The Lived Olympics: A Personal Observation of the Games

The Lived Olympics: A Personal Observation of the Games

August 26, 2016

Over the past few weeks we have been captivated or distracted by events taking place on the other side of the planet as the world’s most elite athletes gathered together to seek for fame and glory in a range of selected sporting disciplines. Against a backdrop of one of the world’s most storied and complex cities, Rio De Janeiro, over 10,000 athletes from more than 200 countries competed for supremacy in more than 300 events in the Games of the XXXI Olympiad.

The ‘Olympic Ideal’ is powerful indeed. In a spirit of fair and open competition, the best and fairest strive to achieve feats beyond the reach of the vast majority of humankind. The Olympics seek to fan the flame of human endeavor, challenging us to reach, if not exceed, the outer limits of human physical and mental performance through remarkable displays of strength, endurance, persistence, and flexibility. At their best, the Olympics embody many of the most worthy and memorable elements of humanity in ways that touch and inspire each one of us.

We are also well aware of the many troubling aspects of the modern Olympics. The Games can be as polarizing and divisive as they are celebratory. The selection process for host nations has been viewed with suspicion, and perhaps jealousy; the financial burden can be ruinous for the hosts; and the distraction and disruption to a community and a country can draw off much needed attention and funding from more pressing problems. Its excessive commercialization is a hugely distorting factor, shaping the selection of events deemed to be media-worthy, the way participants are portrayed, and even the timing of individual events, which are adjusted to suit audiences prepared to pay a high premium for ‘prime time’ viewing.

Not above politics, even in its ancient guise (see the controversy over the ‘invalid’ 104th Olympiad in 364 BC!), the modern Olympic movement has always wrestled with its identity, for some acting as a powerful surrogate for armed conflict between cultures, countries, and ideologies. In the honoring of individual achievement, we give free reign to our patriotism and nationalism through public manifestations of exuberance that are more reflective of misplaced triumphalism than genuine celebration of the human stories unfolding at the Games. When ‘our’ athletes win (no matter who ‘we’ are), it proves that ‘we’ are superior in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with the often highly individual and lonely task of training to the highest level of performance in a specific sporting discipline.

Even worse, we need to win at all costs. The distorting influence of chemical enhancements now offers an ‘edge’ in many fields of competition that poses an irresistible temptation for individuals, many of whom become national heroes, ‘set for life’ if they succeed. Even governments, obsessed with victory at all costs, have become purposeful and powerful players. For some observers, it has the appearance of ‘total war’, where nothing and no one is spared in the pursuit of victory. The rewards are just too important to let nature take its course. There is little doubt that the Olympics are under attack from those who would ‘game the Games’.

Some justify this on grounds that any form of artificial enhancement is just an expression of human evolution, as we seek to transcend the physical limitations of the ‘here and now’. Performance enhancement is seen by some as just another form of technical advancement, exploring ways of taking humanity to the next level. Others in positions of power see it as an acceptable risk in a war of ideologies and cultures, where athletes have become the front line warriors, striving with the enemy to wrest victory for ‘king and country’; losing brings unacceptable national shame. On the other hand, we might also listen to the quiet, but insistent voices that warn of the risks, supported by medical evidence, pointing to shattered and shortened lives for those unwitting subjects, sacrificed for national honor in a global experiment.

The Games see us at our best and our worst. We see the engaging and warm spirit of humanity of a swimmer like China’s Fu Yuanhui, surprised at her own achievements, delighted to be a participant and struggling with her own perceived limitations. Competitors refusing to shake hands with an opponent because of religious or political conflict between countries. We also hear stories of athletes, complete strangers before the Games, who reach out to help other competitors, encouraging, assisting, and consoling, just because it seems to be the right thing to do. We are surprised by some results that confound expectations, like Joseph Schooling of Singapore, who represented a country that had never won a gold medal, beating a seemingly invincible rival. We see communities making sacrifices to support a handful of representatives to take part, not with any prospect of winning medals, but just to participate.

How does this all relate to our school and its learners? In our school, we engage in learning and prepare for tests and examinations in readiness for the unpredictability of life beyond school. Like the Games, we need to keep our perspective on competitive formal processes, such as examinations: we seek balance, not to win at all costs. We emphasize learning for life as one aspect of the human experience, but formal learning in our school does not replace life itself: it is a chapter, a phase, a preparation for what is to come. In the same way, the athletes in Brazil were in competition with themselves and others for a brief time, testing their stamina and skill. Now, with the Games concluded, they have returned to their countries, communities, and families and resumed lives led in different cultural contexts and circumstances, some happy, some less so. The Games are a small part of life, for a short time, not life itself.

Dr. Malcolm Pritchard
Head of School

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