I have always been dubious of the Olympics. Starting out rather humbly, like the National Socialist party, the modern Games have ballooned into a circus-like spectacle with little resemblance whatever to the ancient Greek Games. But forget about the considerable money behind the IOC, and the furious bidding wars that go into choosing venues. And never mind the political hijacking of the Games, from Hitler's Berlin to the PLO in Munich. Reduced to its sporting events only, the Games are supposed - aren't they? - to be about challenging established physical limitations and about the sheer beauty of physicality itself - of bodies developed (sometimes unnaturally) for specific physical feats,of the skill of runners, swimmers, or gymnasts at the peak of their powers. So why has it always left me reaching for the remote control?
When the late George Plimpton was asked why popular culture idolizes athletes, his explanation has always puzzled me: he said that athletes are worthy of our admiration because they can do things with apparent ease that we cannot begin to do. But what can they do? Stuff a ball through a hoop? Move their streamlined bodies through arbitrarily defined space? At least the first marathon runner brought news of a decisive battle, before dropping dead.Our marathoners sometimes drop dead, but the message they bring (from Nike or Reebok) is hardly worth the effort.
This latest event in Beijing simply demonstrates how spineless the West has become. The U.S., few people seem to recall, boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets returned the favor by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
The Chinese continue their brutal occupation of Tibet, as well as generally suppressing physical and intellectual liberties at home. But, never mind. The Games are above such things, aren't they? Meanwhile China is using all the attention the Games generate to reassure the world that it is a kinder, gentler totalitarian state, that we can go on buying their crummy products by the boatload without guilt.
Late in 1945, the Soviet Union sent a football (soccer) team - the Dynamos - to play in England. The matches were overshadowed by brawling between the players and - decades before the "football hooligans" - among the spectators. A contemporary of these events, George Orwell, was moved to comment on them in his customarily corrective manner, and in his essay "The Sporting Spirit" he is quick to point out that "serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.
"I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn't know from concrete examples(the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.
"At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe - at any rate for short periods - that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.
"Instead of blah-blahing about the clean, healthy rivalry of the football field and the great part played by the Olympic Games in bringing the nations together, it is more useful to inquire how and why this modern cult of sport arose. . . . There cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of nationalism - that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.
"I do not, of course, suggest that sport is one of the main causes of international rivalry; big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism. Still, you do make things worse by sending forth a team of eleven men, labelled as national champions, to do battle against some rival team, and allowing it to be felt on all sides that whichever nation is defeated will 'lose face'.
"There are quite enough real causes of trouble already and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators."
At the end of his magnificent documentary Tokyo Olympiad (1964), Kon Ichikawa poses the question What have they won? He might just as well have asked What have they lost?