The Olympic torch passed through my town today. Apparently. On some level – indicative to some, perhaps, that I might have too much time on my hands – the Olympic Games trouble me. Why do people get so excited about it? What are the modern Olympics really about? Is it play?
Vicky recently wrote on her blog, asking whether professional football is play or work to the footballers involved. Perhaps it all comes down to a matter of perspective. A small tangent: René Magritte painted a picture of a pipe (‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’) and the title (‘This is not a pipe’) highlights ‘perspective’ to me: the artist is drawing our attentions to the fact that this is not an ‘actual’ pipe, but the representation of one. Marcel Duchamp, I believe (although I will stand corrected if need be), said that a work is a work of art if the artist says so. So, is play ‘play’ if the player says so?
What’s all this got to do with the Olympics? I need to work back through my three questions – but, before I do that, a little history (with a sprinkling of legend).
The first Olympic festival is commonly understood to have taken place at Olympia in 776 BC. There were three other Pan-Hellenic festivals, held every two or four years, also taking place in the area at this time: the Pythian Games, the Nemean Games, and the Isthmian Games. Pindar, a poet from the 5th century BC, claimed that Heracles initiated the Olympic Games in celebration of his defeat of the city-state of Elis and the killing of King Augeas. Or, if you prefer mythology, Pausanias (a Greek traveller), claimed that Zeus and Cronus fought over the ownership of heaven at Olympia; Zeus won and declared the Games to take place there. We can go back further, to before the first Games: in the Iliad, Homer described the funeral of Patroclus, and such funeral rites and honouring of the dead have been linked to the origins of the first Games. From honouring the dead to killing rivals and honour of the city-state, or to contest over ownership of other-worldly realms.
So, from ritual or mythology or acts of warfare, came the first Games. At that time, in the region we now know as Greece, city-states competed with each other for power and prestige. Sparta, a city-state set up for the perfection of war-skills, was dominant. The city-state of Elis had assumed control of the Games at Olympia, but Sparta muscled in. In the resulting alliance, Sparta took on the role of ‘protector’ of the Games (a way of advertising their power and prestige), whilst Elis had control of the religious aspects.
Out of this construct and background of city-state politics and war came the idea of the ‘sacred truce’, i.e. competitors from all parts of Greece and its colonies could come to the Games even during times of war. This was the way of things for many quadrennial Olympiads. The Games at Olympia continued right up until 392 AD.
Fast forward several hundred years. It’s interesting to note that, over the course of the modern Olympics, the ‘sacred truce’ has been spoilt on several occasions: the 1916 Games were scheduled for Berlin, but World War I put paid to them; the Antwerp Games of 1920 did not include competitors from the defeated powers of the war; the 1940 and 1944 Games were cancelled; in London, 1948, Japan and Germany were not present; in Melbourne, 1956, Sweden, Spain, Liechtenstein and the Netherlands boycotted as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Hungary, whilst Lebanon and Iraq withdrew over the Suez crisis; Mexico City, 1968, suffered from threatened boycotts by African and black-American countries and competitors, resulting in South Africa’s expulsion, in protest at apartheid; Munich, 1972, was marred by Palestinian terrorists’ attack on the Israeli compound; in Montreal, 1976, African countries boycotted the Games in protest at the New Zealand football team’s tour of South Africa; Moscow, 1980, saw protest by the United States and over 30 other countries regarding the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; in Los Angeles, in 1984, the Soviet Union and some of its allies reciprocated a withdrawal with claims of insufficient security; the 1996 Games in Atlanta were marred by the Centennial Olympic Park bombing; human rights activists called on the 2008 Beijing Games to be boycotted.
So, whilst the ancient ideal of the ‘sacred truce’ has been well and truly ignored in many modern Olympic Games, the old heart of the piece seems to run through it: that is, ritual, political machinations, warfare. In a word: contest.
In his book, Homo Ludens: a study of the play element [of] in culture (various editions 1938-50), Johan Huizinga claimed ‘contest’ to have the characteristic of play. ‘Like all other forms of play,’ he wrote (p.49) ‘the contest is largely devoid of purpose.’ By this he means that the contest gets enacted out, start to end, and beyond that, before and after that, the result doesn’t matter. ‘The outcome does not contribute to the necessary life-processes of the group.’
Except that the outcomes of contests such as war and sport and athletic prowess do matter: people’s reputations and honour and incomes can depend on the outcome of contests such as the modern Olympics. Yet, just like the perspective of whether something is art or not, whether some act is play or not, it only really matters to the person who’s doing it. Right? The Olympics only really, truly matter to the athlete.
So, why then do people line the streets in every town and city that the Olympic torch passes through on its way around the UK? (Or rather, an Olympic torch, a manufactured symbol with many other similar copies). Why do people get so excited about the ritual of watching a symbol pass by them for thirty seconds on the street, let alone the ritual of the Games itself?
Is it play for the spectators in the watching of the torch as it passes by? If it is play, then it’s with some irony that the play of a streaker yesterday has been brought up quickly by the legal system: ironic because the original Games were performed in the nude. That aside, is the play of the spectator the reason why the torch relay (and also the main event) is being embraced by many? If play is doing what you want to do, when you want to do it, where does the potential social obligation for watching this whole affair fit in? Of course, just because I don’t care for the Games, it doesn’t mean that others should feel the same way. I am slightly troubled by the unthinking embrace of the whole affair though: an embrace on the grounds of some form of nationalistic pride subtly being suggested to us (by the media and politicians).
Why do people get so excited about the Olympic Games? Genuine or subtle suggestion of nationalistic pride? What are the modern Olympics really about? Ritual, political machination, warfare, contest. Is it play? At some level, maybe. At another level – well, I’m not an Olympian . . .
[Historical source: Collier’s Encyclopedia]