The superficiality of the Olympic ideals

The superficiality of the Olympic ideals

Exactly 37 years ago, one of my articles named “The Meaning of the Olympic Ideals, or an Aestheticized Meaninglessness” was published in the only youth magazine published in Turkey at the time, called Yeni Olgu (The New Phenomenon). In fact, it was rather a ‘fancy’ article written with all the excitement of my youth, and the introduction part also included a quote from Siegfried Kracauer:

“Is it true that what we are doing is something meaningful, or do we simply have a meaningless word to carry from one void to another?”

As the title explained, I argued that the so-called “Olympic ideal” was in fact a mere facade, and I tried to reject this enormous organization and tried to debunk it at one go. I started my argument with the era of slavery, then tried to explain who Baron De Coubertin really was, and then stressed the true purpose behind the modern Olympic Games and the mutual boycott of the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics by both the Western and Eastern blocs, a blockade that completely eliminated the “atmosphere of peace” around this meaningless void.  I basically tried to be “Citius, Altius, Fortius” in my own way, when it came to criticizing the Olympics.

It may be true that I have lost my “speed, altitude and strength” in the meanwhile, but I still cannot say that there has been a radical change in my view of the Olympic Games. Just like the international football tournaments held every four years, I still keep my opinions that the Olympic Games are over-industrialized, over-professionalized and have gone far away from the true purpose of sportsmanship. Moreover, I continue to see the reflections of political competition being ahead of the sportsmanship, not only in the minds, but also on the running tracks, swimming pools, boxing rings, wrestling mats and sports complexes. I still find it absurd when the TV hosts exaggerate their joys in a way that will even disrespect the opponent, when an athlete from their home country succeeds, and in case of defeat, they will say: “The real achievement was to participate here and to be a part of this”. The athletes yelling their victory cry in front of the face of their opponents continue to be a national shame, rather than a national pride for me. The use of war terminology for such sports events is concerning me very deeply.

Respect for the sportsmanship will

Let me also admit that despite all this, I have started to spend more time in front of the TV during the Olympic Games over these years, and the enjoyment I get from it, has increased. It seems nicer to me now than it was years before, when a national handball team that is losing by 17-3, and they cheer wildly when they scored a fourth ball and the team players celebrating each other for it.

I might have already enjoyed watching the marathon runs from start to finish, where the athlete not only competes against his opponents but also struggles against himself. I enjoyed the triathlon since when I was a little kid, but just recently have I finally understood, for example, how difficult it was and began to admire each athlete who participated. Pedaling for 40 kilometers after swimming 1500 meters, and then running for 10 kilometers more, is an activity that should be appreciated heavily, regardless of the athlete’s competition result. On the other hand, learning that swimming on open waters requires a very different training method for an athlete than swimming in a closed pool, and then watching these swimmers swimming at a pace that I could not be able to keep up with if I ran for many kilometers, is a thing to appreciate, as much as a thing to be excited from.

Despite the handicaps…

Let me also emphasize that I watch the Paralympic Games whenever I can. These began on August 24th right after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and watching these games, I realized that it reflects the true ideals of the sportsmanship, albeit late, around an Olympic framework in this context. The Paralympic athletes express the Olympic equivalent of being both “faster, higher, stronger”, and being “more dedicated” on top of it, despite all kind of bodily handicaps, when swimming, playing table tennis or badminton, winning judo matches, weightlifting or doing archery. Playing basketball or fencing in a wheelchair does not mean challenging the opponent or the country the opponent represents, but rather challenging the world and the bodily handicaps they live through. Although there is nothing aestheticized in it, a very meaningful message is delivered with first the athlete’s will and secondly by holding these games. The media and TV hosts are much calmer, and the athletes are surprisingly much more committed to their true ideals…

Pelops’ chariot race of trickery

Although all mythological narratives point to different points of origin and different locations for the Olympic Games, a connection with Zeus, the god of heavens and the lightning, is always given a significant importance. It has been told that the Olympics are the games to entertain the god Zeus, and that they started when Pelops, the grandson of Zeus, fell in love with Hippodamia, daughter of the King Oenomaus of Pisa.

Rumor has it that young Pelops one day faced King Oenomaus, who challenges everyone that falls in love with his daughter to a chariot race then starts the race with a time handicap, but still always wins thanks to his immortal horses running like the wind, and beheads everyone that is defeated. Pelops, who won the race albeit by trickery, married Hippodamia, took over the throne and made it tradition that sports events will be organized every five years in honor of his wife at Olympia. The athletes, who demonstrated their strength and endurance in competitions such as discus and javelin throwing, pankration, wrestling, running and long jump, then won awards. Thus began the Olympic history.

Those games, in which only free men can compete or spectate, and women are not even allowed to spectate, were described in detail in 13th book of “Iliad”. Homer describes in detail, of the athletes lining up in a row, the way they start running towards the point shown by Achilles, the crossing of the corner stones or the strong arms of the young athletes who tightened their belts and went out into the field, one athlete coming over another, locking their hands, and their bodies in dripping sweat. Those who participated in the games did not do so to receive the prizes and to wear the crown made of olive branches, but to achieve immortality. On the other hand, the games aimed to entertain the gods and excite the audience.

Another arena for the polarization

It is quite possible that the “Olympic gods” have always been looking for entertainment since the beginning of the modern Olympic games. The ideal of building friendship, peace and friendly relations between the nations and the athletes was destroyed with turning the 1936 Berlin Olympics into a Nazi showoff, and afterwards, the Olympic Games have become a fighting arena between the USSR/Eastern Bloc and the USA/Western Bloc throughout the entire 20th century. The mythological hero Pelops won the chariot race by trickery, and new trickery such as doping or hormones were invented in modern times. The Olympics were turned into an arena where “capitalism and socialism faced off” throughout the entire Cold War. Today, the games are still evaluated first by the numbers of medals won by the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. Of course, I am not going to belittle the sports achievements of these two countries, which have always occupied the fiest and second places in terms of gold medals won, since the Olympic Games in Athens 2004, (with one exception of Great Britain coming second in Rio de Janeiro 2016, and China getting in the third place). But I cannot help myself but ask: are these the true principles of the Olympic ideal?

For that reason, the persistence and the will of an athlete who finishes a race in the last place, almost 25 minutes after its opponents, or the dive of a swimmer without arms, means a much wider ideal for me and gives me much more excitement.

And I will seek out this same ideals and excitement, as spectator at Paris 2024, in three years.

Tunca Arslan

Journalist (Turkey), served as a jury member at many national and international film festivals, became the president of the Cinema Writers Association (SIYAD) between 2010-2013, where he previously served as a member of the board for three terms. He worked as the editor for the Dogan Publishing House (2009-2014) and Kirmizi Kedi Publishing House (2014-2018). Columnist in Aydinlik Newspaper and in Kaynak Publishing House

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December 2022