Idealised myth of Games' inherent greatness far from the mark
The Olympics will get underway tomorrow when an as-yet-unnamed British hero will light the flame that, IOC president Jacques Rogge says, represents the values of friendship, excellence and respect.
It’s typically grand language to go along with the august ritual that, like much surrounding the ideals of the Games, is a lot of tosh.
Don’t get us wrong, we love the Olympics, and will be glued to the TV for the next two weeks to witness the many displays of sporting brilliance. However, that doesn’t change the fact there exists a myth about the Games that has never, and will never, hold up to scrutiny.
The idea that the flame and the Olympics represent purity, the struggle for victory and peace is as ridiculous as the idea we could take on Usain Bolt and win.
From their rampant over-commercialisation to dodgy deals, boycotts and drug taking, the Games has never quite lived up to its own ideals and hype.
The Olympics is supposed to be all about fair play and respect, but try telling that to the owners of the ‘Olympic Kebab Shop’ in east London. Although established 40 years ago, it has been forced to drop the ‘O’ and call itself ‘Lympic Kebab Shop’ so as to avoid confusion it might be actually associated with the sporting spectacle. It’s a similar story at Little Chef. The famous British chain of restaurants was told it was no longer allowed to serve its ‘Olympic Breakfasts’ for fear customers might think it was the official breakfast of the Games.
The tale, which seems beyond parody, would be funny if it wasn’t so disturbing. What has occurred is in effect the locking down of the English language and removal of free speech in the name of protecting the ‘Olympic brand’ and profits of the official sponsors.
These include a load of multinationals that have been given a ridiculous level of preferential treatment by organisers, meaning that to buy any Olympic merchandise or tickets you have to pay with Visa, the official card of the Games. Anyone wearing Pepsi branding items in and around the Olympic Park will be told to remove the clothing so as to protect Coca-Cola, the official drink.
All in all it’s a triumph of bureaucracy and mean-spiritedness, almost Orwellian in size and concept, that does not sit well alongside the supposed Olympic ideals of coming together and respect. The lag between the image portrayed and reality, though, doesn’t end there. Every Games needs a top tale and one of the most famous Olympics was the 1936 Berlin Games. It’s remembered as the Games when Jesse Owens lit the flame for equality by winning four golds in front of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime.
The reality was, however, very much different as the American star returned back home to a life of racial discrimination and segregation. That part of the story is never allowed to be told when scenes of Owens’ remarkable triumph are displayed during the montages that hit TV screens every four years. The notion that the showpiece has always stood for equality is also dealt a blow when you realise it wasn’t until 1960 that women were allowed to run more than half a lap.
Then there are the drugs. Every Games has its fair share of cheats that contaminate not only their bodies, but the idea that the spectacle is uniquely all about the Corinthian spirit and fairness. But it isn’t just some dopers who do their best to destroy the purity of performances as back at the 1984 Olympics several positive drug tests went unreported due to ‘administrative errors’ by the IOC, whether these were deliberate or not is still unknown.
However, if you think that all these tarnished tales are simply a modern phenomenon you’d be wrong, for the Ancient Olympics were just as hypocritical and contradictory as the modern version.
During the days of Greek and Roman supremacy, the Games on many an occasion only played lip service to notions of fair play and amateurism, as winning at all costs became the norm. Cities bought in talent in a desperate bid to win more events long before the changes of allegiance we see today that has Africans running for Qatar and a South African jumping for Britain.
The next 17 days in London will see a celebration of human endeavour and, despite what some doom-merchants predict, it will be a sporting spectacle to savour. However, what we won’t see is the pastiche of clichéd, romantic ideals that the IOC and others like to think is the hallmark of the Games.
Thanks to the Olympics, if there’s one thing we know it’s that everyone, organisers and athletes, is fallible and to try and idealise them to fit a marketing slogan or 12 is as pointless as it is misguided.