The a-politicization of the Olympics

It appears to be common knowledge that associating the Olympics with political issues is an alteration of the “true meaning” of the Olympics, which has to do with Athletes and sport. The difference between people who think the protests concerning human rights violations in Tibet is whether it is appropriate to use the Olympics for a purpose other than their “original” one.

The problem is, there is no such thing as Olympics without politics. The Olympics were revived in late 19th century Europe primarily for political purposes – to renew the belief in the strength of the human body. And by way of that, renew the strength of the political nation. At the opening of the 1896 games in Athens, the King of Greece said: “I declare the opening of the first international Olympic Games in Athens. Long live the Nation. Long live the Greek people.”

The notion of a Greek Nation was the motivation for the renewal of the Olympic games as early as 1838, when Greek Nationalist poet Alexandros Soutsos spoke of the revival of the Olympic games in a poem. As we know, “nationalism” was still relatively new in the 19th century, so we can read this “Revival” as an appropriation not of a Greek cultural practice but a re-appropriation of an ancient Greek cultural practice for different purposes in modern Greece.

So, if the Olympics began as part of the project of Greek nationalism, is it that the Games somehow became a-political? Having the games has always been prestigious for the host country, and draws attention to them. If this is a primary motivation for hosting, is that not already a political motivation?

In order to believe any Olympic games is even slightly a-political you have to believe that the host nation considers hosting the games a burden, which they are willing to bear for the sake of providing a site where the athletes can compete in “pure sport”. But if this were true, selfish nations would never apply to host the games. It’s just plainly false that the motivation behind hosting the games is prestige, and therefore political.
If the games were never a-political, why do we all believe the games are about athletes and sport? Mostly because the games have been “a-politicized”. There is a large and powerful discourse around athletic competitivism, pure sport, strength of the body, fraternity, mutual respect, etc.. This discourse is not false – what they talk about might actually happen on the field. However, it is not the primary purpose or motivation for the Olympic games, it never has been, and it oughtn’t be. We live in a world of self interested nations who vie for prestige as a form of currency, and it would be unthinkable to live in any other kind of world. Thus, any prestigious international competition will take on this character.

We should not ignore the sporting aspect of the Olympic games, but we would all do better to recognize that it is also fully a tool of propaganda, and use that propaganda tool against nations that fail to live up to the standards of freedom and equality which we believe ought be universally implemented.

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