The Olympic Spirit
I like the Olympics, and always have. I like watching the greatest athletes in the world, and I especially like watching the more obscure sports for Americans (one of which, badminton, I play myself) that otherwise never make it to my television set.
But the Olympic movement I don’t much care for. The International Olympic Committee is a vast commercial empire, with the same sort of tangential relation to ideals that the NCAA has. It was formed in a burst of silly utopianism in the early part of the 20th century that believed that what we would now call “soft power” and treaties were the key to peace, and its role in promoting that peace is about as substantial as that of the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Its facilitation of corruption (predictable when a small group of people controls an extraordinarily valuable and very scarce asset, much like diamonds in Sierra Leone) was legendary until the scandal over the Salt Lake City bid, and the obsessive nationalism of the Games itself is only disappointing to the terminally naïve.
And so the fiasco over the Olympic torch wending its way through Paris and London is no surprise. The decision to give the Games to a totalitarian, up-and-coming power was understandable as a sort of athletic realpolitik, but we shouldn’t be surprised that the victims of that totalitarianism and cynicism, in Darfur, Tibet and elsewhere, are surprised. You lie down with pigs, you get muddy. Nor should we have any patience for puffery about the need to keep politics and sports separate, since the Beijing government desperately wanted the Games first and foremost as a political act.
And so now we have been treated to the revolting spectacle of Chinese security agents being forced to protect the torch from protesters while thugging their way through the streets of London, the capital of the land that gave the world the rule of law. (The protesters themselves, at least one of whom apparently tried to seize the torch from a wheelchair-bound athlete, were often no better.) The Olympics are compelling sport, but that is all they can ever hope to be, and (as Munich 1936 reminds us) they can be much less too.