If only we could remain this way forever...
Cassandra's Candid Corner
September 17, 2000
I just witnessed the uplifting spectacle of the grand opening of the Sydney Olympic Games. The value of humankind soared. Athletes from the sixties bounced as they ran carrying the torch; men showed their emotions and were not ashamed to do so; sop was given to Cerebus and Miss Freeman lit the Olympic flame. Euphoria of peace and friendship was palpable; brotherly love was exhaled and inhaled. Humanity's higher nature was not dormant on this day; excellencies of heart were visible. If only we could remain this way forever - earthlings united. Let the Games begin.
Well, now that they have begun, athletes will strive to transcend the limits of their own biology. This thing called human nature will emerge (actually, it should be called human nurture, because nature might have very little to do with our behavioural patterns). The Olympics, instead of celebrating the quintessence of our collective goodness, will become a battleground. The French have already displayed their pique at English being the international language of the opening ceremonies and have achieved the subtitling of the introduction and some of the speeches. The businessmen will have a feeding frenzy. Someone said there is no business like show business - except sports business which is ultimately show business. The sellers of sport will ensure that fair play remains only a concept. They will advertise hatred, jealousy, braggadocio. They will highlight episodes of antagonism, even violence. They will present the rivalries as war minus the shooting. And we will lap it up. Why? One Michael Roberts ("The Vicarious Heroism of the Sports Spectator") posits that, for the most part, the spectator's stake in the proceedings is the gratification that comes with identifying with success. Whoever can provide such substituted joy needs no other justification as a human being. The capacity of one man's (the athlete's) actions to buttress the self-esteem of another (the spectator) is demonstrably a potent force. Well, it is this force that has been and will be exploited by the entrepreneurs of sports events in general and of the Olympics in particular.
This cannot be the only reason for our fascination with competition in human endeavour. Lewis Mumford in "Technics and Civilization" argues that sport, as a mass spectacle (especially if death is added to the underlying excitement), comes into existence when a population has been drilled and regimented and depressed to such an extent that it needs at least a substituted participation in difficult feats of strength of skill or heroism in order to sustain its waning life-sense. Does this sound familiar? It should, because it is just another way of saying that sport is the opium of the masses.
Well, whatever. Perhaps we truly can't jump over our own shadows. Perhaps the biological imperative dictates that we sit in the colloseums and get a thrill as the gladiators do battle. That most astute observer of human nature, the cynic of cynics, Mr. Jonathan Swift, reminds us that most sorts of diversion in men, women, children and other animals are an imitation of fighting.
There is another aspect of the Olympics that I feel compelled to question. What are the parameters used to decide which sport should be included in the Olympics. Should the yardstick not be the number or people participating in that particular discipline? Of course, this would mean that fencing and equestrian events for example, would have to bow out. Should these elitist sports (Duke of Wellington .... The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton") be allowed to continue just to glorify a few. What about swimming? Aren't potential competitors, even nations, put at a distinct disadvantage? Not only are the building of training pools to be considered a priority, but even when available, these pools might not be accessible for a number of reasons. It is not by accident that developing countries only excel in those sports disciplines where very little money is involved for equipment or infrastructure.
One final aspect of the glorification and entrepreneurialisation (new word) of sport that has always worried me. Many naturally talented (physically) young people are being subliminally sold on the idea that concentrating one's effort on sport gives one not only the power and glory, but it is a one way ticket out of poverty and marginalisation. Everybody wants to be like Mike. Mothers of the Ghetto are reported to be running to doctors begging them to inject their sons with growth hormones so that they can have an edge in a basketball future. This fixation with sport as the genie's lamp must be seen as counter-productive to certain classes and those who are at the bottom rung of the ladder. Within this context, there is a book. "The Black Athlete: A Shameful Story" which should be made standard reading for those leaders who do not recognise the stultifying effect of monodirectional development. Let me express this thought in a different way.
If a kid from the higher societal strata aspires to become a doctor or a bank manager or the President of the United States and fails, the general expertise, specific skills and knowledge he would have acquired along the way could be used in a thousand different jobs. A kid from the Ghetto aspires and tries to become Michael Jordan. and fails, well, all the tools he picks up along the way are useless to him if he doesn't become Michael Jordan. Dig dat?
Look, dear readers, this was a hard, morose and depressing week for me, not lastly because of the wakes and funerals that have had their impact Freddo, Andre and Dr Hanoman. Hey, but the competitions in the Olympics will surely drag me out of any sombre mood. Enjoy the next two weeks. Thanks to CBU and the local channels that will afford me many hours of brutal fun - and to hell with philosophising.
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