Middle Israel: Are the Olympics still worth having?

Those who restored the games would turn in their graves if they knew how today's athletes act.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Scenes of helpless civilians emerging terrified, bleeding, limping and bereaved from bombarded apartment blocks are never happy, but the footage from Georgia this week was even more depressing, as it overshadowed the Olympic spectacle in Beijing. It was globalization at its most surreal, as billions followed the dramas of sports and warfare from armchairs, often through split screens and at times even with similar scorekeepers' undertones, while events unfolded simultaneously in Asia's opposite corners. Yet while most broadcasters decried the gap between China's quest for festivity and Russia's zest for animosity, few recalled that the ancient Greeks halted all their wars while conducting the original Olympics. The violence in the Caucasus, of course, serves as a reminder that even this most fundamental Olympic ideal, the brotherhood of nations, has long been abandoned, but the fact is that this moral erosion is neither new nor singular. The entire Olympic ideal, the way it was restored in 1896 by Baron de Coubertin, has since been gradually bastardized - politically, economically and physiologically - so much so that we now have to wonder what, if anything, is left of it and whether the whole commotion is worth the trouble it has come to entail. THE POLITICAL abuse of the Olympic ideal was of course originated by the Nazi spectacle in Berlin in 1936, which is also why many later were happy deluding themselves that it had been buried along with fascism. It hadn't. In 1980 the Soviets tried to use the Moscow Games to portray their totalitarian empire as humane and happy, and the Chinese opening ceremony this week, while impressive in its impeccable deployment of thousands of gymnasts, acrobats, athletes, actors, musicians and singers, also had its fair share of fascistic echoes, like goose-stepping soldiers carrying the red flag and the thousands of drummers shouting who-cares-what in screeching unison. Somehow, this ceremony, like the Russian and the German before it, failed to conceal what lurked beyond it, and if anything made millions in the free world consider the arrests, executions and trampling of freedom for which China remains notorious. Meanwhile, the insertion of politics into the games continued, as Iranian athletes obeyed their clerical leaders' ban on competing with Israelis, a smooth continuation to assorted Cold War boycotts, like Washington's of the Moscow Games, Moscow's of the Los Angeles Games and 28 African nations' of the Montreal Games. WHILE THE political hijacking of the games is, after all, not nearly what it was in the past, economically the Olympiad has become a monstrosity that would probably make de Coubertin turn in his grave. What emerged as a money gobbler that in 1976 brought Montreal to the brink of bankruptcy has since been transformed, by American businessman Peter Ueberroth who oversaw the 1984 games in LA, into a monumental cash machine. Now the International Olympic Committee is expected to earn $3 billion from the Beijing Games, most of it from selling sponsorships to the likes of Nike, Toshiba and Coca-Cola and distributing broadcast rights in 220 countries. The Rome Olympics of 1960, by contrast, were broadcast in just 21 countries that generated between them a mere $1.2 million, peanuts even by contemporary values. Not only have the games become a financial circus, nothing at all is left of the original appreciation for amateurism. The thought today of legendary American athlete Jim Thorpe being stripped of his medals for playing some minor league baseball is absurd, as Olympians thrive on advertising beverages, cereals, footwear and vehicles, besides of course selling their souls, bodies and entire time to the twin devils of fame and profit. This, too, like the sponsorships and broadcast rights, has been about utility; the crowds wanted the best athletes, which meant better ticket and broadcast sales, and therefore also more bending of the rules. Once the American Dream Team memorably brought the NBA's finest to the Barcelona Games, the floodgates opened. Now even the richest and most professionalized of all athletes - soccer strikers and tennis champions - flock to the Olympics. ALL THESE dynamics of commercial compromise came while the games were increasingly becoming a moral morass. First were the drugs. Gone were the innocent days when Olympic heroes like Czech long-distance runner Emile Zatopek - who broke 18 world records in the 1950s - could be counted on to play fair. Gone also were the days when foul playing was seen as a communist exoticism. True, Western governments are not in the business of turning women into men, men into racing hounds and children into rubber dolls, but their civilization is. That is what all understood back in 1988 when Canada's Ben Johnson was stripped of a gold medal, as well as a world record in the 100-meter dash, because he had tested positive in a drug test. At the same time, a slew of bribery scandals that accompanied the selection process of the host cities made people realize that just when the East Bloc's abuse of the Olympics was buried under the Berlin Wall's rubble, the games had come to be plagued by the West's own ailments. Now the universal feeling is that what originally was intended to promote political tolerance, personal modesty and competitive honesty has been corrupted into an orgy of corporate greed and political intrigue involving substance abusers who entertain a perennially conflicted and often also oppressed world. Set against this backdrop it was only natural that the games would also be clouded by the new century's main scourge - Islamist fundamentalism. THE CONCERN for Olympic security hardly existed before the Munich Massacre of 1972, but even after that trauma it remained reasonable both in terms of its costs and in terms of the inconvenience to the public. But then came 9/11, and with it the astronomical spending in Athens of $2 billion on security. The Chinese are believed to have spent at least as much, while deploying some 100,000 troops, cops and detectives in addition to thousands of surveillance cameras, checkpoints and sniffing dogs. Never mind that none of this was in Baron de Coubertin's vision, it wasn't in Ueberroth's either. Now the security hassle threatens not only the naive, but also the capitalistic vision of the games, since hosting them has arguably come to involve more costs than benefits. It would not have come down to this but for the Islamist zealots who are assumed to eagerly seek the games' disruption, not only because of the unique opportunity they offer to terrorize the entire world, but also because the entire institution is for them a theological anathema. Curiously enough, that is how the ancient games came to their abrupt end after more than a millennium's existence. True, the fundamentalists who banned the games in 393 AD were Christian rather than Muslim, but much like Osama bin Laden they saw in the Olympiad a vestige of the paganism they were out to eradicate. Now that resemblance alone should be reason enough for all of us, from innocent fans and intoxicated athletes to sinister governments and greedy corporations, to keep the Olympic Games - warts and all - alive.