[There’s a lot happening in and around the world of sports these days. So for my annual Super Bowl series, I wanted to AmericanStudy a handful of such issues. Leading up to a special weekend post on the genuinely revolutionary possibilities of sports!]
On the limits of traditions, and how one can potentially evolve in the present.
As with any longstanding histories and traditions, there are various moments across nearly a century that could be highlighted as the origin point for the modern Olympics, from Swedish games held in 1834, 1836, and 1843 to Liverpool ones held between 1862 and 1867 and the Zappas Olympic Games held four times in Greece between 1859 and 1889. Not long after the last of those Zappas Games, an International Olympic Committee (IOC) was created, and that committee hosted an Olympic Congress at the University of Paris in June 1894, at which it was decided that the IOC’s first Olympic Games would be held at the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens in the summer of 1896. While all of these historic events certainly formed part of the origins of (or at least influences on) the Olympics as we know them, those 1896 Athens games are usually cited as the starting point for the modern Olympics that have continued more or less unabated for the subsequent 124 years.
I say “more or less unabated” because of course there have been times when the Olympics have been postponed or cancelled—three of them, in fact, all during the two World Wars. Last year’s COVID-caused postponement of the Tokyo Summer Olympics comprised the fourth such moment, and there is thus precedent for the Olympics carrying on despite such challenges. But precedent isn’t always sufficient to make something happen in the present, and it seems to me that are compelling arguments not just for not holding this particular Olympics (such as the decidedly mixed feelings of the Japanese people), but also for reconsidering the entire concept of the Olympics as we move forward (such as the deep and all too ongoing levels of corruption in the IOC). Just because the Olympics have been a part of our global sports world for 125 years, that is (and, yes, have roots in the ancient world), is not in and of itself a sufficient rationale for continuing to hold them in the present. That isn’t to say that there aren’t other possible such rationales, but they would need to be advanced on their own terms, without recourse to “tradition” as enough of an argument.
Indeed, I would go one step further still: if we’re going to continue holding Olympic Games, it seems clear to me that it will be vital to do away with various elements that have come to feel like “the way things are done.” One prominent example would be to hold every games in the same city/country (perhaps Athens and Greece), so that both the whole process of bidding (which has become inextricably tied to corruption) and the well-documented destructive aftermaths of the games would be done away with. But to follow up on yesterday’s post on athletic activisms, I would also argue that the Olympics, far from requiring athletes to refrain from political statements (as has been and remains the policy), will need to explicitly connect to political and social debates if they are to become more meaningful and relevant to our world. To cite just one particularly clear example: I don’t see how any global event in 2021 (and beyond) can fail to engage, forthrightly and centrally, with climate change, not just in making sure the games themselves do not contribute further to global climate change, but also in taking advantage of such occasions as an opportunity for collective activism. If the Olympics are to continue, they must leave tradition behind and evolve to meet the challenges of our 21st century world.
Next SportsStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Aspects of sports in 2021 you’d emphasize?