Why it is (philosophically) OK to like the Olympics

by lizmckinnell

I realise that it has been a while since my last post.  A number of things, including a forthcoming job interview, have conspired against me doing an update.  Another reason is that the blogging world appears, like most other media, to be enthralled with what a certain dandelion-headed classicist describes as the ‘Geiger-counter of olympo-mania’. I’ve been thinking about this a bit, and didn’t want to update until I had a few things to say about it.

In a previous post on the current state of politics, I had a bit of a rant about Cameron’s concept of ‘Englishness’ and how the conservative party is claiming political currency from connecting a range of things (the Olympics, the jubilee, the royal wedding, etc.) in a particular way that makes any person who rejects any element of this picture appear to be an unpatriotic curmudgeon.  One of the things that I mentioned there was the rather vague notion of the ‘Olympic spirit’ as representing certain values.  One of the things that concerned me about this was how it was presented as something very English, but also something that the whole globe should aspire to.  The obvious notes of imperialism in this are rather alarming.  There are also other Olympic concerns: for example, the Olympics will have a considerable carbon footprint associated with large construction projects and with flying athletes, trainers and spectators in from all over the world.  There is also a worry that there is an element of bread and circuses in all of this – we are distracted from complaining about the obvious injustices in our current society by big flag-waving events that get people all excited.

However, when I was expressing all of this to my partner the other day, he rightly pointed out that while anger has an important role in motivating political action, an angry leftie can sometimes be as irritating a beast as many of his or her opponents who froth at the mouth in the pages of the Daily Mail.  There could, in some circumstances, be a certain degree of hypocrisy in complaining about the exploitation of the Olympics for tory political capital.  After all, we should not pretend that a government of different colours would not do exactly the same thing. We are all watching events from a certain perspective.  Attempting to say anything about large-scale national occasions without one’s own political views structuring one’s observations would be pretty much impossible.  I still think there are major concerns with the way the Olympic stuff has come into conservative rhetoric, but that is a worry about the rhetoric itself than about the fact that they are talking about the Olympics.  So I have become more positive. On the other hand, this positivity should not turn into something uncritical, as I will try to explain.

First of all, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was an absolute masterpiece.  It did a very impressive job of reclaiming the Olympics for the people of Britain.  Rather than the usual bland displays of national magnificence, it was virtually an essay on national identity.  It helped suggest ways in which we can be patriotic while being outward and forward looking, and acknowledging the troubled, divided and divisive aspects of our culture and our history.  The unexpurgated rendition of ‘Flower of Scotland’ was interesting here, as well as the much discussed celebration of the NHS, the inclusion of the wind-rush and the suffragists,  and the portrayal of workers and capitalists in a powerful evocation of our ‘dark satanic mills’.  I could mention a lot of other things here, but the point is that this was deeply embedded in history and tradition, while at the same time looking at where our problems lie and how the country might be truly progressive.  The ceremony was magnificently subversive while not for a moment appearing to undermine the joy of the occasion.  This is deeply significant: it allows us to own an occasion which for so much of its build up suggested a celebration of values that are alien or at least problematic for many people.  It will also give cultural and political theorists plenty of material to think about for quite some time.

Returning to the ecological concerns, I think that those are indeed a worry.  Any event on this global scale is going to have a significant environmental impact, and no matter how much we attempt to keep things as green as possible, such measures will be little more than token gestures.  I have some friends in the green movement who believe that this is enough to warrant a complete dismissal of the Olympics.  This is, I admit, a complicated one for me.  However, the scale of ecological damage caused by the Olympics is dwarfed by the havoc wreaked by war, irresponsible deforestation and agriculture techniques and the activities of many global corporations whose activities are both unecological and inhumane.  This is not supposed to count as an excuse – obviously the fact that hitting you in the face is nothing compared to the mafia murdering you does not suggest that hitting you in the face is a reasonable thing to do.  Nor am I attempting to argue that the Olympics will have a dramatic causal effect in preventing war, altering our current economic practices and so on (the empirical evidence would be hard to find, and the involvement of MacDonald’s, Coca-Cola and the like count directly against this).

Rather, I am interested in the symbolic value of the Olympics in representing the fact that we are all part of one world, that we have physical bodies that are vulnerable to our environments, and that the people in other parts of the globe who will suffer most as a result of climate change are real people, with their own narratives that we can engage with.  Lenin was not a ground breaking philosopher, but he did make a very prescient observation.  He argued that one obstacle to the overthrowing of capitalism would be globalisation.  As this occurred, he thought that the alienated workforce would be shifted to poorer countries in the world, while those in wealthy nations would become increasingly part of the bourgeoisie.  Ordinary people in wealthy nations would not observe the suffering and exploitation that went into what they use and consume, and this would encourage a comfortable complacency on their part.  Unlike in Marx’s day, the oppressed masses would not be so much on the doorstep that it would take an extreme effort of will to ignore them.

This is not simply the case with workers exploited in production, as Lenin argues.  It is also true of environmental crises.  The Olympics does help to highlight people from these countries, and their experiences, although this could be done a lot more.  For example, Tuvalu is a Pacific island nation between Australia and Hawaii.  It is a former British protectorate with a population of around 11,000 people.  They entered an Olympic team for the first time in the Beijing Olympics.  Their team consists of two competitors in athletic events and one weightlifter.  At its highest point, Tuvalu is 4.6 meters above sea level.  As a result of climate change, it is likely that much of the country will be submerged.  The dramatic effects on the country’s economy is liable to have severe effects on funding available for sport and leisure activities, and the fact that land will be at a premium (with low-lying flat land particularly at risk) is likely to have a detrimental effects on the availability of sport and training facilities.  This is only one small isolated example – more media attention on the stories of those athletes competing in the games could really help to highlight the fact that our activities in one part of the world cannot be separated from the fates of people elsewhere.  To consistently proceed by weighing up costs and benefits, be they economic or ecological, in a utilitarian fashion carries with it the danger of making us small minded and parochial.

All this ‘one world’ stuff brings me back to the idea of the ‘Olympic spirit’ or ‘Olympic values’.  I have mentioned my worries about imperialism here.  It strikes me that any of the vague notions that we have about such values are not specifically British: although concepts of ‘sportsmanship’, ‘fair play’ and so on are often part of the national story that we tell ourselves, I don’t see much evidence that they are things that we exemplify more than anyone else.  Other aspects of the ‘Olympic values’ business have a lot to do with cosmopolitanism and open and equal dialogue across the world.  We are good at some aspects of this (the BBC World Service is, I think, a good example) but in other respects our horizons can be painfully narrow.  So let’s put to bed the idea that there is, in reality, some fundamental link between Britishness and Olympianism in a way that privileges us over the rest of the world.

Let’s focus in on an aspect that is frequently considered to be a very British thing – the idea of sportsmanship.  This idea is in itself a very complicated one. People often talk about a ‘golden age’ of sportsmanship, but we should be suspicious of golden ages: what often appears to be golden is the artificial sepia tint of a sentimental instagram homage.  Some of the historical associations of sportsmanship are masculine, imperialistic and militaristic. It also has a lot to do with class.  Sportsmanship is traditionally thought to be a feature of the ‘gentleman amateur’.  He is a certain sort of chap: a chap who can afford to participate in sporting activities without having to earn a living through them, a chap who exemplifies the military virtue of chivalry (or something very like it): in short, he is the sort of chap who is fit to run an empire.  It is also worth noting that in football, there was an offence of ‘unsportsmanlike behaviour’ that was only recently altered to ‘unsporting behaviour’ in recognition of the fact that some women are actually pretty good at football too.

But I do not want to do away with sportsmanship (on reflection, let’s call it ‘sportingness’) all that quickly.  It has been a fantastic experience to watch so many of our athletes winning medals over the past couple of days.  One of the particular delights of this has been the sheer disbelief and humility that many of them have demonstrated.  They have been delighted just to be involved in an event of this kind, and generous in sharing the credit for their success with many other people.

The point here is both the old cliché that there is more to sport than winning, and also more than merely following the rules.  In fact, one of the reasons why ‘Olympic values’ are so difficult to formulate in a clear way is their resistance to being constrained within a system of rules.  We usually think of games as essentially rule-governed activities, but anyone with a fleeting acquaintance with Wittgenstein will know that ‘rule-governed activities’ are rather complicated things.  I mentioned the footballing offence of ‘unsporting behaviour’.  This is an interesting example because it is a non-rule masquerading as a rule.  I recall an anecdote, I’m not sure if it has any truth in it, about a guy being booked for unsporting behaviour after catching the ball in his turban, running toward the goal with it and heading it over the line.  There was no specific rule against this: it would be impossible to devise rules to cover all eventualities.  The ‘unsporting behaviour’ ‘rule’ exists so that a responsible well-placed judge, who is immersed in the game and understands (not simply in a rule-based way) what the game is really about, can use their practical wisdom to determine when players fail to honour that.  It is appropriate, given the home of the original Olympics, that this notion is more at home in Platonic or Aristotelian virtue ethics than in systems based on rules.  It is also interesting that while most rules of a game are in a sense morally neutral, in the sense that they are only rules because one decides that they are for the sake of that game, sportingness while being specific to a sporting arena appears to be more strongly binding, and to transcend different sporting activities.  We might say that it is a moral virtue specific to the sporting arena, or that it is a reflection of a broader more unified virtue through sport.  It cannot however be easily articulated, since knowledge of it is a kind of practical knowledge based on experience of sport, and not a principle that someone with no understanding of sport could simply learn and judge.

In some cases, the player might be faced with a dilemma: many famous anecdotes about ‘sportsmanship’ involve someone sacrificing an advantage to their team or nation for the sake of the broader value or integrity of the sport.  Loyalty is of course another kind of virtue.  It might not always be easy to say that the sporting thing to do is always straightforwardly the right one.  In a sense the player is left standing alone, isolated from the thousands or millions of eyes that are watching her, with her own freedom.  To privilege one virtue over another is already to presuppose that a side has been taken.  It is perhaps no surprise that football seems to have been so popular amongst existentialist philosophers.

But what I broadly want to say is that once we start to think in these terms, notions such as the ‘Olympic values’ may not be so mysterious, in that their inarticulability is a function of their involvement with practical activity.  Perhaps I might also have started illuminate some sense in which what appears to be a trivial sporting contest can have deeper kinds of significance.  Like the broader history of our culture so vividly portrayed in the opening ceremony, aspects of the ‘Olympic values’ may be complex and troubled in their history.  But in both cases, this does not mean that those things cannot be enjoyed.  What is often irritating about them is the uncritical and dangerous way that these ideas are used.  So I do not need to be a left-wing Olympic grump – I can enjoy the influx of medals with a clear conscience – just as long as I don’t need to run anywhere or lift anything.