Scott Farrell comments:
In just a few days, the 2008 Olympics will begin in Bejing, China. These Games have, and will continue to allow the world to focus on both the possibilities and challenges faced by today’s global society. Among all the debate, celebration and protest over the 2008 Games, it is interesting to note that these things are not unique to this session of the Olympics. In fact, more than 70 years ago, an editorial in the British newspaper, The Guardian, made some statements that bear an eerie similarity to some being made today. It is interesting to look back and recall the concerns voiced just prior to the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin.
Similarly, this historical article gives us a chance to contemplate the association between chivalry and the Olympics. As the author points out, the Games were originally conceived in the highest spirit of chivalry — as a means of transcending bigotry, nationalism and corruption in pursuit of a more noble goal: friendship. Human nature being what it is, of course, striving to reach that goal continues to be problematic, but no matter how many times we stumble, we persevere nonetheless. In a race with no finish line, the only way to fail is to quit trying.
“What is the point of this article?” you may ask. It is a crucial demonstration, I think, that any worthy, noble goal — from the values of chivalry to the Olympic dream — can be coopted and subverted by those with a political cause to advance. That was true in the Middle Ages, and it remains true in the modern world. But if our response to that corruption of noble ideals is to hide them away … to cancel the Olympic games or to proclaim the obsolescence of chivalry … then our ideals may as well be dead. We have to “put ourselves out there” rather than locking chivalry away in a glass case like a relic from the ancient past. We have to continue to strive and compete — and risk failure — if we are to establish free trade in ideals that can inspire others. The challenge is simply to never allow idealistic goals to blind us to suffering and oppression. To never turn our backs on those in need, simply for the sake of “putting on a good show.”
Forty years ago this year the first modern Olympic Games were held, revived by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, with a triple purpose. He wished to spread throughout the world the social benefits of sport as observed in Great Britain and the United States. He wanted to foster through sport the instincts of nobility and chivalry. And he believed that by the friendly mingling of athletes from many countries the peace of the world would be reinforced. He said:
“Let us export our oarsmen, our runners, our fencers into other lands. That is the true Free Trade of the future; and the day it is introduced into Europe the cause of peace will have received a new and strong ally.”
Coubertin’s first hope has been fulfilled. The Olympic Games have had a great effect in promoting the physical health of a world which is being progressively industrialised. The other hopes have not been fulfilled. They have not kept bright the flame of chivalry. Sport has run away with us and has become a wild, nationalistic race. Coubertin’s Free Trade in athletes has become an athletic war. And Coubertin’s hope that the athletes of the world, by meeting at Olympic Games, might form an international body of friends is still far from fulfilment.
To-day the Olympic Games begin a new phase. This year at Berlin for the first time we are to see them confessedly exploited as an advertisement for a political party. The conduct of the Games and their setting are to be a demonstration of the excellence of Nazism. Houses in Germany have been whitewashed, and there has been other whitewashing as well. German Jews have been given no chance to fit themselves to represent Germany, but a few selected Jews have been included in German teams for the sake of window-dressing.
All over Europe it is being said that whatever dangerous designs Germany may be harbouring will be postponed until the Olympic Games are over. There will be no trouble at the Games; even if events are won by negroes, as is not improbable, the Nazis know on which side their bread is buttered. But the ordinary man is cynical; he believes that Germany is using the Games for her own ends.
The German railway office in London has for some time been displaying in its window the words Pax Olympica. Inhabitants of Berlin, it is said, are speaking of “the Olympic pause.” Which is it to be? If it is only a pause, then the Olympic Games may remain in public estimation the greatest of the world’s athletic festivals, but faith in them as an instrument for world peace and understanding will have been destroyed.
© 2008 The Guardian
REPRINTED FROM THE AUGUST 1, 1936 EDITION OF THE GUARDIAN