The Olympics have begun in Brazil. The games were greeted by massive demonstrations by Brazilians. With Brazil facing hard economic times, many thought that spending more than $12 billion hosting the games was outrageous. The demonstrators felt there were better uses for the money. 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. That was the only way for those who were not present to know what happened.
The stadiums and crowds were small, but the memories remain after 2,500 years. In the modern age, we try to remember through technology. Yet, the sheer mass of data can hide what is important. There are scant records of ancient Greece, but we remember its Olympics. Conversely, we forget things that happened a month ago.
It was this collective memory of something extraordinary that caused the Olympics to be resurrected in 1896 in Athens, Greece. But there was a fundamental difference between the ancient and modern games. The athletes no longer stood alone. They were part of teams, and the teams represented nations.
The Modern Games as a Test Between Nations
Since the start of the modern Olympics, the glory and the sorrow were not simply the property of the athletes, but of the nations that competed. It was cast not as a trial of men (and later women), but a competition between nations. Victory was measured by a collective count of the medals won. Nations with more medals saw themselves—and were seen—as possessing some virtue other nations lacked.
The nationalization of sports changed the games profoundly. In a strange way, victory validated a nation. This is seen from 1896 onward, but it was the 1936 Berlin Olympics that definitively transformed the games into a national and ideological contest.
Hitler wanted the games to show German superiority. 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 American track and field athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals, Hitler left the stadium. Americans saw the victory as destroying the Nazi myth of white supremacy and a celebration of their country.
Owens’ victory demonstrated the abilities of a man far more than of a nation. 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 his way onto the American team. His story became a validation of America.
We remember the 1936 Olympics and Jesse Owens as a test between Nazi Germany and the United States.
The Prestige of Hosting the Olympics
The 1936 games started another dynamic. Hitler wanted the Berlin Olympics to demonstrate Germany’s ability to stage a stunning pageant. For Hitler, hosting the games was a testament to Germany’s recovery. The more impressive the games’ venues, the greater the prestige they lent Germany.
This set in motion something completely alien from the original games—nations would now compete for the right to host the games. The event became a form of honor combined with conspicuous consumption. Being chosen meant that you were deemed capable of hosting a lavish event.
Host countries obsess over holding ever more lavish events, but not for the sake of the games. Greek Olympians wrestled in the dirt. Now, host countries create 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.
The opening and closing ceremonies have now become more important than the athletics. During these ceremonies, the nations parade and carry their flags, and the athletes are dressed in uniforms. Each nation dips its flag as it passes the host flag.
(I must confess to irrational pleasure at the fact that the American flag does not dip because, 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
All of this is amplified by technology. The Greeks couldn’t have staged such an extravaganza. Nor could it be watched live around the world. Today, there is no need for tales or poems, you can see most of it on television. Not everything, of course. There are just too many preliminaries and obscure sports.
The network that buys the rights to broadcast the games must, quite reasonably, cover what the audience wants to see. Today, it is no longer possible to grasp the whole story. The event has grown staggeringly beyond a human scale. Technology can only capture and transmit so much. For most sports, only the finals are broadcast. Yet, some of the greatest individual dramas unfold during earlier trials, as the young confront the accomplished, and the guard sometimes changes in the process.
Obviously, the Olympics would not exist in this form without money, and the money flows from the national networks covering the games. There is a great deal of money to be made from selling advertising time. I have absolutely no objection to making money. But it is this need to focus on the popular events that hides much of the drama from us.
The Olympics are now driven by nationalism, ideology, technology, and commerce. All are legitimate, but their impact on the athletes is startling. It begins with the athletes’ training. The wealthy nations, and those who believe they will gain prestige from victory, take their best and lead them through an industrial training process. The athletes are imbued with a sense of national honor and personal possibilities that will flow from victory. Then, since most will not win a medal or even reach the finals, a private tragedy is played out.
The Olympics have become precisely what the Greeks couldn’t make them… and didn’t want to. It is such a vast undertaking that the “agony of defeat”—the inner struggle referred to by the Greek term agonists—is not lost, but hidden. Most of the athletes’ stories are rarely shared with the audience.
The Measure of a Nation?
The Olympics have become a national rather than individual event. Hosting the event is not an act of hospitality but national pride. It must be grand, expensive, crush the city’s budget, and enrich a network. The desire to see people with great strength, when combined with a global technology, hides more than it reveals.
I will never forget the 1980 “miracle on ice” at Lake Placid when the United States played the Soviet Union in hockey. A team of American amateurs took on Russia’s best and defeated them. The US had lost the Vietnam War. Inflation and unemployment were running above 10%. Mortgage rates on home loans stood at 18%. The United States was in decline, and the Soviets were invincible. Yet, we beat them in ice hockey.
To those who remember, it was an extraordinary moment. Many of us—and I mean many—viewed this as a pivotal event where the United States demonstrated its will to win, to retrieve what it had lost. We showed the Soviets and the world that we would not “go gentle into that good night.”
In reality, this thinking was insane. First, the US was not a declining nation. Second, the Soviets weren’t invincible. And finally, it was just a hockey game. 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 it is nationalism and ideology that hides the most. When I recall the miracle on ice, I still glow inside and believe it was a moment of resurrection. But I honestly can’t remember the name of a single player on the American team. 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.