The Olympics. One word that can conjure so many emotions. One event that represents so much. Hope, triumph, heartbreak, and failure. For such a short time so few athletes provide the entire world with four years worth of stories and influence. But despite the media frenzy that begins weeks before the torch arrives to engulf the Games in its rapture, has the message of the ancient ritual been lost?
For the last 2,784 years, less a 1500 year moratorium imposed by then Roman Emperor Theodosius I, Olympians have delivered some of the most powerful messages imaginable.
It started with the very first medalist in history, a naked runner who completed the sole event in the first recorded Games, the 192 meter sprint. Stripped of clothing and exposed to the audience Corobeus, unknown to his own conscience, was actually setting the stage for a play that would be repeated hundreds of times throughout the ages—the capture of an audience’s attention by naked athletes.
Future Games would not be defined by literal nakedness, but rather how these players would be stripped bare of political pressures, class distinctions, and social divides as each has been melted away as the light of competition and internalized patriotism burns its way through the clouds of ignorance, if only for a few weeks every four years. With their unbridled passion exposed to the world, athletes have consistently delivered the message of peaceful unity.
But has that message been lost if not significantly obscured?
For the last 30 years the Olympic Games have been marred by declining ratings, corruption scandals, political involvement, and general social interference. From the heroic statement of a single fist raised to this week’s smog filled media lungs, the unity message of athletic competition has gradually been eroded as our interest has simultaneously waned.
Despite the disenfranchisement of viewers, the issue is not a simple peace versus chaos equation. It cannot be measured in ratings, ticket income, and attendance records. Rather the issue is whether or not the Games should evolve, as we have allowed them to, into a stage on which actors project not only the value of peaceful competition but also those of accountability and social responsibility.
Is it time the IOC embrace an actual agenda and use their influence to serve a more socially progressive end? Probably not. The entire notion is much too liberal and idealistic to sit easy with a Committee that is known for right wing appeasement and general corruption.
No, the Olympics will go on as they have; slowly evolving to the point where political and social grandstanding is generally limited to the pre-game weeks. Maybe the message of unity is still found somewhere in the smog as people turn away from China’s human rights records for a few weeks, if only to surely declare their involvement deplorable afterwards.
Maybe, just maybe, the message lives on as audiences seem to have once again warmed to the event with revitalized interest and a focus on stories of hope and perseverance. Maybe there is hope that the Games make each of us reflect on the ideals of peace and togetherness.
Here’s to hoping that the Games do continue to evolve and that the message isn’t yet lost. Here’s to hoping we take time, as corny as it may seem, to pause and reflect on the human achievement the Olympics represent and what it means to each of us that they continue to inspire and remain relevant. The Olympic dream is not always gold plated; it may be that the dream is that, if only for one brief moment, each of us realizes that unity is a human possibility.