THE BLOG
02/18/2014 12:12 EST | Updated 04/20/2014 05:59 EDT

Why I'm an Olympic Atheist

Amid the medal counts, terror threats and Norwegian curling flare lies the notion that the Olympics make the world a better place. Any sense of togetherness or egalitarianism at the 2012 London Games, for instance, certainly did not apply to the podium. Only 85 of the 204 countries with Olympic committees won medals. If we look at what Olympism has yielded for some of the countries most in need of peace and goodwill, the picture is even less inclusive. The reason the Haitian earthquake orphan will not make it to the Olympics is probably not because she doesn't believe staunchly enough in her dreams.

Amid the medal counts, terror threats and Norwegian curling flare lies the notion that the Olympics make the world a better place.

The goal of "Olympism," says the Olympic Charter, is to "contribute to building a peaceful and better world." Who could argue?

But what does ski jumping have to do with a better world? How is a fist-pumping, adulated athlete at the bottom of a snowy half pipe contributing to peace? How would "owning the podium" help the world? And is Olympism even a word?

It is, and it's part of a long-standing effort to tap the Olympic brand into a quasi-transcendent sort of global feel-good-ism, the notion that at the heart of the games lies an inherent nobility of character.

"We want to use the power of our values and symbols to promote the positive, peaceful development of global society," said International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach at the UN last November.

Bach spoke about the Olympic "ideal," "movement," and "spirit," in addition to the "sacred ... Olympic truce," an apparently spiritual UN formality that invokes the ancient Greek tradition whereby the kings of three city states temporary called off hostilities in favour of sport. Lofty stuff.

I guess the IOC won't be recruiting Don Cherry.

To be fair, the pageantry of nations gathered in a festive spirit creates good vibes in the global village. Humanity smiles. For a couple weeks, the world is aglow with goodwill. There is some value in this, but Olympism's quasi-spiritual model of global betterment and international togetherness lends itself better to spectacle than scrutiny.

Any sense of togetherness or egalitarianism at the 2012 London Games, for instance, certainly did not apply to the podium. Only 85 of the 204 countries with Olympic committees won medals. Australia, with a population of 23 million, won more medals than Africa. Canada took home twice as much hardware as India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria combined, countries home to over a quarter of humanity.

The winter games are even more club-ish. Ninety per cent of the medals went to 9 per cent of the world's nations at the 2010 Vancouver games. Only an eighth of the world's countries even showed up.

If we look at what Olympism has yielded for some of the countries most in need of peace and goodwill, the picture is even less inclusive. Afghanistan has two bronze medals to its credit -- ever. Sudan, one silver. Democratic Republic of Congo, zilch. Haiti has been shut out since 1928. What does Olympism mean for them?

It's not the IOC's job to rectify that, but it is their job to be honest. Their hyped-up global goodwill brand betrays a reality that would be more accurately described as an elite recreational entertainment event with a golden dream sub-plot and advertising bonanza tacked on.

This reality yields two Olympic narratives that are about as digestible as the global betterment theme. One is, "try hard, believe in your dreams, don't give up and your dreams will turn golden." This may be true for the infinitesimal fraction of human beings who end up on an Olympic podium. But by the very nature of the Olympics, it will not be true for the vast majority of us -- winners require losers. Our Olympic dreams will not come true. Sorry, son.

The reason the Haitian earthquake orphan will not make it to the Olympics is probably not because she doesn't believe staunchly enough in her dreams.

A more accurate rendering of the Olympic dream narrative would be that a highly select number of people who demonstrate remarkable perseverance and dedicate a lot of time to sport -- at the expense of family or causes greater than luge -- were able to beat some other people who also tried very hard and sacrificed balanced lives.

Neither version has much to do with global well being, though they can make for highly marketable vignettes.

An acquaintance of mine who won a rowing medal in Atlanta offered a more realistic perspective on her Olympic heroics: "I can move a piece of wood backward across a lake really fast," she said.

Another Olympic narrative is, "buy stuff." It's not hard to understand why Olympic promoters want to present the games as something more than just people hurtling down hills and rocks sliding on bumpy ice. As the Olympic website says, the games are "one of the most effective international marketing platforms in the world." That is due largely to an ingenious Olympic brand that is about much more than sport.

Coca-Cola, McDonald's and General Electric spend big bucks to nuzzle their brands up to the Olympic one. Forget the fact that General Electric is a major arms manufacturer -- sacred truce? -- and the Big Mac hardly seems like a symbol of global well being; the IOC considers these and other sponsors, "an intrinsic part of the Olympic family." That familial embrace is more than some of the most ravaged and populated countries receive. Coca-Cola and McDonald's clearly have more to gain at the Olympics than the majority of the world's nations.

Like much of life, the Olympics are laden with contradiction. They are a symbol of togetherness and competitive elitism. They promote "universal principles" and McNuggets. In order to address these contradictions the IOC should either put values ahead of hype, or, more realistically, drop the pseudo-transcendent ideals and stop pretending that the Games are more than just that, games.

I'm not against sport -- I love watching and playing sports -- I just don't believe in Olympism.

A version of this article first appeared in Canadian Mennonite magazine.

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