On Sport and Human Excellence
On Sport and Human Excellence
So, suffice it to say, I’ll be doing my best to boycott the Sochi Olympics (though I realise that this sort of post is a tacit engagement). This will include avoiding coverage of the Games themselves, and avoiding products and companies that have paid the princely sum to advertise for the Games (once again, the general list of offenders doesn’t play a large role in my life, and I am more than wealthy enough for their absence in it to cause no real harm, so this isn’t really all that grande a stance). There has been quite a flurry of posts on social media with people pledging to do the same thing, and, while I’m happy to see this, I’m concerned that the usual motivation might be a bit flawed.
The main issue seems to be the nascent explosion of homophobia in Russia, both supported and pushed by the “Putin Regime,” and what sort of message it sends for supposedly democratic and just societies to engage with such a nest of Evil. How can it be that an event, purportedly aimed at fostering fraternity among nations, could so wantonly turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses occurring in the host country? While this is an appropriate question to be asked, at least of the current situation, it is one that seems to turn a blind eye itself to the pedigree of the Games. Let’s not forget that the ’36 Summer Games, though awarded before the Nazis came to power, were allowed to continue in full view of noxious character of that government. More recently, in both ’72 and ’76, the games tacitly endorsed the apartheid regime of South Africa and Rhodesia, despite growing internal and external boycotts and embargoes. So, it’s not as if this is the first time the IOC has done something morally questionable.
However, to focus on the more egregious examples of the IOC’s oversights is to miss the point. When all costs are considered, the number of games that have been beneficent for the hosting city are diminishingly low. I say all costs, because the host cities are renowned for juking the stats to make it seem as if they’ve come out on top. This http://boingboing.net/2012/07/26/olympics-the-alien-invaders-t.html provides a pretty succinct breakdown of what I mean. More close to home, geographically, the ’76 Summer Games, hosted by Montreal, ended up costing some 1.61 billion dollars, taking nearly 30 years to pay off, only for the stadiums built to ultimately end up unused. And who shoulders the burden of those costs? Well, it’s not the IOC, that’s for sure.
As referenced in that breakdown of the 2012 London Games, another large concern is the appropriation of previously public land, which is then forevermore converted to private holdings. There is a wealth of documentation on the abuses of this sort regarding the last Winter Games, those of Vancouver in 2010, which is, supposedly, one of the few economically beneficial events. As if it weren’t bad enough that some several millions of dollars were diverted from much needed social programs to support Vancouver’s Olympic bid, the efforts to open up transportation between Vancouver and the Whistler location had also been surreptitiously aimed at increasing the ease at which environmentally destructive industry could be applied in the aftermath. To add insult to injury, while rail-roading over the deplorable human rights concerns in the country, the Vancouver Olympics Committee were so brash as to appropriate Native symbols and culture, all the while either buying off the Native elders or stealing the necessary land outright (see here for a not unbiased, but still useful, collection of figures: http://noii-van.resist.ca/?page_id=30).
So, while I whole-heartedly support raising concern over gay-rights issues in this latest Olympics, let’s not give the “good guys” (ie, the West) carte blanche, when they continue to be just as bad, if somewhat better at keeping it under wraps.
Something I haven’t seen a great deal of yet – though I haven’t gone out expressly looking for it, either – is the usual concern raised against boycotting an event like this. “Aren’t the real victims of a boycott the athletes? Those young people who have sacrificed countless hours of their lives to compete there, at a once-in-a-life-time opportunity, only to have it snatched away from them to appease some bleeding-heart liberals’ nebulous idea of human rights?” While this is definitely expressed as a straw-man, I’ve seen it rendered as such, and it does hold a kernel of truth. So, who wins out when these positions clash?
Across most of the West, we endorse that most Hellenic idea of personal perfection, especially when it comes to athletics. Let me be frank, it’s one I support myself, despite my rather homely intelligent-esque physique. Our bodies are capable of doing incredible things, and it seems a crime not to take advantage of that in our all-too-short lives. Those, then, who have the gumption to pursue the heights of physicality should be lauded. It seems to be one of those few things, like art, knowledge, or love, that is a good-in-itself.
That being said, like all human activities, it is necessarily a political one. Thus, whatever the IOC might say to the contrary, sport is always about politics, just as everything else we do is. There is nothing removed from politics, whether it be Avery Brundage or Paul Simon saying otherwise. So, to whom should win out in the competition, my answer is categorically human rights.
More disturbing, and I suspect that this is an uncommon and, at first blush, unpopular, opinion, is the professionalisation of sports across all strata. I recall reading an article on the Onion a few years back (which is likely hiding behind a paywall now), which purported to be a conversation with Noam Chomsky on the state of University-level sport in the United States. While it was satire, I think I remember Chomsky coming out and supporting the words spoken by his caricature: that all professional sport, but particularly that which has risen to such heights in the university, is harmful for the appropriate maintenance of civil society. People only have so much energy, and the pervasiveness of sport in our societies provides them with a catharsis that siphons off the passion to engage with problems in their own lives, and spins it into economic gain for the ruling classes. So, while I’m certainly not against sport or athletics, I am steadfastly against such things as the NHL, the NBA, the CFL, or what-have-you. While these corporations exist as a mixed blessing (the NBA and the NFL are often touted as a leg-up for the otherwise hopelessly oppressed African-American population in the States, disregarding, of course, the base security and wealth that act as barriers-of-entry in either case), I suspect that they are, at base, more harmful, and certainly more offensive, towards athletes than any boycott could be. At heart, they reduce the achievements of these individuals to a mere commodity, to be consumed by a great wad of humanity who ought to bettering themselves.
It’s fairly obvious I would endorse a removal of corporate concerns from the Olympics, as they are, fundamentally, exploitative. I also desire a return to pure amateurism, as was envisioned when the Olympics were first re-imagined by de Coubertin. How that would be maintained in light of breadth of the competition and complication of nationalist pride is, invariably, a thorny issue. At the very least, however, the IOC should be made to realise the political nature of the Games, and be held to stand by their claims regarding the defence of human rights. Their spotty history and the continual engagement with societies who gladly conduct LGBT rights offences, Aboriginal rights offences, and Women’s rights offences, shames us all.