My latest object of extreme annoyance is the IOC's Olympic advertising campaign, featuring celebrities who read out the corniest "Olympic Spirit" platitudes that PR hacks can come up with. The worthies chosen for the task include St. Christopher Reeve, St. Nelson Mandela, the merely beatified Kofi Annan, the pompous blind pseudo-tenor and Krossover-Krap-artist Andrea Bocelli, and the offensively cute Avril Lavigne, who is apparently some kind of rock star. (I don't see what's so rock'n'roll about endorsing an establishment event like the Olympic Games. Thirty years ago, any self-respecting rocker would have said "fuck the Olympics".) I've nothing in particular against Ms. Lavigne, but I want to concentrate on her PR piece because it summarises all the bullshit about the Olympics so neatly. I'll deal with each line in turn.
A bizarre way to begin describing an event in which every athlete has to be affiliated with some nation state or other. I can't enter the Olympics representing just myself, or planet Earth, or the nation of no nation. In the 100m qualifiers, I can't run as an independent. The Games are all about competition between existing nation states. If anything, in the Olympics it only matters where you come from. Commentators frequently ignore the names of individual competitors and go straight for synecdoche: "Bulgaria finish last!" "And it's gold for America!" The centrepiece of every Games is the medals table, where the success of one nation can be measured directly against another. Nationality is an inseparable part of everything that's going on.
This reaches a low point in every medals ceremony, where the freshly tracksuited winning athletes have to stand in formation, look at their flags and sing patriotic songs. If you're like me, you'll watch this spectacle and think "What in the hell is going on here?" After all, what has sporting victory got to do with whatever arbitrary patch of land you were arbitrarily born in? That one of my compatriots can run quickly doesn't mean I can; nor does it mean that I should give a damn that he can. And anyway, whose natural reaction upon winning a race is to burst into the first stanza of "The Star-Spangled Banner"? It's utterly phony.
For a long time, this identification of sport with nationalism used to bother me -- until one day I woke up and realised that sport is nationalism. The development of modern sport is too bound up with the rise of the nation state for them to be easily separated. Sports, like a shared language, religion and silly hats, became one of the key cultural common denominators that helped nations congeal; and as sports spread from one nation to another, the quality of a nation's own sporting achievement became something to defend. In an age of nations, it was inevitable that international sporting contests would be organised; and in such contests, sports became matters of national pride, national prestige, an opportunity to show allegiance to one's country. Nationalism is still the main attraction at the Olympics; the Games would be of almost no interest otherwise. For four years, for 365 days a year, no one gives a rat's cock about the hop, skip and jump, but on the one day it offers the potential for patriotic euphoria, it suddenly becomes all-important. It's all about the promise that your own side will triumph, and that your enemies will be humiliated. The Games don't bring nations together: they're a substitute for war -- a substitute, incidentally, that has done nothing to prevent war.
Bound up with the "bringing nations together" myth is the lie that the 1936 Olympics in Berlin were somehow a setback for the Nazi regime. To read some of the crap that is written about this, you'd think Jesse Owens toppled Hitler, and WW2 never happened. In truth, the Nazis revelled in the Olympics. It was exactly the kind of spectacle they wanted. The Games were a perfect showcase for Nazi ideals: the struggle of nation against nation, the cult of the body, the superior man. Far from a setback, the Nazis saw Berlin 1936 as a massive propaganda success; indeed, the crass nationalistic displays and tasteless monumentalism on show set the standard for the modern Olympic Games. (The Olympic torch, about which there is so much guff and sentimentality today, was in fact an invention of Leni Riefenstahl.) Every major sporting event ever since has been trying to out-Berlin Berlin: there's a direct line from Hitler's Olympics to Janet Jackson's tit at the Superbowl.
It's an unimportant point, but there's no evidence that the more elitist sports suddenly transcend traditional family privileges at the Olympics -- you don't get many people from the slums and shanty-towns doing sailing or three-day-eventing. And I wouldn't be surprised if nepotism is as common at the Olympics as it is everywhere else. Certainly there are a lot of Olympians with Olympian mums and dads.
It's also debatable whether any of the 13-year-olds in gymnastics and other events would be there unless pushed by their maniacal parents. You often hear of the "sacrifices" these people make for their athletic children -- like putting them on growth-stunting diets and turning their formative years into one long gym session -- but you rarely hear questions about whether this stuff is good or valuable. As Rabo Karabekian said of the state swimming champion, "What kind of man would want to turn his daughter into an outboard motor?"
-- as long as it's Nike, Adidas, Puma, etc. To claim that it doesn't matter what you wear in an event so heavily funded and promoted by sportswear manufacturers is a joke. And it's not just sportswear companies either; the Olympics are one big corporate gala, the trade show to end all trade shows. In fact, as the years go on, athletes are starting to identify themselves with brands almost as much as nations. Did Michael Johnson run for the USA, or for Nike? And am I imagining this, or was there a minor hype in the UK about the brand of Linford Christie's contact lenses?
You see, this is exactly what's wrong with the Olympics. The slogan of these Games is "Celebrate Humanity", but what aspect of humanity are they celebrating? It looks like they're limiting the festivities to human physical ability -- which, to be honest, isn't much to celebrate. Compared with a lot of the animal kingdom, humans are physically rather pathetic. No matter how much weight you can lift, a gorilla can toss five times as much in the air without breaking a sweat. No matter how fast you can sprint, you will still be outpaced by a big fat bear, let alone a cheetah -- and both will beat you in a fight. Over longer distances, you will easily be outrun by a horse, which will also jump higher and longer than you ever can. And let's not even talk about swimming.
In short, the best you can say about the human physique is that it has been mostly adequate to the jobs devised for it by our brains -- though even when it hasn't, we've usually been able to think of alternatives. It's our brains that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom; our brains which have enabled to to create language, art, technology, civilization, and yes, mathematics -- the achievements of humanity that are really worth celebrating. And now we live in an age when brains are all-important -- the information age, where they are being called upon to process more stuff than ever before. Now, more than ever, it matters how you interpret the voluminous gobs of information spat at you. Now, more than ever, it doesn't matter how fast you can run in a circle. The fetishism of the physique on show at the Olympics smacks of backwardness and anti-intellectualism. I suspect all the outlets who glorify it of cynical motives.
And then a little bit more, just to be safe. It's widely accepted in private conversation -- though not so much in public -- that drug abuse is endemic in sport, and particularly at the Olympics. Even drug testers admit that detection is always a few years behind drug development. The few catches that they do make are most probably due to carelessness on the part of athletes and trainers -- or desperation. In spite of self-righteous media indignation about "drug cheats", athletes can't really be blamed for wanting to tip the balance unfairly in their favour. There is vast pressure on athletes to succeed -- national pressure and more importantly economic pressure. Corporate sponsors want winners, or at least medals. The difference between third and fourth could be the difference between a lifetime as a media darling and a lifetime in a supermarket.
The problem with drug abuse is not its effect on the medals table -- which doesn't matter in the least -- but its effect on the athletes. Performance-enhancing drugs are being rushed out of labs without any proper clinical trials, with no knowledge of what the long-term side effects could be. The quest for Olympic glory is no doubt speeding many athletes to an early death.
And to me, that's why the Olympic Games suck.