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Good and Bad of the Beijing Olympic Games - The Ideals Sought by Baron Pierre de Coubertin -

Tsuneo Sogawa,
Faculty of Sport Sciences of Waseda University

Significance of the Olympic Torch Relay

The Beijing Olympic Games attracted the world's attention even before it had started. One of the incidents symbolizing this was the protest against the Olympic Torch Relay. Many of the supporters of Tibetan's freedom expressed their wills against the Chinese Government's suppression of Tibetans in illegal forms in countries where the Olympic Torch Relay took place. The Chinese Government anticipated some, but in reality the scale of protests was far larger than anticipated, clearly indicating the great gap between China and other countries on human rights.

The Olympic Torch Relay has nothing to do with the ancient Olympic Games. In ancient Greece, a torch was known to be handed over to one runner to another, but only in the ceremony that reprised the myth of Hero Prometheus bringing fire back from Zeus to human beings. The Olympic Games started as a sports festival dedicated to Zeus. Consequently, an event symbolizing such nuisance to Zeus couldn't have been celebrated as part of the festival. The Natiz invented the Olympic Torch Relay for their 1936 Olympic Games. In the modern Olympic Games, the relay is supposed to be an appeal of a host country for peace towards the world. However, this time it is an appeal to a host country from the world.

Olympic Games, Political Showcase

"Politics and sports should be separated" is a well documented statement. What hollow and empty words! Contrary to these words, the Modern Olympics gained its present influential position because of its close relationship with politics. The first Athens Olympic Games was fully supported by the Greek government, since the International Olympic Committee did not have enough resources to operate the Games by its own. Georgis I, Greek emperor at that time was a prince of Denmark and assumed the throne supported by the Kingdom of Great Britain. He was so to speak an outsider. He was impressed with enthusiasm of Greek people for the Games and in order to please the Greek people, he suggested that Athens should be the eternal venue of the Olympic Games, leading to a heated argument with Courbertin, who insisted that the Games should be held in countries all over the world.

Decision made for the 1908 London Games that the entry to the Olympic Games must be per national Olympic committee also allowed political intervention in the Games. Could two conflicting ethnic groups insisting either consolidation or independence be equal in the arena of the Games, or should one be absorbed into another? This became the international political issue. Ireland participated in the Olympic Games independently, but it has been treated as part of the British team since then, leading further intensification of Irish anti-England sentiments.

These situations occurred all over the world. Against the backdrop of "Survival for the Fittest" of the theory of evolution, the Olympic Games became a battlefield of proxy wars of nations or their people to show their excellence to the world. Political leaders became interested in this lucrative stage of international politics and started to pour a huge amount of national budget into the Games. The Olympic Games has indeed become a political showcase.

What is Expected from Athletes

In reality sports and politics are strongly intermingled with each other. So are religion, literature, music and science to some extent. Sports cannot be an exception. That's why the Olympic Games is taken out of reality to form an ideal space presented to the world, at least for a while. This is one interpretation of these hollow and empty words: "Politics and sports should be separated" to make it sound somewhat meaningful.

We all know that the international peace-making function of this ideal space is measurable. For more than a hundred years since Courbertin founded the Games, the world has managed to maintain this fragile space that could have been easily broken unless handled properly. Religious authority of Zeus had protected this fragile space over 1200 years in the ancient Olympic Games. But we cannot rely on the power of Zeus now. Only thing we can do is appeal to the common sense of the people all over the world. And we expect much from athletes, who carry out their responsibilities by exhibiting their ultimate sportsmanship and physical performance on the stage set in this space.

Even so, we expect much more from them. Athletes should not only be a beneficiary of peace but also be aware of their mission as a peace-maker. The International Olympic Committee establishes the "Olympic Armistice Center" and appeals ceasefire to the world in cooperation with the United Nations whether it be during the games or not. Despite their efforts, Russia and Georgia started a war as if in sync with the opening ceremony. If Courbertin were alive, he would say, "Now it's time to prove that Aristophanes' quote of "Athletes wouldn't be of any help to successful operation of a nation (polis)" isn't true."

Tsuneo Sogawa

Born in Wakayama Prefecture in 1947. Completed his Ph.D. in Philosophy at the Graduate School of Tsukuba University. Professor at Faculty of Sport Science, Waseda University. Specializing in Sport Anthropology and Sport Culture Theory.


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