The view from Billinudgel

Let the Games continue
The Olympics are not what they should be, but their ideal is worth remembering

My favourite Olympic Games story comes not from Rio in 2016 but from Thermopylae in 480 BC.

The setting was the camp of Xerxes, king of Persia. The Persian empire was vast, but there were problems. The Greek Ionian states had revolted a dozen years earlier, and after quashing their revolt Xerxes’ father Darius had attempted to invade the Greek mainland, only to be beaten back at the battle of Marathon.

Now Xerxes sent a trusted general, Mardonius, to finish the job.

All went well until the mighty Persian force – tens of thousands of them – met a small force led by the Spartan king Leonidas, who held the narrow pass at Thermopylae.

The Persians prevailed, though it took a week of fighting. Afterward, Xerxes inquired of a Greek deserter why the number of Greek fighters had been so few.

Well, said the Greek, it was simple: this was the time of the games at Olympia, when every four years the young men of Greece abandoned war to compete in various sporting contests.

Incredulous, the Persians asked what could draw them to these games; the winners must surely receive huge fortunes. Well, no, actually, replied the Greek; all the winners received was a wreath of olive branches.

Most of Xerxes’ courtiers rocked with mirth and derision: what gullible fools these Greeks must be. But one was wiser. If these Greek will do so much for honour alone, he mused, what will they do when their homes and families are threatened? And a year later, at the battle of Plataea, the Persians found out.

The glory that was Greece faded, and the games were debased; although they were not officially abolished until 393 AD they had become corrupted, especially since the Romans took the country over. Some of the Roman emperors actually sponsored the chariot races, which were invariably fixed and became notorious.

And since Baron de Coubertin reinvented the Olympics in the 1890s, the old pattern has sadly recurred: systematic cheating (this time through chemical means) and cronyism and bribery among members of the International Olympic Committee jostling their clients to procure venues. And of course, the Olympics are no longer a time of peace; wars continue unabated and Rio itself has its own share of violence.

It is understandable that many believe honour has long gone from what was once the pre-eminent observance of excellence for its own sake. It is easy to be cynical about the Olympic Games.

And yet, and yet. Who did not applaud the entry of a team of refugees into the stadium? Who did not share at least a measure of the unfeigned delight of the young men and women (and some older ones too) who were the winners, or just the competitors, during the festival in Rio? Who did not rejoice with Australia’s rugby sevens, the unlikely collection of amateurs who became the Pearls, our new gold-winning women?

The Olympics may not be what they once were, or what they could and should be, but they are still the planet’s biggest and most inclusive gathering of people assembled every four years, during a time when there is often precious little to feel good about. We cannot forget wars and poverty, but for a couple of weeks we can acknowledge that there are still human achievements to celebrate, and even honour. And that is worth doing.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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