I’ve always loved sport and grew up watching the Olympic Games and in New Zealand it is like the curtains being pulled back so we can know there are sports other than Rugby, Netball, Cricket and Rugby. Part of the mystique is the tradition and we see some of that in bits of ceremony like the lighting of the torch. When Pierre de Coubertin brought the ancient games into the modern era in 1894 with the establishment of the International Olympic Committee it was hoped the spirit would live on.
I suppose some of that spirit would be the ideals of peace, where the games are meant to help strive for a more peaceful world, the notion of the Olympic Truce where countries allow safe passage of athletes and the people stop killing each other while the games take place. Part of the modern ideal is that the games should not be used for political means, that is athletes are just there to do their thing and should not bring attention to controversial issues such as racism, social injustice or abuse. So basically the Olympics is global amnesia and carefully stage managed illusion of ‘everything is awesome, everything is cool when your part of a team’ (sing along).
So as someone who loves sport and cares about social justice I’m conflicted. There are three basic reasons:
1: The commercial aspect of the games – it’s big business, real big business, huge business (and it’s probably none of my business). The athletes are really unpaid billboards and marketing opportunities. Advertising during the games is worth mega bucks.
2: Gender – the modern games is still playing gender catch up but worse than that – they are gender policing the binary. So women can be ‘sex tested’ if they are deemed ‘too masculine’ to be female which might be a natural effect of their unique bodies, but the games defines ‘normal’ female and has the right to exclude intersex people but only after subjecting them to humiliating and degrading tests.
3: The silencing of protest – when representing ‘your country’ you best keep your opinion about other things to yourself so that the illusion of ‘peace on earth’ is maintained. But there have been protests, and I salute the individuals who have stood up and drawn attention to issues. But these days athletes risk being sent home if they speak up.
Therefore I have a vision of a 21st century games, for a start let’s ditch the Greeks as the model for ethical competition. Why not use the concept of Ubuntu from Southern Africa – “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”. Second why not completely ditch competing for a country. Each Athlete could choose a cause to draw attention to, and to make it more transparent each corporate sponsor would have to contribute a portion of their global profit to that cause. Rather than a truce, the media would have to report the current state of world war. Because I think we are in the middle of one and it just hasn’t been called that. As my final revitalisation, I would like all athletes competing at the same time, that is, the Paralympics being run simultaneously at the same time, yeah that’s right – actual diversity inclusion. The para games as an add-on is another way of token inclusion (another reason to drop the Greeks – Aristotle wasn’t all that cool with disabilities).
One last point on the gender thing. Intersex people are not cheating. They are themselves competing. If we are looking at the 21st century understanding of physiology and integrated technology are we simply looking at new categories of human performance, one that makes space for diversity complexity and difference.
Bring on the Ubuntu games, not The Hunger Games.