China has a 5000 year history; only its Olympic Opening Ceremonies seemed longer. It seemed like a remake of “Flying Torches, Hidden Protestors.” But then, they have waited a long time, and they were going to make the most of it. As I had my second meal during its course I was reminded of my recent visit to Beijing this past April. My hotel, just around the corner from the Olympic Committee building already had a little shop dedicated to the games. Prominently displayed was a gold (solid?) replica of the “The Bird’s Nest,” about one-foot in length. You had to ask the price, but I didn’t (imagine having to dust a gold bird’s nest souvenir). I had seen the real structure from about 300 yards, which was about as close as one could get back in April. Last night, on my television it glowed, glittered, pulsed, emitted fireworks, displayed Chinese ingenuity and thundered with national pride. The theme was a sappy “One World, One Dream,” but it really was “We’re Here. We’re Big, We’re Getting Rich, and we Hold Most of Your Debt!”
Even considering the differences in special effects between the 1930s and today Zhang Yimou, the film director who produced the opening ceremonies, seems to have outdone Leni Riefensthal. At the broad level there are some similarities between the “puff pieces” of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and the 08.08.2008 Beijing Games. There is no denying that there was much beauty, a lot of it in cute kids and female pulchritude, in China’s Opening Ceremonies this past weekend. There was much cleverness, creativity, and no expense was spared. China wanted to show its best side, so blindingly, it seemed that it wanted to obscure its ugly side so hypocritically publicized by “Mr. Torture” himself, George W. Bush. When Riefensthal composed her “Olympiad” piece it was only six years after sound had come to motion pictures; Zhang had to outdo the iPod and YouTube age. It took a lot of time as well, way too much time. The Wow effect just kept coming on, and on, and on.
Cowboy Capitalism China is not Nazi National Socialism in Germany, and we did not awake today to find Chinese tanks rolling into Poland (although the opening ceremonies provided some cover for Soviet (ooops!), Russian, tanks rolling into Georgia).
There were the usual references to the ancient Panhellenic Games, an anthem sung in Greek, and the first team to take the field being from Greece. But that was the extent of it. When we think of ancient Greece we recall a time and place of myths and legends, where gods and demi-gods played and meddled in the affairs of men, where heroes sought the golden fleece, battled one-eyed Polyphemos, and performed other feats which are an inspired blend of fact and imagination.
We, of course, reside in an age of facts, governed by rationalism and empiricism. Since the time of ancient Greece many a myth has succumbed to the revelations of science and to the scrutiny of history; but perhaps because humans find reality too real or too difficult to cope with, mythmaking endures in nearly every aspect of human affairs. Indeed, one of the most curious myths of the contemporary world derives from a distortion of the realities of the ancient customs and practices on which it is based.
The central tenets of the Modern Olympic games derive from and interpretation of the ancient games and festivals of Greece which 19th century Englishmen and Anglophile Americans and Frenchman like Baron Pierre de Coubertin that viewed the games as precursors to the sporting practices of English public schools. These misnamed schools, which were the private preserves for the wealthy, elite and aristocratic, perceived sport as an adjunct to their central purposes of preserving the privileges of class and training leaders for the rigors and competitiveness of peace and war. Sport was avocation, not vocation. From this very skewed and narrow perspective was birthed the modern Olympic games and its central tenet of the cult of amateurism.
Paradoxically, the reality of the ancient Olympic games is far closer to the reality of the so-called Modern Olympic games. Far from being pastimes of gentlemanly amateurism the ancient Olympic Games were as “professional” as the modern games are showing themselves in fact to be. Ancient Greek athletes won very large cash prizes (even by contemporary standards), celebrity, pensions, access to political power, and sometimes even divine status after death. Those athletes we see racing, wrestling and throwing on the sides of ancient pottery competed not for the honor of being a participant, and garlands of wild olive, but for stakes that are strikingly identical to those of contemporary Olympians. Although the ancients had strict rules to govern the contests, the ferocity with which they competed, particularly in boxing and wrestling, which often resulted in severe injury and even death, may have owed as much to material gains as the “glory of sport.” Even then the promoters and hosts had much to gain from the games; city states often tried to increase the profit and prestige of their local games by declaring them to be the equal of the official games held at the traditional Panhellenic site at Olympia.
In recent years the cult of amateurism has been allowed to co-exist with the realities of professionalism in the Olympics. The ideal of the amateur, enshrined in promotional spots and, ironically, commercials, as a young man or woman pure of heart and dedicated to the ideal rises from small town America to take a gold medal and return to a life of dentistry, or insurance sales, and model citizenship. This is the myth that has replaced the ancient myths.
And now that myth has been replaced by the reality of pharmacology. Today’s athletes must not only be able to “Fortius, Altimus, Citius,” they must be able to “Pissimus” (in a cup) and pass their drug tests. Any athlete is out to enhance his/her performance, and performance enhancing drugs are a great temptation, or a necessity, if your opponent is using them. (In dressage, it may be the horses that have to be tested.) Years ago, East German and Russian women swimmers and track and field athletes had enough male hormones in them they could have done shaving commercials. No more of that, but one wonders about the body types of those Chinese “women” gymnasts who they say are 15 and 16 years old. These girls either are 12 years old, or their puberty has been retarded (maybe just by excessive practice, because boobs and hips are not gymnastic assets.) In any case, the Chinese women gymnasts have just won their first team gold medal.
From the American perspective it would almost seem that the entire purpose of these Olympics is to allow swimmer Michael Phelps to amass more gold medals than Midas. He seems a nice kid with a nice family (although the father is not in evidence, he likely being a bottle-nosed porpoise who lives in a cove off San Pedro). Never mind that, in swimming, one may enter as many as eight different swimming events of different strokes, distances, and individual and relay races. By contrast, a pole vaulter gets one shot at a medal. So calling Phelps the “greatest all time Olympian,” is nonsense, and I am sick of looking at him get all the limelight and adulation over other athletes.
It’s another example of American excess. And what is the purpose of having baseball, women’s softball, (professional) basketball, beach volleyball, and now BMX bike racing on the Olympic roster? Well, it is most likely that the American is the biggest and richest viewing market, and other countries have little chance of getting medals in them. Other than ping pong, which at least sounds Chinese, can you name another indigenous Chinese sport? Get rid of all those skewed sports, and while were at it, get rid of tennis and soccer. These sports have plenty of exposure and money.
One can’t blame China for having and over-the-top Opening Ceremonies. Host countries have been competing for years to out-do one another. This should be the end of it. Simplify the ceremonies, spend the money on something worthwhile, cut down the sport and events to what is fair and reasonably “Olympian” in character, and de-emphasize the medal count, which does nothing to advance the Olympic spirit. However, it is likely that, humans being humans, the drive to win, to be number one, to amass more gold medals that the other guy, and the other guy’s country, will persist. They will use all tricks that contravene the spirit of fair competition—buoyant swimsuits, blood doping, 12-year-old “women” gymnasts, etc.—anything that will give an edge and advantage.
And we will watch, because the “glory of sport,” tainted by greed, power, nationalism, and vainglory, is at least marginally better than we do the rest of the time.
© 2008, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.14.2008)