What's the real impact of the Games?

2008-08-21 00:00

The Olympic Games are always momentous to some degree. The current ones are particularly so because they are being held in China, which is very conscious of itself as emerging as a world power.

But are the games in themselves truly important — those fascinatingly varied displays of physical prowess and expertise? A few stuffy intellectuals might be apt to pooh-pooh them, but most people respond warmly to the phenomenon of human excellence in any sphere. It is worth remembering that the modern Games are a deliberate resuscitation of the Olympic Games of ancient Greek times. The Greeks produced a remarkable civilisation, with striking achievements in philosophy, literature and the arts, mathematics, politics (“democracy” is of course a Greek word). For them the whole human being was important. Their four-yearly Olympic Games, like their three other important festivals, involved not just athletic and other competition but communal prayer to the gods. And the victors in the Games were sometimes celebrated by musicians and by great poets like Pindar and Bacchylides.

Perhaps, then, we don’t take the Olympic Games seriously enough. In this matter, as in others, we have divided ourselves up into separate portions: the athletic, the artistic, the religious. How might we be able to pull them all together again? We can be grateful to the media for reporting on all these facets of our lives and thus at least allowing us to see them side by side.

But at the heart of the Games are the cult and the recognition of excellence. And excellence is discovered and proclaimed through competition. The quality of the competition at the Olympic Games is exhilarating, intimidating, thought-provoking. Almost all games are to some degree parables of human life, and these Games force us to recognise that, whether we like it or not, competition plays an important role in human life — personally, nationally and internationally. South Africans have a big lesson to learn here. Our Olympic athletes have not found the going at all easy in Beijing. We would have been foolish to expect very much, but we have been outclassed by some countries far smaller than ourselves. South Africa as a whole is going to have to learn to get its act together and to become a strong competitor in sport and indeed in every other field, particularly in the difficult and uneven field of global trade and economics.

What of China? Undoubtedly the Games have been magnificently staged, and China’s performance in the quest for medals has been phenomenal.

One of the country’s aims was to show that it is solidly on the world stage, in fact at the centre of it, and that it is no longer a strange Asian outsider. It has made its point very effectively. Yet questions remain. Was it able to pump so much money into all the facilities because, not being a democracy, it didn’t have to justify the expense to a parliament?

And does its sudden surge in so many sports perhaps remind one of the remarkable achievements of the state-sponsored athletes of the old USSR and the German Democratic Republic?

Political issues have often surrounded the Olympic Games. How are we to judge China’s eager participation, its desire to welcome the world — the spectators and the media and the cameras — into Beijing? Are the rulers of China genuinely willing to enter into the flow of the world? Will they be prepared to modify their ways and consider more seriously questions of human rights? Or is the whole exercise a partly cynical one on their part, a little like Hitler’s attempt to woo and deceive the world at the time of the Berlin Olympics in 1936? Was it perhaps a mistake to award the Games to Beijing?

The Chinese are nothing if not enigmatic; it isn’t easy to gauge their precise motives. We can be fairly sure that, whatever their overall aims, the rulers of the country (like all authoritarians) are afraid of democratisation — afraid of the effects of too much individual freedom, and afraid that the vast nation of China might split up into separate entities. The disintegration of the USSR and of Yugoslavia must terrify them. The current conflict between Georgia and Russia must worry them too. They must be haunted by memories of the chaotic situation in Russia under Boris Yeltsin.

But one cannot sympathise too fully with an undemocratic regime. The Chinese rulers must face reality and recognise that a proper promotion of human beings and their attributes, so richly symbolised in the Games, nowadays inevitably implies full human rights. They are no doubt aware, dimly or perhaps vividly, that the tide of world opinion is moving in the direction of greater human freedom. Already Chinese people are in many respects considerably freer than they were 20 years ago. Will this new opening-up to the world accelerate this process? I think it probably will.

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