THE OLYMPIC SPIRIT
By Roland Watson
July 20, 2008
During the Olympic torch relay, and the widespread protests that accompanied it, many commentators exhorted us not to focus on China’s abysmal human rights record, but instead to think of the Olympic Spirit. These commentators also conveniently ignored the fact that China turned the relay into a military operation, run by thugs in blue uniforms, and that it was completely bereft of good will.
Still, they raised an interesting question: What is the Olympic spirit? Delving more deeply, one might ask, what is it meant to be, what is it in reality, and, is this something that we should celebrate?
According to the Olympic Charter, the principles of Olympism include (in provision 1) “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles,” and (in provision 2) “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Aside from the curious question of why a sporting event should be an “ism,” it is difficult to see how ignoring the fact that many participating nations, and the host, are violent dictatorships, demonstrates respect for ethical principles and promotes the preservation of human dignity. Furthermore, for a society to be peaceful its members must be free. Freedom is part of the Olympic spirit, by default, even if the charter drafters excluded it so as not to upset these nations.
The ideals of the Olympics have no bearing in reality. Human society is pervasively unethical, in part because it is organized as a collection of nation-states. Our world is Machiavellian. Nations compete, and they do only what they think is in their best interests, or in many cases more accurately, the best interests of their corrupt leaders.
The true Olympic spirit is the celebration of this: of human competition. For the athletes, it is the desire of a man or a woman to beat all others: to be “The Best In The World.” Similarly, for nations, their goal is to have the most champions, for the large states world-wide and for the smaller within their regions, and through this to be able to boast of superiority, if not dominance, if only in the world of sport.
While the Olympics may pay lip service to its charter objectives, the Games are really only about competition. Through this they mirror the competition that dominates all life.
We accept competition as a given, without questioning if there is an alternative. It is the apparent nature of life, so, so be it. We also glorify it, at the same time ignoring its manifold negative consequences.
Life is based on competition, beginning at the level of our instincts. We translate the instinct to survive into an instinct to compete. The latter is in fact a more accurate description of the basic motivation of life.
This does not always yield a pleasing result. The competition that life pursues, in virtually all its forms, can be characterized as “kill or be killed.” A derivative effect of this is that many life forms regularly live in fear.
This begs the question: Is life itself good?
Humanity’s deepest belief systems have attempted to come to grips with this question, and to find an affirmative answer. Very broadly, western traditions, recognizing the negative impact of our instinctual behavior, urge us to be good, to make up for our wrongs, and to forgive those of others. There is also a common belief that there is an overall plan for everything, God’s plan, and that if we could just see things from this perspective we would recognize that life has a deeper purpose (other than just to stay alive) and that it is good. Eastern traditions in turn accept that life is suffering, but then pursue a variety of practices through which it is believed that the suffering may be transcended.
It is this writer’s hope that there is a plan and that competition was introduced into the equation of life as a prerequisite to create diversity, but that this is only what might be called a first stage requirement. Life competes, diversifies and evolves, until it reaches the point where it realizes that it doesn’t have to compete anymore and that a better world is possible through cooperation. Humans – Homo sapiens – are trying to break through to this level, the second stage of life’s overall progress, right now. It is possible that a few species, such as whales and dolphins, have already made the transition.
All of this returns us to the Olympics, which through celebrating the first stage, competition, form part of the social barrier that is in place to prevent us from advancing to the second.
This barrier, the glorification of competition, and its implicit rejection of cooperation, is overwhelming. It is reinforced in innumerable tangible and intangible ways.
For the latter, human society embraces a wide range of core beliefs that can be termed social values.
However, the unstated but foremost of these values is that competition is the ultimate good. You must compete and you must win. However you do it, you must find a way to be better than other people.
The basic problem with this, though, is that in any specific competition there are generally only one or a few winners. Everyone else is to some degree a loser.
We have all been taught to accept a society that is dominated by a small group of winners, and whom we additionally must idolize. In other words, we are conditioned to accept a general state of inequality, and, for the vast majority, our own inferiority. This in turn is a paradox, because we also say that we want democracy. But democracy is predicated on and strives to achieve human equality. Put bluntly, our values are in conflict with our goal.
Many people first realize that there is such a thing as competition through their relationship with their brothers and sisters. They (your siblings) want what you want too and, if they get it, such as food, then you may not! (This is known as a zero-sum.) This is the reason for the good parenting principle of not showing favoritism, and also the pattern of sharing that many families demonstrate. But children learn about competition in other ways from their family as well, through observing their parents’ circumstances and interests. They understand if you are losing or winning at work, and they also copy your attraction, or lack thereof, to competitive activities such as sports. Many parents are oblivious to the fact that they are having these types of effects on their children. They fail to recognize that they may well be leading their children to believe that winning is everything, and that there is no need to be a good winner or a good loser (one who is gracious in victory or defeat).
Schools, most importantly school sports, also play a crucial role in this process. The competition in school sports is one of the first public situations where children develop a conception of equality and inequality. It is often the first proving ground that they must face where they learn how well they “shape up”; how “good” they are; and if they can aspire to being a “jock,” or a cheerleader, or if they must settle for something “less.” Such competitions lead some children to realize that they can win, but many others learn to think of themselves as losers, and also as victims, since in most cases they lose due to factors outside their control. Their bodies are not as well programmed as those of the winners, and at this stage they are not able to overcome the influences of their genes with their will.
In modern society school sports are the first direct social influence that tells us it is important to compete and to win. This influence is far stronger than grade competition. Also, it is regularly reinforced by parents, by those parents who win – who live – vicariously through their sons and daughters.
From the family and school, competition as our primary directive has escalated to all levels of society and forms of social organization. The key factor behind this trend has been population pressure. As early humans addressed, and learned to solve, the problems of life (including through dominating other species), more and more people survived.
The human population grew in scale until there was no longer abundant sustenance for all. This in turn led to competition, between the first distinct groups of people, the first tribes that had evolved, over land, water and other resources. In many cases, the competition took the form of war.
Population pressure also fueled competition within groups. Cultures that were characterized by internal harmony and mutual support no longer had enough resources for everyone. This destroyed group unity, and turned members against each other; it turned them into competitors.
The increasing size and complexity of social groups further led to the formation of subgroups responsible for certain distinct tasks. Among these were the forerunners of our modern social institutions. There are all manner of institutions now: governments, religions, corporations, the media, and schools, and they all compete, within their own institutional categories, with other types of institutions, and also domestically and worldwide. Moreover, within the institutions themselves, their employees or members are typically in a state of constant competition with each other.
The highest level of competition occurs between nations, which also share a fundamental inequality since some are large and have prolific natural resources while others are small and have few such resources. As just mentioned, the most extreme form of competition, war, has often been motivated by an attempt to balance such inequalities (e.g., the empire building effort of the small island state, the United Kingdom). But, the practice of war is now on the decline. The preferred form of competition between nations in the present day is strictly commercial. Corporations, and their ranks of employees, are the armies in the new global economic war. They are the means by which nationalism, the competition with and distrust of other nations, which historically was expressed in military conflict, is being maintained in the developing age of peace.
Through all of these changes, our species has taken competition to unprecedented heights. And, while we have been able to achieve a unique degree of diversification and specialization, and make advancements that are truly noteworthy, particularly the expansion of human knowledge and the refinement of artistic creativity, the negative consequences have been profound, and are for the most part un-addressed. Human history is a history of conflict: you cannot base your society on competition and not have conflict occur. Inequality between individuals on the basis of wealth is at an extraordinary level, and it continues to grow. Also, in our selfish focus on satisfying our own desires, we have ignored our effect on the natural environment, which is now so severe that it constitutes nothing less than massive species genocide.
Competition has more subtle effects as well. As anyone who has been in the military understands, having as your purpose opposition to others demands great sacrifice, discipline and obedience. But this effect is now widespread: it dominates every type of institutional system. For example, the phenomenal work-ethic that young Americans have (and young Japanese), the incredible levels of competition that they reach, which supposedly is driven by a quest for excellence, is really about demonstrating obedience to the system. When young people become workaholics to get good grades and high scores, to participate in many, many activities, and to get into the best schools, it is not because they are pursuing the fulfillment of an internal drive to accomplish everything of which they are capable. Rather, it is to demonstrate that they will do anything, make any sacrifice that the system demands of them, and that they will do it better and more diligently than anyone else.
Having a society with this type of basis incurs a great cost. A small amount of competition as early humans went about satisfying their daily needs was tolerable. Living in a world where competition has become the ne plus ultra is not. It has given us ever increasing levels of mental illness, even in children, who simply cannot adapt to the demands to which they are now subject. And, it is providing fertile ground for all manner of extremist movements, as desperate individuals clutch at any possibility of escape.
Competition has some positive consequences, but it is questionable if these balance out the negative, which are for the most part ignored. The Olympics, as the leading world symbol of the competitive spirit, effectively represent and promote both.
Sports as religion
A society’s deepest values are its religious or spiritual values. In this regard, it was noteworthy that China attacked the torch relay protestors by saying that they were a blasphemy on the Olympic Spirit. The use of “blasphemy” was an interesting choice of words. Are sports, in the present day, a religion? Are the Olympics their highest temple? And, are the athletes and coaches their monks and priests?
The modern world is increasingly a spiritual vacuum. This is occurring for two reasons. First, our traditional belief systems are in many ways now found wanting. The development of new understanding has exposed potential flaws in their foundations or behavioral prescriptions. However, and more importantly, the social form that holds real power now, economic competition, is antithetical to spiritual belief. The contemplation and practice of deep beliefs is at variance with consumption and economic growth. Because of this, we are very purposely being confronted with an alternative pseudo-spiritual system, that happiness lies not in peace and understanding, but in how much you are able to buy, and if it is more than other people.
Real spirituality has been replaced by a belief in materialism. The overwhelming promotion of sports is an integral part of this process.
Athletes are leading role models. But, they practice for their entire lives not to achieve wisdom, only to be better than others. The top champions, in the U.S. this includes Tiger Woods and before him Michael Jordan, and for the world game, soccer, David Beckham and the two Ronaldos (from Brazil and Portugal), have such celebrity that they are for all intents and purposes holy. In other words, humanity’s long history of striving for an honest spirituality, and to which everyone could aspire, has been replaced with celebrity, in this case sports celebrity, and from which all but a select few are excluded.
(It has to be remarked, though, that as with sports all the leading figures in real religious movements have been men.)
The Olympics are one of the most important religious gatherings at which such modern holy figures are chosen. Through this, the Games epitomize the competitive status quo, that we should only care about ourselves, and that problems that other people face and also the deeper questions of life can be ignored in preference to superficial and fleeting satisfaction. The Olympics are the real blasphemy, and everything that they represent.
The business of the Olympics
In the modern era and prior to 1952, the Olympics were amateur. This means that the athletes were not paid in any way for their participation in their respective sports, i.e., in professional leagues or other competitions; nor were they paid to participate in the Games themselves by their home countries. The Olympics were for the most part sports for sports sake: a healthy release of competitive tension. They were an alternative to war, not a precursor or adjunct.
This changed with the inclusion of the Soviet Union and its post-war allies, the members of the Warsaw Pact, which both subsidized their athletes and viewed the contests as a new front in the Cold War. Their athletes were paid to devote themselves to training, and supplied with professional coaches and facilities. This pattern has now become the norm; America is an exception in that it does not pay its athletes. China, on the other hand, and as described below, has created a government funded sports machine.
The international federations for the different sports decide whether the athletes must be amateur or not. Since the 1970s, professionals, who make a regular living from sports competitions, have been welcome. Boxing is an exception, although athletes are allowed to receive support for basic living expenses from their home countries, as is the case with Cuba. The distinction between amateur and professional was formally deleted from the Olympic Charter in 1986.
With the embrace of professionals, the Games mutated into a business, and, as with all businesses, the primary concern is profit. The lofty ideals that formerly characterized the Olympic movement have been washed away.
Specifically, the Olympics are an entertainment business directed by a collection of corporate entities. The lead organization is the International Olympic Committee. It is charged with the conduct of the Games and its overall promotion, the objective of which is to ensure commercial success. This is why China was awarded the Games, even though there were strenuous objections to Beijing’s bid. China offered a large home market, and an entry to booming East Asia, all of which would appeal to both the Games’ broadcasters and corporate sponsors.
The broadcasters and corporate sponsors are actually the key markets for the Olympics, not the spectators of the world. Further, they work together in a synergistic fashion. The broadcasters pay huge fees for the right to televise the Games. The corporations then pay them handsomely to run advertisements which, through display to such a massive audience (and also at the Game venues themselves), the companies hope will lead to greater brand identification, loyalty, and sales.
Underneath the IOC are the different national olympic committees and the federations for the participating sports. However, there are wide variations in these two groups. Some sports are “big sports,” and promote themselves exhaustively, while others are less commercial. Similarly, some nations are obsessed with competition and take the Games very seriously, while others do not.
The United States may not pay its athletes, but it takes professional sports, including the Olympics, extremely seriously. This reflects the underlying primacy of competition in American culture.
The objective to win in the United States is probably greater than in any other nation, in part because that is how we define ourselves: as winners. (I’m an American.) Therefore, in almost any international competition, we win more because in most nations winning is not given the supremacy as a social value as it is here. Winning is not that important to them, so they don’t. It is to us, so we do. It does not make us better, though, nor would one expect it to make us happier. A game is just a game, be it tiddlywinks, Go Fish, or the one hundred meter dash. In all nations, people enjoy playing such games, but in most places when the game is over, it’s over. You go off and do something else. But not in the U.S.: Here, the game never ends, and winners are better. Our society rewards them for this. Indeed, the rewards are unimaginably great. Were someone to find a cure for cancer, they would not be feted as much.
Also, it is notable that in the coverage of sports by the U.S. media, the second an athlete makes a mistake (e.g., in gymnastics) we are told that they no longer have a chance to win. This disrupts our enjoyment of their performance, and it confirms that what is important is not the beauty of the performance, nor the athlete’s commitment to excellence, but whether or not they are a winner.
This value pervades American society. It is also highly evident in children’s sports, where many children have been assaulted, and parents killed (at least one), by other parents whose children have to win.
In a similar fashion, China is using the Games, and its increasing sports prowess, to promote its own belief that it too is culturally superior: that “its” way is best. China is basically saying, to its people, we may be a dictatorship, but we’re a great dictatorship; and to the world, we can beat you at business, and sport, and some day militarily as well. China’s foreign posture, exemplified by its approach to sport, is purely aggressive.
China is also following the old Soviet model, and has even taken it to new levels. The country has a large, publicly funded sports school system, to which children with athletic talent are channeled. There are some 300 schools and 250,000 students. Many of the schools are also boarding schools. Once the students arrive, they are separated from their parents, in most cases for years. This is a particularly great burden on all concerned, because of China’s one-child policy.
The students are further told what sports to undertake: They do not have a say over this. Different sports favor different body types, and the students are funneled to where the coaches – meaning teachers – think their prospects will be best. Training is the primary subject: normal educational topics are de-emphasized. Most worrisome of all, abuse is a common practice. The students are driven to improve, and if their progress is not considered sufficient, they are verbally and physically punished.
Many parents are happy that their children are accepted, as are the students. Still, it is not an overstatement to say that China’s sports school system is akin to sports slavery. Talented athletes are told that they must sacrifice themselves for the good of the nation, and because the pressure of this demand is so great, many accede to it. In summary, it is a warped approach to childhood development and sports excellence, with no connection whatsoever to the purported Olympic ideals. This system is equivalent to the use of performance enhancing drugs (indeed, the body responds to abuse by producing adrenaline), and when Chinese athletes mount the podium to receive medals, their accomplishments should be viewed in this light.
The athletes are the most problematic component of all of the sports industry. Many individuals pursue sport as part of a quest for personal development, and as the years pass the more disciplined and talented rise to the top. It would be disingenuous to suggest that they not fulfill their potential, particularly now that the rewards given to successful professional athletes are so great. However, with the temptation of these rewards, many athletes are crossing an ethical line, through the use of illegal and dangerous performance enhancing substances, as the regular announcement of new sports scandals illustrates. In this light the athletes are simply businesspeople, and they follow the standard ethic of businesses everywhere. If you think you can get away with it, do it, even if it’s wrong. Nothing should stand in the way of profit.
There is also the question of the athletes’ respective sports, and what might be termed their competitive profiles. Some sports are essentially individual pursuits. A diver on a platform, or someone about to launch a discus or a javelin, is in his or her own world. There is no direct competition with other athletes. In this case their competitive challenge is really self-competition. How fast or high can I go? How strong can I be? In group competitions, though, such as races and all team sports, there is an immediate competitor. This introduces an additional challenge. I have to beat my opponent right now. I have to prove my superiority.
While it is impossible for team sports, it would be interesting to have individuals in races compete one by one. Which format would produce the faster time? The outcome would likely be the group race, which raises this question: What does it say about our species that we are only able to do our best when we have to overcome someone else? In other words, we are back once again to our competitive response to life.
While humanity as a whole has not passed this hurdle, including in sport, individual humans certainly have, in other fields. Our greatest accomplishments in the sciences and the arts have been achieved by people who were driven by a quest for excellence, with little regard for the actions of competitors. Indeed, sharing your ideas and cooperating with other scientific researchers and artists is common. This implies that overall such endeavors are of a more advanced nature than sport.
The reason for this is that the self-competition common to such pursuits is really self-cooperation. When you try to exceed your limits you are conducting a dialogue between your conscious and your unconscious minds. It is a delicate balance, because if you consciously ask for too much your unconscious will break down, affecting either your body, you will push yourself to exhaustion and illness, or even your mental stability. But over time you can refine the effort, and push yourself harder and harder, with the result that your mind becomes unified, the two sides of your consciousness cooperate and work together, and you reach new levels of creativity and originality.
This type of development is of course possible in sport as well, in particular in the individual efforts first described. But when direct competition is introduced the competitive instinct takes over, and what becomes paramount is not to do your very best, but simply to beat the other person.
The cooperation alternative
The alternative to competition is to cooperate. While it is difficult to see how cooperation can be showcased in a competitive event such as the Olympics, this is the paradigm that we want to promote, in all fields of human activity. A basic definition is that cooperation is the desire to work together to achieve common goals, where with competition the objective is to satisfy private and selfish goals. For instance, consider hunger. For the latter our acceptance of competition has led to an environment where everyone must find a way to feed him or herself personally, and if for some reason individuals or groups are unable to do this, then, while it is regrettable, it is really not our problem. Under cooperation we work together to ensure that everyone has enough food, most importantly those individuals or groups who for whatever reason are experiencing difficulties.
A society based on cooperation would have two basic elements, the first of which is a commitment to achieve consensus. Under consensus, all participants have to develop the discipline to suspend their personal selfishness, if only at times, to enable the group to reach agreement.
Another aspect of consensus is that everyone is considered to be equal, and to have an equal say. What this means is that a consensus-based society begins with our overall goal, equality, not proposes it as an objective to be achieved in the indeterminate future. Further, such a society is inherently democratic.
With competition, we assume that everyone is different, and that we are all competitors, but that through some unspecified mechanism we will be able to make our interests converge and achieve equality. The actual result though is that society is governed by markets and class-based politics, which fail to yield equality – they produce the opposite; and which are also necessarily undemocratic, since the voices of the upper classes, those who control the markets, are considered more than equal.
It is true of course that in some ways we are not equal, or at least not the same. (We do not want to be the same. Counter-intuitively, along with equality, diversity remains a fundamental goal.) We have different backgrounds, interests, levels of education, and ability. A consensus-based system, though, can accommodate these differences. In any such group, individual voices are equal, in determining what decisions to make, but there is also respect for the opinions of the most qualified.
As the above implies, the second element of a society based on cooperation is a willingness to help others. While it is also true that it is impossible for us, as individuals, to help everyone who needs it, this does not excuse the attempt. Rather, if someone asks for your help, your immediate response should be positive, not negative. You should ask yourself: Is there something that I can do, anything at all, and then do it. In a world dominated by competition, though, particularly with the ubiquitous greed and selfishness promoted by markets, the reflex response is typically “no.” People develop cold hearts, and think, why don’t you help yourself? One wonders what they will think when their own good fortune fails and they need help as well.
Help does not always have to be in the form of outright gifts. We are responsible for ourselves, and such assistance is really only necessary in dire circumstances, those beyond our control. But there is another form of help that is not so unconditional, which is simply a willingness to share.
The focus on competition, markets and personal wealth has led to the creation of another institution, private property, which is in direct opposition to sharing. People think: It’s mine; I worked hard for it; why should I give it or lend it to you? They worry more about protecting what they have, than reaching out to others to create a community.
This characteristic again though is more pronounced in modern societies than the traditional. Village cultures around the world often take a completely different approach to property. There is a greater sense that belongings are communal rather than strictly private. This is manifested in the frequency with which items, of any nature or cost, are shared, starting with within one’s own family but extending beyond this as well on a regular basis.
Sharing, of course, can be abused. When one shares a belonging there is usually an assumption that it will be returned. But, there are inevitably some unethical individuals who take advantage of the good will of others. Fortunately, the system is self-correcting. People who make a habit of not returning items soon find their requests denied.
A world where sharing is common would also help bring us together, and make it easier for our interests to converge. There should be far greater sharing, between everyone, but especially between the rich and poor, including nations. We also need to do a much better job of sharing our planet with the other forms of life that call it home.
From what I can see, the Olympics have nothing in common with this world-view. The Games are an icon of a system that through its foundation in competition enhances the positions of some through the subjugation of others. Modern society does not achieve, or even strive for, a true equality, and therefore, I believe, it is doomed to fail.
Historically, the world was large enough that it could absorb all of our mistakes. This is no longer the case. There are so many people now, and our selfish demands are so great, that the natural ecology is in collapse. With the destruction of nature, human society, it does not yet constitute “civilization,” will fail as well.
There is a clear and preferred choice, namely cooperation, consensus and democracy. We need to reject the competitive world visions both of China and the U.S. While the latter is identified with democracy, it is more importantly the leading proponent of unregulated market competition (and which China is copying). We can’t have both.
For the Games themselves, boycotts are appropriate, if not the end of the entire biennial charade. If you do watch the performances, consider the above ideas. Recognize that you are not witnessing the manifestation of some higher principle, a benevolent Olympic Spirit, but a business spectacle designed to get you to consume.
For the problems caused by sports in general, we can begin with our children. They need to learn about the negative influences of society, and the unfairness of child sports is a good place to start. They should be taught that even though sports in society are treated with a reverence formerly reserved for God, there is far more to life than them. If they fail at sports (or are just not interested in them), there are many other things in which they will be able to excel (and also, with time they will be able to develop their fitness and coordination). Conversely, if they do well that’s great, but they need to learn that there is more to life, much, much more, than simply winning a game.
Even more, we, the adults, who hold the responsibility for the values and structure of our society, should seek to have school sports, involving competitions between schools, eliminated from the educational system. And, this should extend from grade school through to university. Such activities do not supplement education; instead, they undermine it. There is a role for physical education in school, though, but this can be supplied with exercise classes and intramural athletics. Indeed, the educational systems of many nations around the world do not have school sports programs at all, and they are none the worse for it.