The Football Euro Cup is over. And just as quickly as it flew by, the Olympic Games in Tokyo have come to a close. The games were discussed at great lengths in the news and on social media, but the debate usually didn’t revolve around participants’ athletic performances or their prowess. Instead we talk about politics, or doping and drug tests, or whether a transgender person, who identifies with the female gender, but is closer to a man in sex, should be allowed to compete in the Women’s contest. Debates like these really make you wonder if the Olympic Games still make sense in this day and age.
A long time ago, in Ancient Greece…
Let’s take a look back in history, shall we? The Olympic Games originally were an expression of religion. Participants were limited to Greek men; although Greece at the time covered large parts of Southern Europe. The games were held in Olympia and served as a ritual to please Zeus. It was also an opportunity for the Greek to gawk at the very best male bodies. Historical sources even claim, that men performed fully naked to show off everything they had to offer. Let that sink in for a moment.
The games were held every four years for almost 12 centuries until they year 393. After the Roman conquest of Greece the games continued, with varying degrees of quality. With the rise of Christianity, however, a sports festival worshipping ancient gods fell out of favour with the elites of the time. Emperor Theodosius I was Christian and decided in 393 to ban all “pagan” festivals. Thus the Olympic Games were put to rest.
Fast forward to 1896, when the Olympic Games were revived by a French aristocrat, Baron Pierre de Coubertin and held in Athens, Greece. In other words, Europeans revived an odd ancient religious nudist national sports festival more than 1500 years after it was banned by the Holy Roman Empire for not being Christian. Still with us?
The kicker is that the modern Olympic Games lack the purpose of the original. There is no religious component. We are not fetishizing performer’s bodies. It is not a contest to find the fittest in the nation. And because it is open to pretty much anybody now, we just decided to count the numbers of medals performers from each country got, to instill some sense of national competition into the game. Now for Olympic contestants, the honour is great. The work they put in is tremendous and the exhilaration of victory must be incomparable. But of course even this is diminished by rampant drug abuse among contestants. And in the end we should ask ourselves honestly, do we care?
Bread and Games for the Masses?
Do you watch the Olympic Games? Do you know anyone who does? How often have you heard sentences such as “I wonder what the opening ceremony will be like? I always watch that and then turn off the TV.”
Whenever you read anything about the games online, it barely has anything to do with the games. The games are used as a pretense for political debate. But one thing remains that everyone sort of casually agrees on: Which country has the most medals? Which country “wins?”. Ask yourself, why does it matter?
The Olympic games are supposed to determine the best of the best. But then we create sub-categories of the Best of the Best. First we divide between men and women, then we add the Paralympics for disabled athletes, which in all fairness are actually the most exciting to watch, because they instill you with a sense of awe and wonder at what is possible for a single human being to overcome with enough determination and hard work. But does the citizenship of the participant really matter?
What is a Nation and its People?
Whether it is the Olympic Games, football or any other big sports league with money behind it, we still pretend as if it was a contest of nations, rather than the best individual / team efforts. In football the rule has always been: A football club can trade players however they like, but when it comes to the Euro and the World Cup, national teams have to be composed of national players. But what does that mean? Many national teams are composed almost entirely of players with a migration background. But if they are born there it is okay to call them your players?
Citizenship rights and rules are different in each country. Ius locis grants any person born on the sovereign soil of that state (or in its airspace) citizenship rights. Ius sanguinis, however, links citizenship to your ancestry. There is no right or wrong answer here. And yet, more and more we see players who were long-time citizens of other countries suddenly reappear on other countries’ national teams with new citizenships. That’s because citizenship can be bought, sold and gifted by any government without a fuss. This practice is very common place today, as rich, famous or somehow gifted people easily get citizenships, while less fortunate individuals are left to jump through hoops. Why then should we care if the Italian or the English team wins the Euro? Why should we care if the USA receives the most medals in the Olympics?
The idea that the team represents “the best of us” is invalidated if the selection criteria are widened to “anyone good enough who was willing to play with a tricot in our colours for a massive payday”. At the same time, it is just as valid to ask the opposite question:”why only these people and not everyone else?” and ask for more participation categories.
Should we not celebrate athletes for their athleticism? Should we not be inspired by their achievements and the challenges they have overcome? National flag-waving is boring by comparison. Make the Olympic Games an event about the athletes. Tell their stories and take us on a journey with them, or don’t bother us with the Olympics at all.
A competition of nations in a globalised world, where individuality trumps everything else, simply doesn’t make any sense. The idea of a nation was always a flimsy concept at best, but today’s overmonetised sports events drive the idea into complete absurdity. Almost as absurd as the original idea of the Olympic Games feels to us today. Perhaps in another 1500 years, we and our sports events will be regarded with the same ridicule by future generations. One can only hope.