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Phil-osophically Speaking: August 31, 2012

Reflection On The Olympics

People watch sports primarily for the thrill of competition. The idea of two individuals or two teams seeking supremacy is innate and inexpugnably grafted into human nature. When this competition is interwoven with history and graced with ritual these contests resonate with our deepest emotions. This is the great allure of the Olympics, the very apotheosis of athleticism. The symbolism surrounding the Olympics is sumptuous and exuberant: The five colored Olympic rings representing the unity of the five inhabited continents, the passing of the lighted torch, Leo Arnaud’s stirring Olympic anthem, the flag rising triumphantly to the national anthem, the laureled head, the awarding of the Gold, Silver and Bronze all capture the drama and spectacle of the games.

Ritual and spectacle work together to form a kind of music; a symphony of emotions that inspires a sense of loftiness and gives us a sense of belonging and attachment. Such protocols have been with us for tens of thousands of years knitting rite and reverence into the fabric of human consciousness. Its elaborate pomp and ceremony shadowed with accents of solemnity first draw and then mesmerize the observer. Listen to what John Adams, a steadfast and lifelong Protestant wrote to his wife Abigail after he observed the Roman Catholic rite of High Mass when visiting Philadelphia: “Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear and imagination —- everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and the ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.”

Adams’ sense of wonder and awe is palpable having been rapturously, albeit momentarily, transported into the hallowed, the spiritual and the consecrated. The liturgical mysticism of the Mass, with its ancient pathos, Latin incantations and rich symbolism had the power to emotionally enamor and intellectually magnetize the discerning and sophisticated as easily as it did the simple and ignorant. There are secular examples, like the changing of the guard at Whitehall, London, but nothing is quite as arresting and dramatic as the theatricality of the Olympics’ opening and closing ceremony.

The Olympics, however, aspired to a higher purpose than mere theatre or even athleticism. Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the International Olympic Committee in 1894, brought the games to Athens in the hope that they would foster national understanding through sporting competition. Coubertin sought to promote and flatter what he saw as the irenic elements of the games noting that in ancient times all conflicts were suspended for the purpose of peaceful competition. An idealist, Coubertin steered away from the venal profiteering that he saw as endemic in professional sports. His Olympics would be a paradigm of a pure and unadulterated amateurism. No doubt that if he were alive today he would be appalled by the increasing professionalization and commercialization, which has been an outgrowth of the political, technological and economic changes precipitated by the mass media, corporate sponsorship and the utter vastness of the entire enterprise that has made the Olympics arguably the greatest show on earth.

In 1896, 14 nations, 241 athletes and 43 events made up the entire Olympic venue. Today, we have both the Winter and Summer Olympics, (ice and figure skating actually made their appearance in the 1924 Summer Olympics), where more than 200 nations and 13,000 athletes compete in approximately 400 events. True, things get overdone when highlighting ersatz sports like trampolining, badminton, croquet, trap shooting, beach volleyball and something called synchronized swimming. Track and field, swimming, gymnastics and boxing are still mainstays, but do we really need a competition where young women are awarded medals for kicking each other in the head?

No objections from the IOC over the furious farrago of events, which is hardly surprising since every other year this organization rakes in billions of dollars from NBC and now they have pocketed a couple of billion more from the BBC. The stakes for the competitors are unbelievably high and fame at the Olympics can easily translate into personal fortune. Poor Jesse Owens, after singlehandedly dismantling Aryan supremacy at the Berlin Olympics, was reduced to a circus act by racing against horses to make a few measly bucks. The present crop of Olympic champions will be worth a lot more than the gold in their medals. Today’s athletes train incessantly in the most sophisticated and intensive training facilities to a point where science and sports have eloped into a rather uneasy marriage. This year [whole-body polyurethane] swimsuits were abandoned after it was determined that in the 2008 Olympics they gave swimmers an unnatural advantage when world records began falling like dominoes.

The most pernicious aspect of sports today is performance-enhancing drugs and it is very difficult to control now that science has infiltrated the biology of the athlete. During the 1988 Olympics, Ben Johnson, the 100-meter champion, was finally caught cheating after he eluded 19 consecutive drug tests. The IOC, to their credit, and unlike most other sports organizations, expended enormous amounts of resources to keep the events clean. Records in women’s track and field set in that Olympics have not been approached despite faster tracks, better equipment and more advanced training. It is very difficult to keep a step ahead of the athletes and their enablers; even today one has to wonder about the utter dominance of Usain Bolt and other Jamaican sprinters. Arthur Conan Doyle said a fish in milk is evidence. So what is the statistical probability of a country of 2.8 million people being so overpowering in the sprint events, indeed winning all three medals in the 200 meters, when pitted against the entire world?

Nevertheless, the Olympics are great entertainment even if toward the end one becomes fatigued by it all. The Olympics are not, nor will they ever be, what Pierre de Coubertin wished: a vehicle for international understanding and peaceful relations. For that the United States must look toward economic interdependency, strong alliances, smart diplomacy and the pomp and circumstance of a military second to none.