The Olympics; then and now

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When Baron de Coubertin founded the modern Olympics in 1896, he had in mind a very particular formula: the Olympics were to be an international event of national competitions, and only men and not women should be allowed to compete. The emphasis on competition is important; the Olympics was intended as preparation for war, which he saw as the highest condition of human valour. Coubertin’s negative utopia was the Commune, during which Paris had been “in the hands of a contemptible insurrection, formulated by cosmopolitan adventurers”. Coubertin was an aristocrat and a sympathiser with the French Right; forty years later he was to see the Nazified Berlin Olympics as the vindication of his life’s work.

But how far did the actual history of the original Olympics provide the Baron with his template, or to what extent was he re-imagining the Games as something more malign than they had actually been? In Neil Faulkner’s A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics, although the book is written in the light, breezy style of a Lonely Planet guide, complete with travel tips and currency guides, the political meaning of the (old) Olympic Games is a central concern.

For Faulkner, the Olympics were primarily a religious festival: this can be seen from the abundance of the temples, the proximity of the games to the Gods’ home at Mount Olympus, and the implication of religious symbolism into the day-t0-day practice of the games: to take just one example, the cutting of the victors’ wreaths from the Sacred Olive Tree in the garden of Zeus’ temple. Now, most contemporary readers tend to see the Greek religion as something amusing and daft – pantheism, we assume, is never more than a short step from atheism. It is incomprehensible to us that the Greeks, a nation of scientists and philosophers, could actually have believed that the world was controlled by all-powerful beings who did nothing grander all day than rut and cheat and feast. That’s not how religion was seen in Greece, where religion was believed, and the penalty for iconoclasm was death.

There are, it seems to me, three stages to Faulkner’s reading of the Games. The first is that theft basic, which any reader of Robert Graves will recall as essential to Greek myth: the overturning of the matriarchal religion of the goddesses Gaia, Rhea, Hera and Demeter by the patriarchal religion of Zeus. Faulkner contends that the Games began in emulation of older celebrations in honour of the goddesses.  He points to the presence, within the Olympic stadium, of a single woman, the Priestess of Demeter, as a memory of those original Games.

The Games were founded as aristocratic Games in the eight century BC, and like the sporting contests which feature in theIliad, the competitors were village chiefs and others from the ruling caste, motivated by the intention of winning physical prizes.

By around 600 BC, however, the Games had changed, becoming pan-Hellenic contests open to just about any free Greek citizen, and integrated into the training regimes of the popular militia of just about every Greek state. They were now “popular” games, in that the participants were drawn from that middle strata of Greece which also provided the hoplites and the voters of the city-state democracies.

But the Olympic games were more than this, by promoting a message of Greek unity, and of the moral virtue of physical perfection, they were a kind of ideological motivator, most precious to those at the conservative edges of Greek political thought:

“Do not be surprised if you often hear right-wingers committed to oligarchy banging on about homonoia (“unanimity”) and panhellenism at the Olympics: this premier sporting event is saturated with politics. Most Greeks view the internecine wars as at best regrettable and worst disastrous. But the conservative faction has an ulterior motive for promoting peace across the Greek empire. The underlying idea is that the Greeks have common interests, should not be fighting each other, and instead need to unite against foreign enemies. In fact one enemy in particular: Persia.”

Coubertin, it follows, was at least being honest to the past, when he looked back to the original Olympics as a resource of oligarchical and military thinking about the human condition.

More details at the Yale University Press website.

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