The Olympic Games are creepy. Sure, their creepiness isn’t immediately apparent. We have grown familiar with the pageantry that surrounds this sporting carnival. But there’s more to the Olympics than swimming, shot put and badminton.
The Games are steeped in ritual, all of which is designed to promote an unsettling ideology. They are unlike any other international sporting event. Games officials talk of an Olympic movement, an Olympic spirit, and an Olympic ideal. Its five-ring logo is imbued with a quasi-mystical significance. It even has its own ceremonial calendar: an Olympiad is a period of four years. It’s hard not to conclude that the Olympic Games are a religion, and a bizarre religion at that.
The opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics is this Friday. The official protocols dictate it will feature a sacred torch, which will carry a sacred flame, which will light a sacred cauldron. The flame is supposed to represent purity – flames come from the sun and are untainted by our material world. When the Olympic torch was lit in a Greek temple in May, there was a ceremony of dancing priestesses and men dressed as heralds performing feats of strength.
The flame ritual will be preceded by a symbolic release of pigeons. An Olympic flag will be raised. A hymn will be sung. There will be oath-taking. These rites are all very purposeful. The founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, said its basic idea was to convert athletics into “a religion, a cult [and] an impassioned soaring”.
So the entertainments and frills of the opening ceremony obscure just how odd all the Olympic rituals are.
It is really only when totalitarian states host the Games (Berlin 1936, Moscow 1980, and Beijing 2008) that the cultish elements of the Olympics are fully assimilated into the opening ceremony.
For instance, what we call the ”parade” of athletes around the ceremony would really be better described as a march. Coubertin was explicit about the militaristic elitism of the Games. He wanted to showcase ”an army of sportsmen”. Olympic athletes are the peak physical specimens of all the world’s nations. They are young, fit and virile. In Coubertin’s view, physical perfection was a sign of moral purity. He wanted athletes to devote themselves to sacrifice and an “ideal of a superior life”.
No surprise when the Nazis hosted the Games in 1936, Coubertin embraced them. Berlin was the culmination of his life’s work. It was the ultimate display of ceremony and strength. Olympic ceremonies still combine a sort of fascist symbolism with Cirque du Soleil-style choreography.
Yet the International Olympic Committee is proud of Coubertin. Our Australian committee even has an award in his honour, handed to the secondary school students who best epitomise the values of the Olympic movement.
No doubt the students don’t understand how strange those values are. Presumably they believe the Olympics are focused on peace and global harmony. Because if there is one thing Olympic officials do well, it is soaring speeches about all the good they are doing for the world.
Jacques Rogge, the current Olympic president, told the United Nations in 2007 that “in a world too often torn apart by war, environmental degradation, poverty and disease, we see sport as a calling to serve humanity”. An earlier president, Avery Brundage, pronounced in 1968 that “the essence of the Olympic ideal maintains its purity as an oasis where correct human relations and the concepts of moral order still prevail”.
Their words are cheap and self-serving. Brundage made his lofty claim just five days after the Tlatelolco massacre, where the Mexican government killed dozens of students protesting the Mexico City Games. Rogge gave his speech in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, described recently by the dissident Ai Weiwei as nothing more than propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party.
Their words are so cheap that in 1995 the Olympic committee even tossed “sustainability” into their charter. Not content with saving humanity, they wish to save the planet. It’s not clear how flying 10,000 athletes around the world every four years will achieve that goal. The sustainability platform is almost like a deliberate joke. And it reveals just how vacuous the Olympic ideal really is.
The Olympics do nothing to achieve global harmony. They arguably work against it. If harmony was the goal, athletes would compete as individuals, not on behalf of nations.
Do the Olympic ideologists honestly believe the nonsense they spout? The Games are a taxpayer-funded cash cow for all involved, and that’s probably motive enough for many. Yet Olympism offers a sense of mission. It’s not like the World Cup or the Commonwealth Games. The Olympics is a cause. It is a full-blown belief system.
Rogge said in his UN speech he wanted to place “sport at the service of mankind”. Maybe he does. But right now, sport is serving the weird ideology of the Olympics much more than humanity.