The other morning, on some blogsite I was perusing there was an essay on “why Michael Phelps is a jerk.” Conceding that it might take a jerk to waste his time ragging on a swimmer with a bunch of gold medals, I had to admit that I am sick of hearing about Phelps and his medals, and even more sick of the media sychophants who feast upon his celebrity to the point that they have made his publicity-mongering mother a celebrity. Ah, but that’s the post-Warholian media of today. It doesn’t make Michael and his mama jerks that that they have turned his tedious years paddling to and fro in a box of water into a pile of personal gold. The real gold of the Olympics is the endorsements you get for your endorphins. They might be cliché-ridden and boring, but the boy can swim—and they are rich!
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 that 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 a mythified interpretation of the ancient games and festivals of Greece that 19th century Englishmen and Anglophile Americans and Frenchman like Baron Pierre de Coubertin viewed them as precursors to the sporting practices of English public schools. These misnomered schools, which are the private preserves for the wealthy, elite and aristocratic, perceived sport as a 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. They came from the gold; they didn’t need to “go for it.” From this very skewed and narrow perspective was birthed the modern Olympic games and its central tenet of the cult of amateurism.
Well, we know how long that lasted. 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 (although perhaps product endorsements had to await the blessings of capitalism). 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. Ironically, the myth of the ancient games was that they were amateurism; and now that is the myth of the modern games.*
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, is 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, win glory for his country and return to a life of dentistry, or insurance sales, and model citizenship. But alas, we are not gods and the apotheosis of the Olympic athlete has been well tarnished by drug scandals, cheating, prejudicial judging, and chauvinism.
So here are some random thoughts jotted down about the Olympics, when they cut away to commercials (did I mention this is about money?)
From the American perspective would almost seem that the entire purpose of these is to allow swimmer Michael Phelps to amass more gold medals than Midas. He seems a nice enough kid (although the father is not in evidence, he likely being a bottle-nosed porpoise who lives in a cove off San Pedro); but has clearly spent more time in a pool than in a library. 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 polevaulter 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. I wish for some kid East Timor or Somalia to smoke his ass in the “200 Fly.”
In fact, I have to confess that in a number of events I pull for the underdogs to take the gold away from the USA; except where we are the underdogs, as for example, in the case of the young woman who one gold in judo in these games. I guess I would like to see a country of underdogs––Subcaninya?––marching in the opening ceremonies, with some mutt emblazoned on their flag.
I have seen the sculptures of ancient Olympians at the Museum at the ancient site at Oldham Greece and, although somewhat idealized their physical proportions are “proportionate.” Many of our contemporary Olympians are contrastingly rather freaky in their physical proportions. Needless to say various sports are suited to different body types. Phelps himself appears physically aqua dynamic. Female swimmers have acquired, or are possessed of, unfeminine broad backs and muscular shoulders and are looking a bit too much like those pharmaceutically–fashioned East German Amazons of yester-year. Indeed, were it not for the fact that Pissimus(in a cup) has been added to the Olympic motto of “Stronger, Higher and Faster,” who knows what transmogrified physiologies might be created.
Then there are those compact gymnasts, prepubescent mighty-mites, making the most of careers with the spans of mayflies. Lanky volleyball and basketball players would be at a disadvantage in kayaking or dressage. So the Olympics are somewhat of a circus of mis-proportioned bodies, selected and/or designed to “get the gold.”
The paradox of the Olympic ideal is that while it celebrates the perfection of the body, the quest for victory and superiority, and for gold, inclines it toward the grotesque. Let’s face it, for all the blather about ‘just participating” being enough, and the ideals of “sportsmanship,” given the chance to get that extra strength, height or speed from a few injections of nikesteroid and grab the gold and a war of mutually-enhanced platitude destruction would ensue.
What are some “sports” doing in the Olympics? Are they necessary, like basketball and soccer, that are professionalized and have plenty of exposure and money? Do we need Olympic tennis? And what the hell is Three Meter Air Rifle doing in the Olympics? The USA has a woman who has just won her 4th gold medal in skeet shooting. Yes, it’s a “sport” to blast hundreds of clay targets out of the air. She is a suite lady from California, who plans to enter the next games, but something in me says, “save the skeets and go bake a cake lady.” Or dressage, a soporific event that is less exciting than watching a nag haul an ice wagon.
Enough, before I am awarded the gold medal for cynicism (or envy).
Like I said: we are not gods. But it seems that’s what impels me to watch the Olympics. That these are just humans, if sometimes rather freaky humans, but humans in possession—alongside their obsessions—of the same frailties and inadequacies of the rest of us. They can just run, swim, jump, kick, dive, row, lift, ride, shoot, wrestle, and [you name it, someday it could be an Olympic sport”] better than the rest of us and get their moment of glory (and hopefully some endorsements) every four years. Hey, it beats having all these countries go to war with one another every four years. But please, no Mommy Phelps at the Rio games.
© 2012, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.4.2012)
*There are, of course, some differences between the ancient and modern games. The ancients competed in the nude, although this does not appear to have been the reason that women did not participate and married women were not allowed to be spectators. Furthermore, they did not engage in team sports and did not, perhaps owing to the absence of timing devices, concern themselves with records.