Games – the word sounds playful and carefree. Children play. So do animals. It’s touching and also quite infectious to watch them play. Children and animals play just for the inherent joy it gives them. No one can force people to play; we do so of our own accord, provided that we don’t get carried away by all those things we call ‘serious’ and which can make people feel angry or scared if others try and turn them into a game. A game is a game when the activity in itself provides us with satisfaction and enjoyment. The result doesn’t count, or isn’t the main aspect of the game; the game is an objective in its own right.
This summer will see another edition of the Olympic Games, a strange tradition of matches and contests said to have been born in 776 BC. The Olympics turn games into competitions, rather than games for games’ sake. ↘ Even so, they did not use to be, and still aren’t, primarily about money. Not many people may remember this now, but even the modern-day Olympics, as initiated by Pierre de Coubertin, were restricted to amateur athletes until well into the 1970s. Paid athletes were not allowed to participate. The Games emphasised harmonious physical and psychological development, respect for one’s opponents and strengthened ties between peoples. De Coubertin felt that taking part was more important than winning.
Most tenacious parasite
This emphasis on amateur sport eroded because athletes from behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, which hung between Western and Eastern Europe at the time, were winning an awful lot of gold medals at the time. Officially, these athletes were employed by government agencies, but in actual fact the socialist authorities relieved them of their duties so as to allow them to train. For their part, American athletes tended to excel as well because they were formally enrolled in universities, but hardly spent any time studying, getting scholarships which pretty much made them paid and professional athletes. Furthermore, it was becoming increasingly hard to drum up enthusiasm for amateur achievements that were frankly being outdone by more professional athletes. Needless to say, the rise of television and the attendant commercial factors also played a part in athletes becoming paid workers. Now that the media were paying increasingly tremendous fortunes to obtain the broadcasting rights to the Olympics, it was becoming increasingly hard to stop athletes from getting paid.
Or officials, for that matter. Because professional sporting events require officials. Sure, they are important, and they are required at the best of times to support their sports. However, they are especially important at the Olympics. I would not be surprised if the number of officials working at the Olympics exceeded the number of athletes. Outrageous amounts of money are involved in mega events such as the Olympics and the Football World Cup, so it should come as no surprise that the agencies involved in the running of these events regularly make headlines due to corruption scandals and self-enrichment schemes. Give the people bread and games, but give yourself 71 million euros – it recently turned out that three high-ranking officials with world football association FIFA had awarded each other this sum in salary rises over the course of five years. Not surprisingly, only in the finance sector will you find greedier people, who, moreover, can’t even be bothered to give the people bread and games. But even when officials are not making themselves rich, the world of commerce is having a greater impact on the Olympics, and sport in general, every year. The fact that we can watch the Games for free, 24 hours a day and on several stations at once, is due to the most tenacious parasite evolution has given us since fleas and lice: advertising.
And let’s not forget an even more modern development in this genre: match-fixing. We all know people bet on the scores of sporting events. We also know that this carries entire sports, as anyone who ever watches snooker (Betfred!) can attest. It seems to work very well for snooker, which is a game dominated by Brits, who not only like betting, but also love fair play. Of course, matches may be fixed there, too – we’ll never know for sure. Least of all because match-fixing isn’t restricted to major games. For instance, in the Dutch Premier League (Eredivisie), a football game between Willem II and FC Utrecht is said to have been fixed once. One might call it the poor man’s version of stock market manipulation.
The Olympics are not just subject to money, but also to politics. They are hardly ever just about sport. There have been quite a few boycotts of the Olympic Games over the years. Take Berlin 1936, for instance. No, those Olympics weren’t boycotted because of the Nazis. Rather Ireland boycotted them because it did not like the fact the IOC would only allow athletes representing the British-designed Irish Free State to compete, rather than athletes representing Ireland, which had by then gained its independence from the British Commonwealth. The Netherlands boycotted the 1956 Melbourne Olympics due to the Soviets’ attendance following their brutal invasion of Hungary. In 1968, two American athletes, each wearing a black glove, delivered a Black Power salute during their medal ceremony – an event so shocking at the time that I can still remember it today. In 1972 and 1976 several African countries threatened to boycott the Games so as to ensure that South Africa and Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) could not participate because of their apartheid regimes. The Americans did not attend the 1980 Moscow Olympics, while the Soviets and many of their allies boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. In all, only five countries have attended every single Olympics since 1896: Greece, Australia, France, Great Britain and Switzerland.
Another thing which is proving hard to eradicate from the Olympic Games is doping. It’s not just a matter of a few unsporting participants or sports federations surreptitiously popping pills. Modern elite-level sport has pretty much reached the zenith of what is humanly achievable and, just as importantly, the interests served with athletes’ victories are so immense that it would frankly be a miracle if there were still any athletes out there who do not dope in any way (all right, we all know that Dafne Schippers really does not dope). That serious elite-level sport and doping can go hand in hand for a long time was proven by cyclist Lance Armstrong. It is hard to say whether Lance is a hero or a cheat or – even more complicated – both. In addition to the ethical issues and unsportsmanlike behaviour involved in doping, doping also poses practical problems these days. Back in the old days, we knew immediately after a competition or race who had won; now we must wait, sometimes for months or even years, for the results of the ‘B’ samples and appeals to be published before knowing who is No.1 and who is No. 2. It might be better not to award any Olympic medals until one or two Olympiads later – not the nicest thing to do, but fair, all right.
One might wonder, at this point, if there are any sportsmanlike sports left. This might sound like a tautology, but it’s not. The pushing, pulling and kicking going on in today’s football is emblematic of sport in general. ‘Great!’ football commentator Ruud Gullit once enthusiastically yelled when a midfielder in a Champions League game committed a nasty foul within five minutes of kick-off, roughly stepping on his opponent’s Achilles tendon. Gullit stated that it was important that players remind their opponents of their presence and that this player had shown great timing, as he was unlikely to be booked so early in the game. Great analysis, Ruud. By all means keep handing out those bracelets that say ‘Respect’.
Then there’s one final aspect which makes the Games and sport in general both fascinating and problematic: nationalism. The Olympics are attended by flag-waving nations. We are himmelhoch jauchzend when the Dutch national football team wins, and zum Tode betrübt when it loses. Ditto with Ranomi, Max and Dafne. They are Dutch, therefore they are our heroes. And just to think that the Dutch are actually quite moderate in this regard, as we are in many things. In many other countries people live and die by their national teams’ achievements in sport – especially in Latin American countries like Brazil, where not being a fan is considered an act of treason. Of course, it is this same nationalism which makes the principle of ‘bread and games’ possible, with the ‘games’ element seemingly outweighing the ‘bread’ one. This is all the more fascinating because no such patriotism seems to be involved at the local fan level. How many Rotterdammers, or how many Dutchmen for that matter, play for Feyenoord? And how many Spaniards or Catalans play for Barcelona? Yet Catalans are proud as punch of ‘their’ Barcelona, while Rotterdammers are proud as peacocks of ‘their’ Feyenoord. Which shows that sport can be endlessly used for manipulating national sentiments.
Let’s do things differently for once! I fear we won’t be able to do anything about match-fixing, doping and unsportsmanlike behaviour. But why should athletes be asked to represent their countries? Let’s get rid of these national team jerseys and national anthems. Let’s have an Olympic Games where the athletes themselves get to decide with whom or on whose behalf they compete. This would be great for the athletes, I think, in that they would be empowered in a democratic and social manner. It would be less pleasant for the sports federations and officials, who would lose out on a fair bit of income. By definition, such Olympics would no longer be bread and games for the people, since peoples will no longer be addressed or manipulated as nation states. However, Pierre de Coubertin’s ideals – generosity of spirit, chivalry, respect for one’s opponents and the strengthening of friendly ties between peoples – would be served a great deal better. Let the post-national Olympics begin!
Gijs van Oenen is associate professor Practical Philosophy at the ‘Faculteit der Wijsbegeerte’ of the EUR.