The Olympics: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The Games have begun, in more ways than one. The opening ceremonies were broadcast on Friday evening. They began with forty-minutes of a British extravaganza that included dancing, fireworks and Mary Poppins (along with the Queen) dropping from the sky. Earlier, the U.S. women’s soccer team beat France in one of the preliminary rounds. Elsewhere, Mitt Romney’s faux pas about London’s readiness for the games served as gruel for a grinning New York Times and Washington Post. No moment of silence was provided to honor the eleven Israeli Olympians who were executed by PLO terrorists forty years ago in Munich. Yet 23-year-old Voula Papachristou was banned from participating for an insensitive, but relatively harmless Tweet that had nothing to do with the Olympics.
Several commentators noted the difference between London of today and the city of 64 years ago, the last time the Olympics were held here. At the time, all of Europe (as well as Asia) was still in the early stages of a recovery that that had left a good part of the world devastated, impoverished, with over 100 million dead. It was pointed out by the New York Times that athletes in 1948 were housed in Quonset huts, and that they had to bring their own towels. Roger Bannister, the first person to break the four minute mile, had to break into a car to get a Union Jack for the opening parade. The total cost was estimated at £750 thousand. This time, the opening ceremony alone cost £43 million.
The first modern Olympics were held in 1896, in Athens, home of the ancient Olympics. The highlight was the marathon, a race which commemorated the defeat of Persia at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Pheidippides ran the roughly 26 miles to bring word of victory to the citizens of Athens, supposedly collapsing and dying after delivering the message. Two thousand three hundred and eight-six years later, Spyridon Louis, a Greek shepherd, won the first modern marathon. Curiously, the very first Gold awarded at those first Olympics went to an American, James Connolly, who won the triple jump, the same event in which Ms. Papachristou will not be able to compete. (Incidentally, Mr. Connolly had to pay his own transportation.)
From the beginning, the modern Olympics carried a social message. In 1896, as a symbol of peace, doves were released; they still are today. In total disregard to the doves, those first games ushered in the bloodiest century the world has yet known. That same year the motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger) was adopted. It meant that the emphasis should be on bettering one’s own achievements, as opposed to winning. Fat chance of that happening in today’s environment of competition in all things. Over time, the Olympics morphed into contradictory spectacles of political correctness, such as sanctimonious speeches about universal ideals, while sacrificing an individual athlete, but with no need to honor dead Israeli Olympians, lest it offend the sensitivities of insensitive, anti-Semitic Arab states.
Voula Papachristou, a Greek triple jumper who was expected to medal, has been banned for her tasteless transgression. Her Tweet read: “With so many Africans in Greece, the West Nile mosquitoes will be getting home food!!!” Not nice, but hardly of the stuff to cause an international incident. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) should keep in mind that Africa is a large diverse continent comprised of 54 separate countries. Three factors, while not condoning what Ms. Papachristou wrote, should be understood as to why she may have written what she did. First, Greece, like other Mediterranean nations, has been the destination of a growing number of illegal African immigrants. Second, West Nile disease, first identified in Uganda in 1937, has been an increasing presence in southeastern Europe. Last September, the UK’s National Blood Service noted about West Nile disease: “In  there have been significant outbreaks in Greece, Romania, Albania…” And, third, West Nile disease, in its worst manifestation, can be fatal, so cannot be taken lightly. None of this is meant to excuse her actions, but it at least puts them into context. This is a young woman, keep in mind, who has devoted most of her time over the past several years for a few moments of glory that will likely never come her way again.
The Olympics should be about the athletes – the best in the world in their respective fields. And most of the coverage does this well. These athletes are endowed with extraordinary talents. Friday’s Wall Street Journal had a fascinating article on the physical differences between average men and women and Olympic competitors. There is no question the gifts one is given at birth are critical, but that is never enough. The individual must have the desire to win. He or she must train hard, persevere when discouraged, and never quit. But they are also human, and many are very young. They make mistakes, as most of us do. Ms. Papachristou sent an irresponsible and insensitive Tweet, but she did nothing evil. And she has publically apologized for her words. I am all for holding people accountable for their actions, but in this case, in my opinion, both the Hellenic Delegations’ Administrations Board and the IOC have overreacted and destroyed the dream of a talented, hardworking competitor, in order to satisfy their own perverted definition of morality and correctness.
It turns out that Ms. Papachristou has sympathetic leanings toward Golden Dawn, which is generally considered a right-wing extremist political party in Greece, a factor, I feel sure, in her being expelled so quickly. The Games are supposed to be above politics. Athletes from both left and right wing autocracies will be present in London. Ten Syrian athletes have been registered for the London games, as have 69 from Venezuela, along with athletes from Iran, North Korea and Cuba. Nobody has precluded their participation, nor should they, but Ms. Papachristou should be there as well.
In 1936, there was a movement in the United States to boycott the Olympics in Hitler’s Germany. Hitler had been Chancellor for three years, and his anti-Semitism was well known. Avery Brundage, then president of the American Olympic Committee, led the fight to beat back the boycott. Arguing that the United States should participate in Berlin, he oddly and ironically said, “The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed or race.” Nevertheless, in complete contradiction to Mr. Brundage’s words, Germany did forbid Jews from participating in Berlin, with one exception. They declared that one “designated Jew” could participate. Helene Mayer, a fencer and winner of the Gold in the 1928 Olympics, was that person. She won Silver in Berlin. Controversy still surrounds the United States’ last minute decision to replace two Jewish runners, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, with Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe in the 4X100 relay race. Some claim that Mr. Brundage did so to appease Herr Hitler, because of the likelihood they would be awarded Gold. Jesse Owens, representing the United States as well as a race that Nazis deemed inferior, won four Gold Medals. While he was snubbed by Hitler, the German people, to their credit, gave him a rousing cheer.
“The concept of virtue,” writes Charles Murray, author and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, “requires that you believe some ways of behaving are right and others are wrong, always and everywhere.” In moral relativism there are no absolutes in terms of right and wrong. Kenan Malik, an author and BBC radio commentator writes on his blog, Pandaemonium, that over the past three decade, cities have won the games by promising to “use them as instruments of social good.” Yet, Mr. Malik adds: “No modern Games have produced a legacy of regeneration. No independent academic study has shown a link between the hosting of sports tournements and economic development.” In essence, the IOC, in their desire to do social good, is confusing the distinction between sports administrators, government bureaucrats and entrepreneurs. Worst of all, they have demonstrated an absence of moral absolutism. In the meantime, outstanding individual athletes keep shattering world records.
Sports administrators should be focused on the athletes, their needs and venues, where and when they will participate. “Social good” is a role for government, as determined by the electorate. Economic development is almost always most efficiently the province of private enterprise. The message that athletes send to the young is a positive one; it is unnecessary for officials to add their pious platitudes. The Games provide a venue for the competition among individuals and teams; that is all, but it is a lot. The bad and the ugly of the Games should not distract from the enormous good they do. May those who are the swiftest, who can leap the highest and, with strength and determination, demonstrate the most grit win the Gold.