Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Money, nationalism, and the Olympic spirit

Although the violations I have in mind are not as grave as Georgia and Russia having violated the the sacred "Olympic truce"* they are still troubling.

Today, China announced that every Chinese Olympic gold medalist would receive about US$ 50,000 from the state. Other countries also pay their medalists. This state of afairs brings to mind another feature of the original ancient Olympiads:
The victors of these early games received a ‘kotinos’, which was a wreath of olive branches from a sacred olive tree that grew behind the temple of Zeus, and which according to tradition Hercules (Heracles), founder of the games had planted.
In the old days, that was it. No check from your city-state, no million drachma sponsorship contract from the local olive farmers.

Beyond this, I think the spirit of the old games that most needs to be revived is the notion that the Olympics are about individual competition. The ancient games were a far cry from the hyper-nationalistic frenzy that we have today. Does anyone outside of China or the US care about their country's "national medal count" nowadays? Regardless, media organizations -- at least in China and the United States -- present the games to citizens in ways that reinforce nationalism. Television coverage that simply ignores foreign competitors -- and competitions in which foreigners succeed -- do the planet a disfavor. This approach is not only dull, it deprives viewers of precious opportunities to broaden their sympathies.

* Once known as the Ekecheiria. In classical times all hostile acts were prohibited for a period within one to three months of the Olympiad.

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