I’m an Olympic atheist

February 12, 2014 | Viewpoints | Number 4
By Will Braun | Senior Writer

Amid the medal counts, terror threats and Norwegian curling flare lies the notion that the Olympics make the world a better place.

The goal of “Olympism”—yes, it’s a real word—says the Olympic Charter, is to “contribute to building a peaceful and better world.” Who could argue?

But what does ski jumping have to do with a better world? How is a fist-pumping, adulated athlete at the bottom of a snowy half pipe contributing to humanity? How would Canada “owning the podium” help the world?

“We want to use the power of our values and symbols to promote the positive, peaceful development of global society,” said Thomas Bach, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, at the United Nations last November.  

Bach spoke about the Olympic “ideal,” “movement” and “spirit,” in addition to the “sacred . . . Olympic truce,” a UN formality that invokes the ancient Greek tradition whereby the kings of three city states temporarily called off hostilities in favour of sport.

To be fair, the pageantry of nations gathering in a festive spirit creates good vibes in the global village. Humanity smiles. For a couple weeks (Feb. 7 to 23), the world is aglow with goodwill. There is some truth in this, but Olympism’s model of global betterment and international togetherness lends itself better to spectacle than scrutiny.

Any sense of togetherness at the 2012 London Games, for instance, certainly did not apply to the podium. Only 85 of the 204 countries with Olympic committees won medals. Canada took home twice as much hardware as India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria combined, countries home to more than a quarter of humanity.

The winter games are even more club-ish. Ninety percent of the medals went to nine percent of the world’s nations at the 2010 Vancouver Games. Only an eighth of the world’s countries were even there.

If we look at what Olympism has yielded for some of the countries most in need of peace and goodwill, the picture is even less inclusive. Afghanistan has two bronze medals to its credit—ever. Sudan, one silver. Democratic Republic of Congo, zilch. Haiti has been shut out since 1928.

It’s not the IOC’s job to rectify that, but it is its job to be honest. Its hyped-up global goodwill brand betrays a reality that is much closer to an advertising bonanza tacked on to a fairly elite recreational entertainment event.

In addition to the global peace narrative, there are at least two other scripts that play big at the Olympics:

  • One is, “Try hard, believe in your dreams, don’t give up and your dreams will come true.” This may be true for the infinitesimal fraction of human beings who end up on an Olympic podium, but the reason a 2010 Haitian earthquake orphan will not make it to the Olympics is probably not because she doesn’t believe staunchly enough in her dreams.
  • A more accurate rendering of the Olympic dream narrative would be that a highly select number of people who demonstrated remarkable perseverance and dedicated a lot of time to sport—most likely at the expense of family or causes greater than sport—were able to beat some other people who also tried very hard and sacrificed balanced lives.

Neither version has much to do with global well-being, although they can make for compelling vignettes in between sporting events. An acquaintance of mine who won a rowing medal in Atlanta offered a more realistic perspective on her Olympic heroics: “I can move a piece of wood backward across a lake really fast.”

Another Olympic narrative is, “Buy stuff.” It’s not hard to understand why Olympic promoters want to present the Games as something more than just people hurtling down hills or rocks sliding on pebbled ice. As the Olympic website says, the games are “one of the most effective international marketing platforms in the world.” That is due largely to an ingenious Olympic brand that is about so much more than sport.  

Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and General Electric spend big bucks to cozy their brands up to the Olympic one. Forget the fact that General Electric is a major arms manufacturer or that the Big Mac hardly seems like a symbol of peace.  

Just the same, the IOC considers these and other sponsors “an intrinsic part of the Olympic family.” That familial embrace is more than some of the most ravaged and populous countries receive. Coca-Cola and McDonald’s clearly have more to gain at the Olympics than the majority of the world’s nations.

Like much of life, the Olympics are laden with contradictions. The Games are a symbol of togetherness and a gathering of the elite. They promote ethics and advertising, “universal principles” and McNuggets. In order to address these contradictions, the IOC should either put values ahead of hype, or, more realistically, set the lofty ideals aside and stop pretending that the Games are more than just that, games.

I’m not against sport. I just don’t believe in Olympism.

--Posted Feb. 12, 2014

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