One of my favorite childhood stories was the tale of Phidippides, the man who in 500 BC ran from Marathon to Athens, delivered the good news of a victory over Persia, and dropped dead from exhaustion. As the story goes, that’s how the modern marathons got their name, and they’ve been Olympic sports for more than a century. For me, Phidippides symbolized the unbelievable athleticism of meeting the challenge, purity of the spirit in pursuing a goal, the extreme dedication against all odds. I loved the story even after I learned that the source of the modern Olympic games was not ancient Greece but Victorian England and that the length of an “official” marathon was first set in London in 1908 by the distance between Windsor Castle and the Royal Box in the Olympic Stadium: 26 miles, 385 yards.
As Louis Menand reminds us in The New Yorker, the modern Olympics are a model of “secular rituals,” “invented traditions” that in their successful commercialization give us an illusion of permanance and continuity in an uncertain world.
The child in me still loves the myth despite the manipulation and hypocrisy of the Olympics, the apolitical patina that cloaks a variety of inside political games, the rampant commericalism that gives lip service to the amateur spirit.
When Aly Raisman’s USA team won, Channel Five’s Ed Harding reflected on what she, especially if she won an individual gold medal, would earn in product endorsements. The Wall St. Journal says that Gabby Douglas, the first African-American gymnast to win a gold, can be expected to earn $5million to $10 million over the next few years as she morphs from Olympic hopeful to commercial pitch woman. The Journal says she signed a contract with Procter and Gamble two weeks ago. After years of participating, Michael Phelps earns about $7 million a year from endorsements!
In contrast, when 17-year-old Missy Franklin, who won a gold in swimming, said she’d not do any product endorsements in order to retain her amateur status and swim in college, some folks thought she was nuts. Where else can you catapult into such a high earning capacity? Isn’t raking it in a just reward for all those years of training? I admire her values, clarity of focus and outlier status.
It’s in this spirit that I bemoan the “unsportsmanlike behavior” of the women’s badminton teams who threw the second rounds of their matches to get better positions in subsequent rounds. China, South Korea and Indonesia got nailed and thrown out of the games for unsportsmanlike behavior. Not so in soccer, where apparently the Japanese women’s soccer dogged it against a much weaker South African team so they wouldn’t have to travel to Glasgow to play a team they’d rather not.
Players gaming the games defend it as taking advantage of the rules in order to go for the gold later in the process. And, if the overriding goal is to go for the gold (medal, then coin), aren’t they just using the rules to their advantage? If we want the pure, shouldn’t those who contrived the rules be held accountable? Shouldn’t every contest be a knockout round?
There’s charade in many of our sports. In baseball, note the pitcher who hits the batter to get even and pretends a personal vendetta was simply a pitch he lost control of. There’s something about such fakery that doesn’t sit well.
The child in me still wants to believe the mythology of the games. Most spectators want to see these superb athletes going all out every time. Count me among them.