Owens had a troubled and complex relationship with his country. Yet, in his victory was the story of American greatness and tolerance, not of the price Owens paid to make it onto the US team.

His story became a validation of America.

The competition to host the Olympics is fierce

The 1936 games started another dynamic. Hitler wanted the Berlin Olympics to show off Germany’s ability to stage a stunning pageant. The more impressive the games’ venues, the greater the prestige they lent Germany.

Nations would now compete for the right to host the games. Being chosen meant that the world deemed you capable of hosting such a lavish event.

Host countries feel compelled to make an impressive show for the sake of national pride. It is not clear why a nation should be proud that it can stage the grandest party. Yet, it has become so.

Another change is the opening and closing ceremonies. They are almost more important than the athletics. In the parade of nations, athletes are dressed in uniforms and carry their nation’s flags. Each nation then dips its flag as it passes the host flag as a sign of respect.

(I must confess to irrational pleasure that the American flag does not do this. By tradition, it dips to no foreign flag. Bad manners are elevated to national pride.)

When a gold medal is won, the athlete stands on a pedestal, and the national anthem is played. The victory of the athlete is the victory of the nation.

How technology has changed the games

Technology has amplified all of this. Unlike ancient Greece, there is no need for tales or poems, you can see most of it on TV.

The network that buys the rights to broadcast the games covers what the audience wants to see. The event has grown far beyond a human scale, and technology can only capture so much.

So it is no longer possible to grasp the whole story.

For most sports, only the finals are broadcast. Yet, some of the greatest individual dramas unfold during earlier trials as the young athlete confronts the veteran.

The Olympics would not exist in its modern form without money, and the money flows from the national networks covering the games. There is a great deal of money to be made in selling advertising. And it is this need to focus on the popular events that hides much of the human drama from us.

The impact of all of this on the athletes is startling. It begins with the athletes’ training. Wealthy nations (and those who believe they will gain prestige from victory) take their best and train them.

The athletes are imbued with a sense of national honor and personal possibilities that will flow from victory. Having not even reached the finals, most of them end up in a private tragedy,

The Olympics have become precisely what the Greeks couldn’t make them… and didn’t want to. Most of the athletes’ stories are rarely shared with the audience.

What the Olympics has become

I will never forget the 1980 “miracle on ice” at Lake Placid. A team of American amateurs took on Russia’s best and defeated them. Many of us viewed this as a pivotal event: the US demonstrated its will to win, to retrieve what it had lost.

The US had lost the Vietnam War. Inflation and unemployment were running above 10%. Mortgage rates on home loans stood at 18%. The Soviets seemed invincible.

But in that contest, we showed the world that the US would not “go gentle into that good night.”

In reality, this thinking was insane. It was not the measure of our nation but of the skills of the athletes. They didn’t represent us. They represented themselves. Their victory and the Soviets’ defeat said absolutely nothing about either country.

It said everything about the hockey players.

Technology and commerce may hide much of the Olympics, but nationalism and ideology hide the most.

When I recall the miracle on ice, I still believe it was a moment of resurrection. But I honestly can’t remember the name of a single American player. It is as if the athletes were merely a backdrop in my fantasy.

I have lost the real meaning of the miracle, if I ever knew it. And that is what the Olympics have become.

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