‘Time to consign the Olympics to history’

Global players: The 1896 games had 241 competitors; in 2016, there were over 11,000.

Should the Olympic Games be cancelled for ever? The world’s biggest sporting event is now likely to be postponed because of the pandemic –some feel we would better off without it any way.

For the Athenian champion, it was like one of Zeus’s thunderbolts.

Ever since he had first driven a chariot, he had dreamed of winning the laurel wreath at the Olympic Games. But, after years of training, came the news that the Emperor Theodosius I was banning all pagan rites. To hold the games without honouring Zeus as their patron was inconceivable – which meant they would be cancelled.

Theodosius’s edict, issued in or around 391, was designed to impose Christianity on the whole of the Roman Empire.

Since the games were largely devised to bring men closer to the gods, the closure of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia spelt the end of them in their original form. The modern version has been running since 1896, with three cancellations because of world wars – and now, for the first time, they may be postponed because of disease.

For athletes, the prospect of not being able to compete is heart-breaking. But the growing army of Olympic critics will greet the news with delight.

One angle of attack is that they have been ruined by politicians. In ancient Greece, the games were, in theory at least, above politics – so important that those attending them could pass easily through hostile states.

But in modern times, countries such as Nazi Germany, which hosted the 1936 Olympics, have blatantly used them for propaganda. And there have been many boycotts: the US refused to take part in the 1980 Moscow games after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

Then there is the matter of corruption. Members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which decides where each games should be held, have received lavish hospitality – which critics see as bribery. Drugs, too, have been a problem: Russia has been banned from this year’s games for breaking rules against doping.

The games also puts tremendous financial pressure on the hosts. Some cities are left with years of debt after building infrastructure for the Olympics, which serves no useful purpose afterwards.

Climate crisis is another issue. When we are all being encouraged to lower carbon emissions, there is little sense in encouraging tens of thousands of people to fly across the world for a sporting event.

Should the Olympic Games be cancelled for ever?

Winning formula

Some say that the Olympics are still a force for good in the world. By bringing athletes and spectators together from over 200 countries – and even some who have no country – they break down barriers as nothing else can. Sport is one thing everyone on the planet can enjoy, and the sight of competitors striving to excel is enormously inspiring for us all.

Others say that today’s games bear no relation to the original Olympic ideal. The ancient Greeks believed in excellence for its own sake, and felt honour-bound to do their best in an honest fashion. Now, athletes only care about winning – which is why so many take performance-enhancing drugs. And the games are largely driven by money, with the IOC raking in huge sums from sponsors.

You Decide

  1. If you were the head of the IOC, how would you reduce the carbon footprint of the games?
  2. Would the Olympics be fairer if EVERY competitor was allowed to use performance-enhancing drugs?

Activities

  1. The ancient Greeks honoured sports stars by writing poems about them. Choose a sports personality you admire. Now leave your screens, take some paper and a pen… and write a poem or song about them.
  2. Abandon your phone and your computer. Get out paper and pencils. Draw a blueprint of a chariot. Work out all the different parts it would need, and make a diagram showing how they all fit together.

Some People Say...

“The most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), founder of the modern Olympics

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Hosting the games is hard to justify on economic grounds. Once, a city could make a substantial profit from them: in 1984, Los Angeles came out $225 million ahead. But the following the year, the IOC took steps to ensure that sponsorship money went to it rather than the hosts. Both Boston and Hamburg withdrew their bids for the 2024 Olympics because residents believed the games would be too expensive. Many poor people were evicted and their homes demolished during Beijing’s 2008 preparations.
What do we not know?
Whether the IOC’s decision to ban all forms of political protest at the next Olympics will make any difference. There is a long history of such protests: in 1968, for example, the American athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith gave the Black Power salute when they received their medals. Since the events are shown live on TV, there is little the organisers can do to prevent a worldwide statement being made – and the new ban could simply make it more tempting.

Word Watch

Zeus
In Greek mythology, the king of the gods.
Laurel wreath
A crown made from laurel tree leaves, which was given to victorious athletes.
Theodosius I
Ruler of part of the Roman Empire from 379 to 394, and all of it from 394 to 395.
Pagan rites
Rituals for honouring the gods, such as sacrificing animals.
Edict
An official proclamation.
Olympia
A town in western Greece.
Afghanistan
A mountainous Asian country, slightly larger than France, whose neighbours include Pakistan, Iran, and China. In recent decades, it has been ravaged by war; the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from there in 1989.
Doping
In competitive sports, doping is the use of banned performance-enhancing drugs by athletes.
Infrastructure
The systems and services that a city needs to operate, such as a transport system, sewers, and electrical grids.
Some who have no country
In 2016, the IOC created a new team for a group of people with no nation: the Refugee Olympic Team. The athletes on this team had been displaced from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Walking into the Olympic Stadium, they were led in by the Olympic flag, to the music of the Olympic anthem.

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