The Olympic Telos.
I have been involved in competitive Athletics for nearly 70 years.This enables me better to appreciate the success of Team GB in Rio. It also earns me the right, without knowing answers to ask questions not only about the Olympic Games but about sport and society in general.
First of all, there is the basic question…what is the telos of the Games themselves? (“Telos”- a Greek word which means purpose or goal).
The founder of the modern Olympic Movement, the Baron de Coubertin was explicit. The telos of the Games was to promote peace and unity within the international community and to bring political enemies together….
First the Olympic creed…
“The most important thing 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”
Second the Olympic Oath…
“I promise that we will take part in these Olympic Games, respecting the rules which govern them, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams.”
The Creed and the Oath are wholly admirable but surely we must ask, what have been their political, economic, social and cultural implications.
In the pursuit of international prestige,there has been State sponsored cheating in the form of drug boosted athletes- East Germany in the 70’s and 80’s, China in the early 90’s now Russia in the present century, (and who knows for how long before that?). Then of course there has been individual cheating in the free-market West in the chase for money and ill-gotten fame. Together they have encouraged cynicism over so many performances, however drug free. There is no evidence that this will not persist into the future. Does the answer lay with the drug testers, sport legislators or Criminal Law?
The Games offer platforms for political statements…the Nazi Games of 1936, conflict between Russian and Hungarian athletes in 1956, Tommy Smith in 1968, the tragedy of the Israelis in 1972 and the tit-for-tat boycotting of the Games themselves in the early 1980s. Sadly, the Games will always provide a target for extremists. Is there a way of preventing this and keeping politics out of sport? Would it help if all athletes competed under the Olympic flag and the Olympic anthem or even music of their own choice and in individual rather than national kit?
All the time, there has been the unspoken “our games will be better than your’s was” ie. more costly. This in turn raises more questions…
When the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896, the final bill was US $10 million, in today’s money. The first billion-dollar games were Berlin 1936, when Nazi Germany spent US$1.7 billion.
For the London games of 1948, postwar austerity ensured that the costs were contained to around US$30 million.
As expenditures began to climb in the 1970s and 1980s, cost overruns have often meant substantial social losses following the games. Montreal’s 1976 Summer Games are case in point. The Canadian city spent the next three decades paying off the multi-billion bill.
In the past 25 years, costs and cost overruns have soared. Olympics in Barcelona 1992 (US$9.7 billion cost, 266 percent cost overrun) and Athens 2004 (US$3 billion, 49 percent) contributed to soaring debt in both Spain and Greece, which fuelled the subsequent European sovereign debt crisis.
High costs of London 2012 games (US$15 billion, 76 percent overrun) and Sochi (US$22 billion, 289 percent) added to heavy indebtedness in the UK and economic erosion in Russia.
In the past 25 years, when the cost factor has been less than US$5-7 billion and cost overruns have been kept under 25 percent, the final bill has been debated but tolerated. In the case of summer games, only few hosts – Beijing in 2008 – have managed to keep the cost overrun low.
So we have to ask, has the price of the Games exceeded their value?
In Atlanta, 30,000 residents were displaced for three weeks during the games. In Beijing, 1.5 million residents were forced from their homes and this year in Rio, over 500,000 were given eviction notices, their homes bulldozed and cleared for the Olympic village and athlete housing.
You displace your residents, and in the case of Greece bankrupt your country.
Is this acceptable just so your country can host the Olympics?
What of the future? Carry on as before with hosting of the Games restricted to only those wealthy nations that can afford them? Limit the amount of expenditure and microscopically account for expenditure? Perhaps offer the Games to a group of small neighbouring nations in Africa, Asia or South America who split the cost and venues between them?
So far I have dealt with International aspects of the Games, but what about ramifications here in the United Kingdom?
For sure, across the board British athletes have excelled themselves but there are a number of issues that deserve consideration.
We were awarded the 2012 Games much on the legacy it was claimed they would leave behind them, so four years on as taxpayers and Lottery players, we have a right to question the success of those admirable aims…
1. To encourage non participants to take up one from a range of sports to increase personal health and fitness.
As I write this, the UK government is to about to launch an anti-obesity drive among school children amongst serious worries about obesity and diabetes older age groups. (Please note, this is from a party that saw the massive sell-off of state school playing fields in the early 1980s and the Gove cuts over the last five years).
Existing facilities are being closed and not replaced when we know that it is the quality of easily-reached and affordable first class facilities that do more to encourage and sustain grass roots participation than any number of gold medals.
It is a fact that a third of Team GB were privately educated in schools with sports facilities denied to so many children in state schools. Is this good enough? Just how many potential athletes are slipping through the net? Is this not a reflection of society as a whole… To those that already hath, shall not more be given?
2. To create facilities that will benefit the host nation long after the Games have ended.
Perhaps the off-loading of the Olympic stadium to West Ham United soccer club says something?
Leaving that aside we have selected our sporting Olympic elites, now comes a massive financial input from Lottery funding, so next we select how much each sport is deemed to be worth in terms of past performance. The lion’s share goes to highly successful sports like cycling, athletics, rowing, swimming, gymnastics etc., with very little going to the popular but less internationally successful like basketball.
This approach is highly effective but we spend more on those sports than other less wealthy or smaller nations can possibly afford. There are not many velodromes, swimming pools, equestrian centres and first rate athletics stadia in emerging nations. Nor are there facilities to compare with our support teams of doctors, surgeons, physiotherapists, sports scientists psychologists, etc. Are such uneven playing fields right? So how good are we really at international sport, stripped of our economic advantages? One gold medal in Atlanta 1996 provides an answer.
The East German playwright Berthold Brecht wrote “It is a sick society that wants heroes.” I think he meant that in a healthy society we are so happily involved in doing our own thing, we do not need to live our lives vicariously or second hand through the lives of “great ones‘” be they royalty, celebrities or Olympians.
Here in the UK we like to think we are a sporting nation, and so we are… at watching it, reading about it on the back pages of newspapers and betting on it- in fact everything but actually doing it. In fact we are crap at international sport… one Soccer and one Rugby World Cup, an indifferent Test Cricket record and only the achievements of idiosyncratic individuals prior to the Lottery Funding era to boast about. What needs to change? How?
For sure there are more people participating in grass roots sport than 40 years ago but is there any evidence to show a marked increase since 2012 in all age groups? Should there be?
As I said at the beginning, I do not have many answers, only questions and the following is the second most basic of them all…
Where should the spending priority lay… with the minority of elite sports and their gifted participants or the many at grass roots level?
This is an age old issue. Two and a half millennia ago, the philosopher Aristotle posed the same question…”Who deserves the best flutes!” (He argued in favour of the virtuosos over lesser players, by the way!).
On the other hand, the greater the base, the higher the apex of the pyramid. The greater the grassroots participation, by the law of averages, the more elite participants should arise.
Just remember that in deciding who should get the best flutes you are also deciding on the very nature of state and society as well.