August 21, 2008

Olympic Fraud

[To hear the audio version of this post, click here.]

No, I'm not talking about under-the-legal-age Chinese gymnasts, bribed judges, or even a cute Chinese girl lip syncing because she’s prettier than the real voice. I'm talking about the myth of the Olympic Games, that they represent some sort of sporting ideal in contrast to the dirty, politicized, cheating, dishonest material world we live in. We so desperately want dreams, ideals without any self-discipline or self-denial, we grasp at any chimera.

In ancient Greece there was a myth, too, that all wars stopped for the games. But we know better. We know that the rewards of prestige and money were so great that competitors cheated, maimed, and killed to win, and winners were allowed to get away with murder because of their prestige. The Olympic Games were a fusion of the authority of pagan religion and the worship of human physique. These are not ideals we should try to emulate. The sheer battle for national prestige reminds me of the idea that sport is war by other means.

The Olympic Games were restarted in Greece in 1859. But it was towards the end of the nineteenth century, that Baron Coubertin created the International Olympic Committee with its rules, conventions, and all the faux nostalgia that only those who need to avoid looking at themselves in the present are capable of. This was, after all, the era of white, aristocratic, Christian supremacy. The first myth was amateurism as the pursuit of a goal out of sheer love of competition, regardless of outcome (something only the wealthy (or subsidized), who have no need to scramble to earn a living, are privileged enough to indulge in).

As in ancient Greece, local states, companies, and individuals funded their outstanding athletes (indirectly, of course, to get round the rules) and ensured they were well taken care of. The Olympics dropped shamateurism in the 1970's. Then countries like East Germany took children, and trained, even deformed and drugged them, to the point where soon after winning glory their bodies began to collapse. In China infants are selected and taken away from home to be trained, their bodies molded the way they use to bind feet to keep them small, their puberty retarded in pursuit of glory, and, it appears, they are psychologically damaged for life. We focus on successes--but think of all the abandoned, crushed little kids discarded on the way. Rich countries can pour so many resources into their teams, doctors, psychiatrists, physiotherapists, technology, equipment and training centers. And many countries offer inducements to poach athletes. Britain conveniently made the Afrikaner Zola Budd a citizen in order to compete in 1984.

Then came the scandals of drugs and the questions of where one draws a line between legitimate and illegitimate drugs. Is a cup of coffee or a cold suppressant a drug? Where the rewards are so great abuse is inevitable. As with drugs in general, huge resources are thrown into the mainly ineffective fight against them and as a result they are pushed underground and nasty people make a lot more money out of them. People want them; they'll find a way of getting them and hiding them.

The myth that politics do not enter the Olympics is rubbish too. I do not just refer to the Nazis, or to various boycotts, or even the inhuman incursion of Palestinian terror into the Munich games. The Olympic movement, contrary to its own ideals, bows to pressure and allows athletes to refuse to compete against those they do not want to, as happened this time when an Iranian athlete withdrew rather than face an Israeli, without penalty or rebuke. The games must go on because there is too much at stake financially to allow principle to get in the way.

Almost all sport now generates so much wealth through telecommunications and marketing. Richer teams buy good players and inevitably do better than those who rely solely on home grown talent. But if we live in a world where wealth can buy anything, where do you draw lines? Is it even possible to draw lines that cannot be easily bypassed?

From a Jewish religious point of view, of course, anything that damages or degrades the human body, physically or mentally, is morally unacceptable. Yet I notice that, despite agreeing in principle, few religions have succeeded effectively in banning, say, tobacco, or different forms of surgical or chemical bodily enhancement. In the pursuit of artificial beauty, humans undergo all sorts of pain and medical modifications. And one hears of new legal drug-enhanced memory and brainpower. Is that right or wrong? If moral authority fiddles to suit its tastes and turns blind eyes, how can we object to sport doing it?

So let us non-Olympians enjoy the thrills and the competitions, regardless of how unequal or unfair they may be, but realize it is morally, politically, and every other way you can think of, still a fraud.

8 Comments:

At 9:14 PM , Blogger -suitepotato- said...

If a lie is believed long enough, it doesn't matter if it is a lie. Eventually no one is alive who would actually know, no one is alive who would know enough about whatever evidence was left to reliably say it was a lie, and as the years went by the lie would become the truth to all.

All facts in the end are lies. Stories told by people not there to witness them, stated as facts despite that, taken on faith out of a reflection of their selves. We all state things as fact which we ourselves have zero proof and we each honestly know it.

That being the case, a noble lie is not a myth, but what happens when we choose to take that lie, omission, alleged claim, emotionally overwrought distortion, whatever, and make it serve a noble purpose for mankind, becoming a so-called fact for them, which drives them to better things.

Some would and do say it of the origins of every religion, that they are all lies. They were distortions of hand me down tales, myths, and wishes. Moses never saw anything but a flaming creosote bush, Jesus never walked on water, Mohammed never saw Gabriel. Every religion has had its wars, murder, and all the other petty human things such as sexual peccadilloes. Some would say...

What is important isn't the relative truth of a thing, most especially the subjective value judgments we make on the motives and actions of those involved, but the results of it in the long centuries to come. Sure, right here and now, some things have some repercussions and they should be dealt with as they happen, case by case.

However, the entire enterprise, if it convinces people that it is about those things you claim are a lie, it can eventually make it so by virtue of no one ever realizing a different thing. Instead, it will go from being about those things by assumption, to be that it SHOULD be about those things by faith. To them the nobility of it will be something held with fanatic strength.

It doesn't matter if Moses did or didn't talk to G-d. He thought he did and acted in accordance with that belief and his nature. We believe he did and we act in accordance with that belief and our nature. What do our actions in reaction to our perceptions say about us? Do we make a posterity worth believing in? Or do we make a posterity that is only concerned with fact and legalisms, logical formality, and who is right, not what is right?

It will over time become truth that it is about fairness, sportsmanship, and honor if we make it so. If we hold to that, if we insist on the behavior that makes it so, it becomes that through force of history.

It was exactly that knowledge, that a thing's truth depends on our insistence on what we choose to believe, that drove so many to such lengths to keep the Nazi activities in the Holocaust alive in living memory, even the memory of people who were not born yet when it happened. They persevered to keep the story about what they believed was the truth, because they believed that it was a better truth to believe than the Nazi's alternative. It was about choosing to believe that life matters, innocence exists, and some things are wrong.

Now, today, we believe that narrative. Was it the factual truth? According to the evidence, yes. But more important is what we chose to believe. Whether or not it was factual was beside the point. We chose to believe something better, not that all the deaths had happened, but that there was such a thing as right and wrong and that we are not inevitably destined to be nihilists and predators.

We should choose to see the Olympics in the best most noble light and insist on being that in the end. Only by continuing to believe that it is, would anyone be shocked by the things you note. If they cease believing those things and instead agree with you that it is a lie, then none of those things are untoward or out of place. Nihilistic that we tend toward, we need to believe the nobility of the games to one day make all the sordid transgressions so unseemly, so unwelcome, so unacceptable, that we no longer do.

 
At 9:03 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

There is a fundamental difference between narrative/myth and law/ideal. Whether a narrative happened, or happened in the way commonly accepted, or not is a matter of personal attitude. Either way, it does not directly affect actions and no one is hurt. But where you have a structure of laws and regulations and they are being ignored or subverted, then something is wrong and needs either correction or alteration.

 
At 6:18 PM , Anonymous Graham said...

As someone who merely "runs for fun" (best time right now at 52 years of age : 5 km in 28 minutes - will do better next year) I have been totally unaffected by the individual prowess of athletes - or the gold-medal coaunt of nations in this or any other Olympic Games. I have not watched anything on TV and feel no obligation to see the Olympics as noble. It is all part of the background noise of life in the 21st Century c.e.

What spooks me somewhat about Suitepotatoes input is this - quote:

"It was exactly that knowledge, that a thing's truth depends on our insistence on what we choose to believe, that drove so many to such lengths to keep the Nazi activities in the Holocaust alive in living memory, even the memory of people who were not born yet when it happened. They persevered to keep the story about what they believed was the truth, because they believed that it was a better truth to believe than the Nazi's alternative. It was about choosing to believe that life matters, innocence exists, and some things are wrong."

This is unworthy of further comment.

Graham

 
At 4:33 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Yes, Graham, I agree that paragraph you quote from suitepotato makes no sense to me, and if it is the sense that you imply then it is strangely out of
character.

As for the Olympics, what really annoyed me was all the pseudo-civil religious crap, Olympic oaths, anthems, and poppycock. All the more so coming
from such colourless nonentities! I can just about handle it in real religions, because they still do a lot of good--but the Olympics? What do they
want, to revive the Greek pagan religion or something?

 
At 5:20 PM , Anonymous HS said...

As I understand it, Suitepotato's point is that some lies are OK if they serve a good purpose. I agree, so long as I am in charge of deciding which lies are acceptable.

As for the Nazi bit, perhaps the issue has been clouded by being settled in court which may suggest that credibility is equally weighted on each side rather than that the courts are involved in countries where Holocaust denial is a crime. The most famous case would never have been fought had 'that well known loonie' not sued Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books, for five years. In general though, the rest of us have not had to deal personally with holocaust deniers any more than with flat-earthists.

I hope that is all clear now and we can get on with worshipping Dido Queen of Carthage (by Marlowe, the Real Shakespeare!)

 
At 8:53 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Aw shucks, you're not going to throw up that old myth about Marlowe writing Shakespeare. We all know that the scholarship in Shakespeare comes from Ben
Jonson, the violence from Webster, and all the rest was written by that nice Jewish girl, Aemilia Bassano!

 
At 5:06 PM , Anonymous Graham said...

accepting HS's explanation of SP's unfortunate analogy.....

"For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise"

Graham

 
At 7:51 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Brilliant!

 

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