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The dark side of the Olympic spirit

By Brian Holden - posted Monday, 11 August 2008

She ran not for just a medal - Cathy Freeman had to run for her life

Apart from the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 games, almost the whole of the Australian population tuned into only one other event; that was Cathy Freeman’s race. If Freeman failed then the nation would feel that it had failed.

Before her race, she had lit the flame and her giant image was in lights on the Sydney Harbour Bridge at night. Nobody in the history of this country acting in any capacity carried more responsibility on his or her shoulders at any one moment than Freeman did when she moved up to the starting block of the 400 metre final.

How many of those who can barely walk up three flights of stairs had thought of what life would have been like for her if she had won nothing? There were only two seconds between the gold medal and no medal at all. That was two seconds between personal pride and personal shame, and two seconds between public glory and public scorn.


Many would say Freeman chose her life. Did she? Or was this young woman from a simple background manufactured by a culture to satisfy its own needs? For example; it was a blatant admission that the Olympic Games were no longer about sportsmanship when our own government attempted to define what portion of the total funding of the Australian Institute of Sport could be expected to translate into one gold medal.

But, those with outstanding physical abilities are not the only people being exploited. Those who cheer from the sidelines are also exploited.

Bread and circuses people

Sweaty palms can be expected in a competitor, but why does the spectator also have sweaty palms? Why does a spectator identify with a person or a team - none of whom he or she has ever met? Whatever the deep psychological cause, it is a universal characteristic of humanity and easily exploited by opportunists.

In Roman times the crowds who attended the races at the Circus Maximus were labeled the “bread and circuses” people. Popular events distracted attention away from the performance of government. As the incidence of obesity in this country is now the second highest in the world, our average spectator would be a lot fatter than the average Roman. We are probably closer to exhibiting a pie and circuses behaviour.

There is something else which did not exist in the Roman Empire: the modern media, which is in the business of building up and then feeding the addiction of the masses to spectator sport. The business of feeding the addiction is ratcheted up a notch when the competition is on an international stage.

As politicians grasp at opportunities to be photographed with the stars, spectator sport (that is the sport played at a level of interest to the media) has the blessing of the government. With that blessing, spectator sport can be seen to be the state religion.


Competitive games have been played for centuries. However, a new religion based on spectator sport would not be possible without the mass media. Amused overseas visitors witness our media going gaga when an Australian wins Olympic gold. These are the visitors from countries which do not suffer from a cultural cringe. Such is the hunger that this isolated country with a negligible history has for world recognition.

The good idea in 1894 became an absurdity in 1976

I had the average Australian’s interest in the Olympic Games until Munich in 1972. At that games East Germany, with a population of about that of Australia, collected 66 medals mainly due to its athletes being drugged by order of their totalitarian state. That, I thought, was the end of the games until all competition could be drug free.

But the Olympics were not wound up until the competition could be declared free of drugs, and Montreal staged the next games in 1976. Then there was the astonishing bit: East Germany was back, and its drugged athletes went on to collect 90 medals! (The health of many of those young people was subsequently ruined.)

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About the Author

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

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