Critical Review (JS)


The Olympic movement is approached from multiple scientific disciplines. During the 11th Post-Graduate Seminar on Olympic Studies we have become acquainted with historical, philosophical, anthropological as well as sociological approaches to this world wide phenomenon which in the broader public sense is known almost only as a returning sports mega-event. One of the reasons for its wide recognition is the philosophical basis of the movement – the Olympism described in the Olympic Charter, which touches upon concepts of internationalism, equality, peace and universalism.
Taking part in the seminar has been a great opportunity for me to expand my existing knowledge of Olympism, the Olympic Games and the Olympic Movement in general. Besides from the exceptional academic lectures, the seminar has provided me an interesting insight into my fellow students’ different cultures and alternate views on sport and Olympism, which has given me a broader framework within which to conduct my further Olympic studies.
Instead of comprehensively covering minutiae of the topics and lectures of the seminar, I intend to point out some features of the Ancient Olympic Games and the Modern Olympic Games respectively, which I find of specific interest. Additionally, I will draw some parallels between the games of the different ages and will also comment on the future of Olympic education.

Ancient Olympic Games
As a “non-historian” with special interest in modern sport and the problems the Olympic movement is facing in the present and Future, the first week of the seminar that emphasised the Ancient Olympic Games definitely helped me gain deeper insight into this religiously based institution.
As I will demonstrate later in this report, there are many similarities between sport in antiquity and in modern times. The main difference though is, from my point of view, the object or intention behind the widespread practise of sport, which in ancient times was the cultivation of the male athletic body as a means of worshipping the Gods. On a specific historical level, it was clarified that the generally accepted year of 776 BC as the dating of the first known games is very uncertain, just like the date and reasons for the decline of the games is questioned. One of the reasons for questioning the date of the origin of the games is a bronze-discus found in the Sanctuary of Zeus in Ancient Olympia with inscriptions suggesting that Games were held many years earlier. The interpretation of the inscriptions on each side of the discus are conflicting though, which makes it difficult to conclude anything with certainty. In general I got the expression, that one has to be very critical when reading about the Ancient Olympic Games. Many books on the subject cling to “early scholarly beliefs”, but every year new material is brought to light revealing deeper insights into ancient life and culture. That is why one shall always study with a critical approach and question what one has read and heard.
In a student’s presentation on the work of the ancient Greek writer Lucian, more explicit in the drama “Okypous”, I came across the expression “athletic narcissism”. It refers to Okypous’ idolisation of his own athletic beauty and superiority, not of his own mirror image as was the case with Narcissus in the old myth. In the case of Okypous, it is a positive narcissism in the way that it applies to an internal talent or learned skill – and in the fact that he does not brag about his self-esteem but uses it to build his own identity and distinguish himself from others. [1] Since I met the expression, I have been wondering about its parallels to modern sport. Must elite athletes of today be endowed with a considerable amount of “athletic narcissism” to be able to get on in this highly competitive world of sport? The problem with this concept of internal narcissism is that many modern athletes have a propensity to promote themselves and boast about their skills and abilities with the aim of frightening their opponents, – and by doing so the “athletic narcissism” turns into a negative narcissism.

Modern Olympic Games
Many scholars talk about the revival of the Olympic Games in the late 19th century. I think, however, that it is wrong to talk about a revival in so far as the early Modern Olympic Games with the international and educational basis was distinctly different from the religiously inspired Ancient Olympic Games. The formation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Modern Olympic Games is often (if not always) ascribed to Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He is rightly the founder of the Olympic Movement, but he is often wrongly described as a lonely pioneer in the promotion of sport in the late 19th century. Coubertin was as an educator inspired by English public school traditions, where sport was used as a means to develop physical and moral strength as well as human character in general. Through visits to England and correspondence with contemporary educators, he became familiar with different attempts to establish national sports games. Especially the games at Much Wenlock, organized by William Penny Brooks for the first time in 1852, became an inspiration for him, and Brooks and Coubertin had a lot of thoughts and ideas to exchange. Meanwhile there was a similar process going on in Greece, where from 1859-1889 Zappas succeeded in arranging four national Olympic Games. It was characteristic for that time that sport was for the upper class only – the Bourgeoise. Physical education in general was not highly valued. The most developed physical traditions were the different forms of gymnastics from Germany and Scandinavia. The modern sport as we know it today originated from England and was spread to Europe and to many parts of the world by English colonisers. During this period, where other international organisations like the International Red Cross Movement, the Peace Movement and the Esperanto Movement was created, the need for international communication among the nations was very present in the public mind. [2] So when Coubertin in 1894 took the initiative to constitute an international forum for the development of sport, it was a very deliberate and thoroughly prepared decision. Coubertin was not the first man to revitalise the ancient idea of a big sports event with many different sports and disciplines, but he was the first to make it a truly international event. It is said that he was “the right man at the right time”, but that is just one part of the story. He, and together with him the IOC formed in 1894, could never have succeeded in the organisation of the Modern Olympic Games without the Western civilisation’s widespread acceptance and support of the idea and without the spreading of the modern concept of sport. Coubertin made a deliberately clever artifice by connecting the modern practise of sport to the ancient Greek traditions, which were flourishing at that time, and by that means ensuring support from the Western aristocrats. [3] So instead of talking about a revival of the Ancient Olympic Games, I prefer to view the establishment of the Modern Olympic Movement as a natural development in the globalisation of sport – with certain inspiration from the ancient traditions.

One of the cornerstones in the Olympism provided in the Olympic charter is the conception of universalism. But how is this concept of plural meanings to be comprehended? The questions are manifold, but I will focus on the following two questions. Does universalism imply that everybody should have the ability to take part in and have equal opportunities to compete in the Olympic Games? And does it mean that the sports at the Olympic programme should be representative of the sports practised in the world? From a truly universal point of view the Olympic Games should of course be for athletes from all countries without any discrimination regarding gender, race, ethnicity, religion, economic income etc. But while acclaiming universalism, the IOC simultaneously promotes the Games as an elite-event with “pursuit of excellence” and “Citius-Altius-Fortius” as “performance determining” slogans. And here we meet the first obstacles. According to the idea of universality it would be most correct if each country could participate with, for instance, three athletes in every discipline. We have though already seen examples on how the Olympic Games would develop if that would be the criteria of inclusion. I am referring to the British ski-jumper from Calgary 1988, the Kenyan cross country skier from Nagano 1998 and the African swimmer from Equatorial Guinea in Sydney 2000. Accepting the true principles of universality would be the same as acknowledging the Olympics as a “sport for all” event and not an elite event for top athletes. The policy of the Danish Olympic Committee (DOC) regarding selection for the Olympic Games is that the athletes must meet the requirements set by DOC and not by the International Federations (IF). The Danish requirements are often more rigid than the IF’s, because DOC does not want to send “cannon fodder” to the Olympics. The Danish requirements must suffice for at least a position among the best third or a place in the final (depending on the discipline).
It is utopian to believe in the universal principle, as long as sports like yachting, dressage and rowing, which require huge amounts of money for equipment and training facilities, are on the Olympic programme. Furthermore one can question the universality and humanity in the distinction between the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games (for athletes with disabilities). A discipline for disabled athletes – wheelchair race – has since Seoul 1988 been on the “real” Olympic programme as a demonstration sport without full medal status. What does that signify regarding universality? Women’s participation in the Olympic Games was not allowed in the first years of the lifetime of the movement under the presidency of Coubertin. Slowly women’s disciplines have entered the Olympic programme, but are still not comparable with the men’s concerning number of disciplines – and number of athletes. Regarding universality in the women’s participation at the Olympics, there are even sports on the Olympic programme like e.g. beachvolleyball and swimming, which in advance exclude Arab women from participation because of the “dress-code”.

Concerning the sports on the Olympic programme, one can rightly ask if it lives up to the principle of universality. The facts are that all the Olympic sports with only two exceptions, have Western roots, and as mentioned earlier were dispersed by cultural imperialism during the British hegemony. Eichberg describes these proportions as “the non-recognition of non-Western sports”, corresponding to neo-colonisation. [4] The two exceptions are Judo and Taekwondo, which were included in the programme at the Games in Tokyo 1964 and Seoul 1988 respectively. The IOC policy about inclusion of sports at the Olympic programme (stated in the Olympic Charter from 2001) is that men’s sports must be practised in 75 countries on (at least) 4 continents and women’s sports in 40 countries on 3 continents. For winter sports the numbers are 25 countries on 3 continents (but what is in fact universal about winter sports ?). The games are threatened by gigantism, and the IOC are very reluctant to include more sports to the programme. But why take it for granted that once the sports are included in the programme they cannot be thrown out again? The IOC ought to restructure the programme, if they were really willing to follow their principles. One could imagine a scenery with a fixed programme of events and where a sport from the continent of the host city every four year could obtain full medal status. Or a solution where each continent every quadrennial could choose one regional sport to the programme. Or why not follow the true principle of universalism and “reset the programme” and let each continent contribute to the new programme with 5 sports…..Surely we would see Olympic Games much apart from today’s “Western Olympics” – but who says that the Western civilization holds the patent of the Olympic Games?

Relation between sport in antiquity and in modern time
What has had the greatest impact on me during the lectures of the seminar are the many parallels revealed between the sport of antiquity and of today. The modern sport critics, who practise the discourse of sport as first and foremost pure and ideal and who describe the decline in modern sport in terms of “an evil from without” have evidently not done their research properly.
In some selected texts concerning sport and Olympic Games in Greek and Roman antiquity, handed out by Prof. Weiler, it is disclosed that many of the extreme appearances of modern sport, which by the critics are explained by commercialisation and intruding interests, have their roots in ancient times. Without any order of priority I mention at random that the ancient athletes received an obsonion [6], which corresponds to allowances or economical compensation with a clear parallel to the professionals or “state-amateurs” nowadays. Athletes’ urge to win (at all costs) is not a rarity either. On the gravestone of Kamelos of Alexandria, who died in a boxing match, we can read that he “prayed to Zeus to give him either the crown or death”. The inequality in participation, which is discussed above, took place in ancient time as well, where slaves, cripples, homosexuals, craftsmen, drunkards and madmen were banned in the Gymnasion. [7] It was in a similar comparison to modern sport furthermore revealed that fraud and cheating has taken place as long as sport itself; exemplified in some verses from the famous Greek writer Homer about the funeral games of Patroklos. Last but not least in a fragment of a text of Xenophanes from c525 BC, we see a straight parallel to the modern critique of the quest for money in high-performance sport. The worshipping of the winning athlete is questioned by suggesting that sport brings nothing to the city-state – other than honour. And we see early examples of the eternal distinction between body and mind, today known under the term “Cartesian dualism”, when he adds that “my wisdom is better than the strength of men or horses.” [8]
It becomes evident that speaking about a decline in sport is absurd. Sport, as I touched upon in my seminar paper The Lure of the Olympics, essentially has an excessive character, and the above mentioned examples are manifestations of the inner essence of sport – which apparently has remained unchanged for centuries.

Olympic Education
Olympic education has been one of the recurrent terms in our discussions in the lecture hall during the seminar. It is difficult to disagree in the fact that the values of Olympism, as for instance mutual understanding, equality, peace, universalism and fair-play are great humanistic values to teach the youth of today. But it has become more and more evident for me during the course of the seminar that Olympic education is self-contradictory. I think that the discrepancy between the humane and beautiful but stubbornly preserved values of Olympism and the pursued policy of the IOC and appearances of modern sport is to wide. Jim Parry uses Rawl’s distinction between concepts and conceptions in his paper “Olympism for the 21st Century”. The general concept of Olympism will find different expressions in different cultural, political and regional parts of the world, i.e. “There will be differing conceptions of Olympism, which will interpret the general concept in such a way as to bring it to real life in a particular context”. [9] I think it is time to invigorate the Olympic education by interpreting the Olympic values in a modern context.

As a closing comment – I feel very privileged to have participated in this seminar. The wide range of topics, which have been considered during the seminar, have provided me with a more complex understanding of the Olympic Movement. I have realised how most of the single factors, usually questioned separately, are in fact closely related.
I owe great thanks to my fellow students and the supervising professors for giving me a unique Olympic experience, and for helping me acquire knowledge on an academic as well as on a human level.

[1] Student’s presentation. Lucian’s views on education through sport as reported in his work by Anastasia Giannakaki.
[2] Hobermann, John. Towards a Theory of Olympic Internationalism. In: Journal of Sport History, 22 (spring 1995): 1-37.
[3] This representation of the formation of the Modern Olympic Movement rely on the notes and comments from Prof. Dr. Christina Koulouri.
[4] Eichberg, Henning (1984). Olympic Sport – neocolonisation and alternatives. In: International Review for Sociologi of Sport, 19,1: 97-104.
[5] Inschriften von Olympia 56, 11-18 (2 BC). Weiler, Ingomar (2003).
[6] Gravestone of Kamelos (412) (from the third century AD). Weiler, Ingomar (2003).
[7] Suplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 27, 261 (before 167 BC). Weiler, Ingomar (2003).
[8] Xenophanes, fragment 2 (ca. 525 BC). Weiler, Ingomar (2003).
[9] Parry, Jim (2003). Olympism for the 21st Century. Paper prepared for the IOA, May 2003.

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