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The Olympic spirit? It's a simple, shared global experience

By Dennis Altman - posted Friday, 22 August 2008

Australia has a particular relationship to the Olympics. One of only four countries to have competed in all Games since their inception in 1896, we and the United States are the only countries to have hosted the Games twice since World War II.

In the 13 Olympics since Melbourne, Australians have finished among the top 10 medal winners in all but two contests, our nadir coming in Montreal in 1976. This was the catalyst for the Australian Institute of Sport, and in the past three Games we have been beaten only by much bigger countries, a record we seem on track to emulate.

Does this matter? The Australian press never asks the question, and an Olympic gold medal is regarded as both a personal and a patriotic achievement. Thus Australia Post produces stamps depicting every gold medallist - remember how Australians discovered tae kwon do when Lauren Burns won at Sydney? - but has yet to honour our only Nobel laureate novelist, Patrick White. We are not alone in viewing the Olympics through a prism of narrow nationalism, a prism which only the extraordinary prowess of Michael Phelps seemed to break. A quick search on the internet shows a similar pattern internationally: even as serious a paper as the Frankfurter Allgemeine boosts the triumph of the German hammer thrower, Betty Heidler.


Already Australia spends more per capita on elite sports than do most comparable countries, though with some success. According to my colleagues in sports management, each medal won at the Sydney Olympics cost Australia $4.8 million, a better return on our investment than that of Britain at the time, which has since increased its efforts. But winning is costly, and our national swimming coach has already called for more money to match the British spending.

One might feel there are higher priorities for government expenditure, but the alternative would be a formula-one-style event, with corporation-based teams. Given the money gold medallists go on to make through sponsorships, one wonders if there is not some way in which they might repay the cost to taxpayers of turning them into international celebrities.

It is easy to write, as Alexander McCall Smith did, of the death of the Olympic spirit. I share his nostalgia for the days of amateur sports as immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire. The Olympics have become a display of global consumerism and national triumphalism, but it is unrealistic to expect otherwise. As Borai Mujumdar and Nalin Mehta remind us in their book Olympics: The India Story, India's participation, which began in 1920 at Antwerp, was crucial to its national pride.

India has yet to become a significant Olympic competitor, although holding the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010 suggests India will invest in improving its international sporting prowess. Other countries have used the Games to mark their growth on the world scale. Ever since the Seoul Games of 1988, the Koreans remain significant in a number of sports. Equally, the end of the Cold War has seen a collapse of some of the former eastern European countries, where sports are clearly less important than in the past.

Too many of the complaints about Chinese nationalism displayed at Beijing could be turned back on Australia. Their celebration of nationalism may seem heavy-handed and authoritarian to us, but complaints that the opening ceremony lacked the ironic touches that lawnmowers and Hills hoists brought to Sydney and Melbourne's Commonwealth Games merely underscore the thinness of Australian culture in the eyes of many Chinese.

Of course, the relationship between sports and politics will be different in an authoritarian state, but the Olympics cannot avoid reflecting the political structures of the host country. Despite the unease around the treatment of the media, nothing has occurred so far equivalent to the abuses associated with the 1936 Berlin and 1968 Mexico Games. The real question is whether the International Olympics Committee really believed that giving China the Games would bring about meaningful changes in social and political repression.


In 1980 the US boycotted the Moscow Games in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, although Canberra failed to persuade our Olympians to follow suit. In 1984 the Soviets boycotted Los Angeles in retaliation, helping the US win over a third of all events, and allowing Ronald Reagan to campaign for re-election in a glow of sporting patriotism. Neither boycott changed either country's foreign policy.

The claim that we should not legitimise Chinese policies through holding the Olympics there is countered by arguing that anything that brings Chinese citizens into more contact with the wider world is desirable. On balance, the latter seems to me more persuasive.

The real importance of the Games is that it brings together almost every country in the world, not through meetings of leaders but through competition by young sportswomen and men. There are moments when national chauvinism still allows us to hail success by others, whether it is the extraordinary Chinese gymnasts, the Jamaican sprinters or the long-distance runners from Africa.

Corny, commercial and costly, yes, but moments that are important in asserting a shared global citizenship. The travails of the Iraqi team, with only four athletes making it to Beijing, is one of the moments of real heroism at these Olympics. I'm surprised that after 10 days of television glimpses, I've become an enthusiast.

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First published in The Age on August 21, 2008.

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Dennis Altman is professor of politics at La Trobe University.

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