Success and the Olympic myth

In the second part of my three-part blog series, I discuss the Olympic myth, and the way we view nationhood and sporting success.

There is a deep and quite disturbing hypocrisy that runs through the heart of sport, and our relationship with it. On the one hand we are sold the great dream of hard work and sporting success. And yet at the same time, these dreams are just that: they are dreams. They are manufactured; they are illusory; they are built on a bedrock of lies and distorted truth.

Much of this ties back to my PhD research and my interest in how we create narratives around ‘life’ and what it means to be human. This is important because life doesn’t just operate in the domain of the biological – it is also a social construct that influences every aspect of our lived experience including gender, race, class, sexuality and much more besides. It also permeates our very deep-rooted (false) ideas about of the nation, and our concept of ‘national identity’.

Rio Olympics 2016

To explain what I mean by this, let us return to the example of the Olympics and the particularly problematic case of track and field…

Introducing ‘Clone Theory’

Imagine this scenario: an imaginary Olympic games consisting of 10 countries, each with 10 athletes fighting it out over a range of sporting events. In this example, each of the athletes is a clone. They are genetically identical and have been raised in exactly the same way such that there can be no possible difference between them. They have been raised the same, they have eaten the same food, and they even have the same friends. They are in every sense of the word, the ultimate philosophical clones.

Because each of our competitors is a clone, they each perform to exactly the same level in each of the sports they enter. As such there are no records, because each athlete is capable of producing the same sporting performance time and time again. When they race the 100m, they all cross the line at exactly the same moment. As a result, there can never be any winners because each of these clones is an exact replica of the others. And just as there can be no winners, so no nation can be declared triumphant – they are in every sense of the word, exactly the same.

Now that we’ve created our imaginary Olympic games, let us consider some scenarios:

  • In our first example, Nation A decides it’s going to bring in some nutritionists and feed its athletes differently to the other nine nations. As a result Nation A wins everything, and the other nations all fall behind.
  • In our second example Nation B invests in some expensive gym equipment. This new equipment is far better than anything any of the other nations can afford, and as such each of its athletes gain a slight competitive edge. In this example Nation B wins everything, and all the other nations fall behind.
  • Next we have Nation C, a nation so large that its population dwarfs all of the other nations combined. Such is the size of Nation C’s population that a small number of its citizen-clones develop minor abnormalities that make them slightly better than all the other clones. Nation C seizes this opportunity and enters these ‘Clones+’ into the Olympics, and so wins everything to come top of the medal table.
  • In our fourth example, Nation D consists solely of perfect clones, except it has recently taken in a number of refugees from outside of the 10 nations competing in our imaginary Olympics. These ‘outsiders’ are not clones like the rest, and are possessed of some attributes that make them much better at some events than the clones. As such Nation D enters its newly-adopted citizens and wins every event.
  • Finally we have Nation E. Unlike all the other nations in the imaginary Olympics, Nation E has the very best healthcare system possible. This means it is able to save the lives of many athletes who might have died growing up, or who might have lost limbs or suffered other injury during the course of their lives. Not only can Nation E draw on a wider range of clones, but it can also enter its other clones into the imaginary Paralympic games, and enter many events that the other nine nations cannot. Nation E wins not only the imaginary Olympics, but also the imaginary Paralympic games as well.

The myth of the Olympic dream

From these scenarios it would seem clear that sport is not, and can never be, the perfect embodiment of human accomplishment, for there are too many factors involved in determining the outcome of sporting ‘success’.

Of course I’m not trying to demean the Olympic movement, nor indeed the Paralympic movement as I believe both are important in their own ways. However we should not let ourselves be fooled into believing in the Olympic ‘dream’ and the arbitrary way it defines the terms of hard work, talent and success. After all, what value does running fast over 100m really have? How valuable is it to be able to jump off a board into a swimming pool? If Usain Bolt were 5” 9 instead of 6” 4 would he still be the fastest man in the world? I think not.

We should also then consider the question of nationhood, and who we are actually supporting when we come to watch the Olympic games. In his seminal work Imagined Communities Benedict Anderson demonstrates that the concept of the nation is in effect an imaginary construct. I have as little in common with you dear reader, as I do with my neighbour, or dare I say even members of my own family. The point here being that if we have so little in common with those around us, how can we ever claim to exist as part of a ‘nation’ of disparate individuals?

Rio 2016 Closing Ceremony

War by other means

A famous military thinker once said that war is politics continued by other means.[1] However we could also add here that sport is a form or politics by other means, which is in itself a form of war. Individuals compete not because they are particularly gifted or because they are saying something profound about the human condition; rather they are pawns in the political power struggle that takes place on the battlefields of the track and field. Are they athletes then, or are they warriors? I would argue that perhaps they are both.


In the final part of my blog series I will look at the curious case of Caster Semenya and consider the implications of what her case means for the world of sport and society in general.

References

[1] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (Volume 1), trans. by J.J.Graham (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968), p. 23.

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