Tonight will be the official opening of the Rio Olympic Games 2016. Aside from questions as to the suitability of Rio as Olympic Host, the tournament has proved wildly popular; 1.2 million people applied for tickets during the first round of sales. You can rest assured that for the next fortnight, television stations across the world will show little else.
No one back at the first Olympiad in 1896 could have imagined how wildly successful the Olympic Games would become. The founder of the Olympic Movement, Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), developed his ‘Olympic Philosophy’ in the late 19th century, when European powers were vying with one another for territorial and military supremacy. A Frenchman, he witnessed the cost of war first-hand during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, which resulted in nearly a million causalities.
The Ancient Olympics Games had appealed to de Coubertin partly because he recognised that the Ancient Greeks, a bellicose people by all accounts, held a sacred truce for the duration of the Games. He was committed to the idea that bringing nations together to compete amicably would be the best means to foster world peace: as expressed in the final stanza of his 1912 ‘Ode to Sport’:
“O Sport, You are Peace!
You forge happy bonds between the peoples
by drawing them together in reverence for strength
which is controlled, organised and self disciplined.
Trough you the young of the entire world
learn to respect one another,
and thus the diversity of national traits becomes a source
of generous and peaceful emulation! “
Even to this day, the Olympic Charter is committed to bringing about de Coubertin’s vision of peace through sport. Out of the nine fundamental principles of the Olympic Games, two are devoted to enshrining this principle and the Olympic Flag itself is made to represent the five continents, interlocked with one another, to symbolise worldwide cooperation.
De Coubertin’s dream was always idealistic and hence liable to failure. In its hundred year history, war has cancelled three Olympiads, one has seen a hostage crisis and numerous have seen some form of boycott or national protest, such as the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Aside from this, it is national attitudes towards the Olympics that drive a wedge between the games today and de Coubertin’s dream. It is no secret that countries have to pay through the nose for the privilege of hosting the Olympics. Nations willingly pay the hefty fee because of tourism as well as other, less obvious perks. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 for example, the priciest on record at a whopping $40billion, was held partly to highlight the PRC’s organisational effectiveness and to show off the vast resources that China had at its disposal. Rather than bringing peoples together in a sense of unity through competition, Britain, who hosted the games in 2012 and Japan, who is hosting the next Olympiad will be watching carefully to see how well the Brazilians pull off their Opening Ceremony.
De Coubertin believed that it was not so much victory, but the struggle against an opponent that brought people together. In the recent Olympics, there has been an absolute obsession with how well a team has done, how many medals a country wins and where they are on the table. This drive to be the best has led to extreme example, the Russian doping scandal has clearly highlighted that some countries (albeit not all) are willing to put their athletes’ reputation and health at risk in exchange for national prestige. Ultra-competitiveness breeds resentment among athletes and removes the mutual respect vital to keep competitions and competitors amicable.
The fact that the Olympic Games can still bring countries from all over the world together for two weeks shows that it hasn’t failed completely. However, if we are really committed to ‘Olympism’ and want it to continue, we need to set aside our obsession with gold and desire to show off, so that we can concentrate on what makes the Olympics so special. Peace has to be worked for through cooperation; what better way than through the true Olympic Spirit?