Culture @ the Olympics
issues, trends and perspectives


Where the ancient and modern collide1
Beatriz García

This paper will focus on those points that have had a greater influence in my current perception of Olympism as a social movement, the philosophy of the ancient Games and the relation between the ancient and modern Olympic Games. The philosophy of the Ancient Games
One can distinguish the concept of the Modern Olympic Games from the ancient tradition of sporting competitions by acknowledging the Ancient Olympics as only one of four PanHellenic Games, which included the Olympic, but also the Isthmian, Nemean and Pythian Games, among others. Fundamental elements of those first contests were their strong association with religious rituals, as each of them was dedicated to a God. Their Panhellenic nature, which would be transformed into a more “universal” one in Roman times as it would allow the

participation of citizens of all countries under Roman rule and not only Greek citizens, was competitive, but peaceful. Although these are strong themes, discussions have arisen regarding the central function of the Games. While traditional sources argue that the contests served for training youth for war, archaeologist Steven Miller has insisted on the opposite: the Games would offer the opportunity to relax from it and there is a range of examples that corroborate this account. For example, the establishment of the Olympic Truce to interrupt any violent confrontation among Greek polis –city states - to be allowed participation in the Games, the relevance of musical contests at a similar level to the sporting ones, and the focus on individual competitions rather than team events (which would suit better the purposes of military training) provide some indication of the reconciliatory explanation of the Ancient Olympic Games. With this in mind, the fundamental philosophy of the

Culture @ the Olympics, 2000: vol. 2, issue 5, pp. 21-30


Ancient Games must be interpreted as a celebration of youth and a gathering and exchange of cultural experiences where the practice of sports was not the only focus. A key example of this argument is found in Olympia, as historical sources indicate that the current archeological site was well renamed as a communication centre in ancient Ellas, and the Games would serve not only the purpose of showcasing sporting competitions, but would also allow well known politicians, philosophers, poets and artists the opportunity to present their works or discuss their ideas with others. Another good example of the argument is found in Delphi, site of the Pythian Games, where the musical and poetry competitions in honour of the god Apollo would play a greater role than the sporting ones. The other Games around Greece included competitions in dance, painting, ceramics and sculpture at the same time as athletic contests. As a whole, the ancient Games seem to have been addressed fundamentally to the development of excellence in a wide range of activities, where competition would play a very strong role, but where the emphasis would also be on aestheticism and harmony to celebrate the beauty of the body and the beauty of human

achievements in the arts. Issues that need to be looked at carefully though, are the exclusive nature of the Games, as they would only allow the participation of those included in the restricted definition of “citizen” and this would exclude women, working classes and ”foreigners”. It is also necessary to query the status of the participant athletes, as it is still not clear whether they participated exclusively “for the sake of competing” (an ideal that provoked a strong emphasis on amateurism in the Olympics by the beginning of the century) or if they did so for the sometimes notorious prizes or wages gained in the event of victory.

Greek high-jumper Labras Papa Kostas receives the torch in the Ancient stadium of Olympia, as the first runner for Sydney 2000 torch relay.

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Relationship between Ancient and Modern Olympic Games
According to ancient sources, Greek athletics seemed to be the perfect example of a “wellrounded’ education system, where the practice of sport would be combined with the practice of music and poetry to both develop body and mind. The aspirations of French Baron Pierre de Coubertin demonstrate an interest to recover such ideals. Initially, he was motivated by his desire to improve the formation of French youth and his experience of the advanced English sport education system, provided a basis for how to make manifest these aspirations. Coupled with the Greek games tradition, this was an ideal mechanism to shape his educational and philosophical project. The aim to provide a “wellrounded” education in the pursuit of building character and developing human excellence was at the very heart of the Olympic ideal established by de Coubertin at the turn of the 19th century, which is described by the three strings of the Olympic Movement: sport, culture and education. Alternatively, the relevance of religious practices within the Games celebrations, and the mythical origins they are all associated with has led to an

impressive display of symbols and rituals in modern times that in John MacAloon claims that these symbols are still central to understanding the enormous appeal of the Olympics. Coubertin would use those rituals with the aim of creating a strong Olympic imagery and to build up a long term philosophy of life potentially applicable to all nations. However, there are some problematic limitations with this “symbolism”, which I will discuss later.

the emphasis on national instead of individual achievements has transformed an apolitical encounter into a stage for political struggle
Both the educational and symbolic approach seem to prove a continuity between ancient and modern Games at the ideological level. However, the practice of the Games has introduced some remarkable discontinuities with ancient times. First, the unbalanced emphasis on sport activities instead of educational and cultural ones has transformed an originally humanistic movement with “universal” aspirations, into a highly professional, worldwide sports administration system. Second, the emphasis on national

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instead of individual achievements has transformed an apolitical encounter into a stage for political struggle that has provided many opportunities for ideological displays, especially during the cold war period. Other noticeable discontinuities between modern and ancient Games include the tradition to host the modern Games in a different city each time, where it was previously rooted in Greek mainland during ancient times.

customs to create poems, songs and paintings depicting the athletes’ performances and the well known tradition to set up a sculpture of the victors in their home town or close to the Games’ site. This obsession with image provides some evidence of the denial of the body and its objectification in modern times, as the media depictions transform the human athletic being into a muscular machine whose only function is to perform and become the “brand identity” of some sponsor. However, the growing journalistic and promotional emphasis on finding out the athletes’ personal stories, no matter how reductionist, may be a return to an ancient tradition the production of heroes and the creation of outstanding rolemodels that could be followed. Both arguments open a new direction in the study of what has not changed in the relationship between athletes and spectators from antiquity to modern times.

Fly poster from Sydney 2000 streets during the Olympics

In the last instance, it is important to mention a possible area that could be further explored and may offer evidences of an alternative link between the practice of the ancient and modern Games. I am referring to the role of aesthetics within the Games’ performances, eg. the cult of the body and the praise to the hero. The spectacular showcase of the athletes’ peak achievements through the media and the ‘emotional’ coverage of the medal ceremonies has surely a lot in common with the ancient

Perceptions of Olympism
There has been widespread confusion between Olympism and the Olympics or, alternatively, the Olympic Movement and the Olympic Games. The general public will almost exclusively refer to the Olympics or the Olympic Games and will identify both concepts with the great elite sports

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competition held every four years in a different parts of the world. Interestingly, among those with an Olympic interest whether from an sporting, institutional, journalistic or scholar point of view, the term Olympism and Olympic Movement will be heard as frequently as the term Olympic Games, but the difference between both dimensions will not always be made. This lack of distinction has led to a number of difficulties. One problem lies in the perception that the Olympic Movement and the Olympic Games are interchangeable notions, depicting the same reality and affected by the same concerns. This common misunderstanding has diminished the power of the “philosophy” and “ideals” found in the Olympic Charter and has increased the impact of the explicit practices manifested during the Games staging process. The result seems to be the widespread belief that the only purpose of the Olympics is the display of elite sports competitions, where the ambition to win medals is the most relevant goal. Taking into account that the Games are the most visible aspect of Olympism – if not the only one for an important majority of the public worldwide – it is relevant to consider the popular images with which they are associated and the resulting values they are

effectively promoting. Arguably, the most celebrated images are the outstanding performances by top athletes, which cultivate feelings of nationalism and a passion for “reaching the top” or breaking the barriers of physical activity. In this regard, one might question whether the Olympic Games are suitable to properly exhibit the Olympic ideals of fair play and mutual respect and the extent to which these ideals are truly exemplified by current elite athletes. More specifically, one might ask whether sport alone can really transmit the Olympic philosophy.

only the integration of sport within an educational program and the use of other cultural manifestation can achieve the cultivation of Olympic ideals
In response, only the integration of sport within an educational program and the use of other cultural manifestation can achieve the cultivation of Olympic ideals, but the lack of visibility of such programs during the Games staging period (eg. the Cultural Olympiad or Olympic Arts Festivals, Olympic Education activities and so on) limits this achievement. It is necessary to explore the possibilities to better integrate the

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Olympic cultural activities within the established Olympic Games communication strategies. As suggested by John MacAloon and Bruce Kidd and reinforced by my own research, a successful combination of cultural, educational and sporting activities adequately promoted during the Games period would assist in the task to convert the Games in a more accurate expression of the Olympic philosophy. A second problem is the growing gap between Olympism as a movement and the IOC as the institution in charge to implement its principles. John MacAloon has raised the question of whether it is possible for the Olympics to be a social and cultural movement at the same time as being a highly developed industry. Looking at the current structure of the IOC, it is difficult to deny that it has evolved into a remarkably effective organisation very much dependent on corporate models where the existing finance, legal and marketing departments have been given far more decisionmaking and executive power than the areas and commissions dedicated to culture and education. The remarkable emphasis given to sport as the key component of all Olympic related activities, and its progressive transformation from a means towards the ideal of peace, mutual understanding

and so on for which the IOC was initially created, to an end in itself to which everything else needs to be adapted, seems to be a key reason for the gap and its consequent contradictions.

one must question the current domination of sports industry schemes in prejudice of the possible inclusion or application of humanitarian institutional schemes
To question the ability of the IOC to put into practice the Olympic ideals in a moment when the Olympics enjoy unmatched worldwide recognition and financial success might seem paradoxical. Alternatively, it may look like another unilateral attack against the dangers of commercialism and its damaging effects on any social cause. This is not the intention of this paper. The position is not to deny the value of the IOC transformation under Samaranch’s mandate, nor to diminish the value of introducing modern corporate strategies into a traditionally highly aristocratic and secretive management system group or club. Rather, this paper questions the current domination of sports industry schemes in prejudice of the possible inclusion or application

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of humanitarian institutional schemes. The fact that an increasing majority of IOC members and staff have a background in corporate management, law and finance while there is hardly any diplomat, politician or cultural anthropologist in the influential decision making positions inevitably leads to John MacAloon’s rhetorical question “Is there in any real sense an Olympic Movement in present days?”. In order to recover this sense of a Movement within the Olympic environment, it is necessary that the IOC, as the leading institution demonstrates that it believes in the Olympic ideals and commits to them in ways that are effective and real, beyond the use of slogans for marketing or communication strategies. This leads us to discuss the extent to which the ideals and resulting philosophy preached by de Coubertin at the end of the 19th century are still applicable by the beginning of the 21st century. There is something very persuasive at the heart of the Movement that could be considered universally appealing, such as the values of respect, honesty and fairness. However, the way of approaching those ideals should be questioned and updated so that the remnants of any Victorian paternalistic,

Eurocentric and aristocratic perspective are eliminated. Aspects of de Coubertin’s ideals that maintain currency are the attempt to use sport together with education as a means and not an end for the Movement’s original pursuits of peace, fair play, international understanding and so on. In order to secure that they are truly relevant to all Movement members and beneficiaries, the only requirement would be to check the extent to which those ideals are equally interpreted and valued around the world so that no cultural biases are introduced and there is a guarantee of a shared interpretation.

Some remarks on Olympism
The points mentioned above reveal the many, strong tensions dividing the theory and practice of Olympism. One of the most interesting components fo this debate is the “permanent” or “intrinsic” contradictions within the Movement philosophy: For example, there is a strong emphasis on the use of symbols to provide a remarkable sense of identity to the Games, but there is also an attempt to promote universal values and worldwide ownership of the Games. The existing Olympic symbols have been defined by John MacAloon as “open signifiers” in the sense

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that they allow a wide range of interpretations and do not need official explanations to have an impact on the general public. However, the current Olympic symbols reflect a strong bias towards the classical Greco-Latin values, myths and rituals and a sincere commitment towards universalism should allow the introduction of iconography. Additionally, there is the theoretical aspiration to avoid politics within the Movement, which contrasts with the reliance on nationalism, which is the core business of Olympic competition. There are other many reasons explaining the vulnerability of the Games to propagandistic uses and abuses, but the issue of nationalism is one to be explored closely as it is leading to unfair comparisons between countries and giving rise to “values” that are oppositional to those for which the Movement stands for.

Although the motivation for selfdevelopment may be seen as positive, ie. at the initial stages of formation and training, the emphasis on indefinite progress has led to radical dysfunctions within the Movement: the trend towards over training, hypertechnology of sport and drug abuse among athletes and coaches, and the obsession with record breakings, hyperexcitement and spectacle among spectators. One might question the acceptability of the motto in a time when Olympism continues to preach for a humane sport, while sport itself is being transformed into a laboratory for medical and technological experimentation. An alternative might be a motto emphasizing personal bests and selfrealization, as it would avoid the trend towards “winning at all costs”. Before concluding, it is relevant to mention the IOC 2000 Reforms. John MacAloon indicated the importance of the Olympic crisis in 1998-99 and consequent reform debates for the “healthy” survival of Olympism. In his words, the reform process has assisted the IOC to be more aware of itself, in particular, to question its public image and study its inherent structures and power relations. One could argue that the effect of this process has been a real effort to make the IOC more governable and consistent with current times.
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the reform process has assisted the IOC to be more aware of itself, in particular, to question its public image and study its inherent structures and power relations
Thirdly, there are the ambiguous connotations of the Olympic motto ‘Citius, altius fortius’.



However it also possible to argue that there has not been an institutionalization of the process of reform and that there is no guarantee for ongoing revisions of IOC policies so that possible biases are regularly reviewed. The emphasis seems to have been on healing existing problems rather than on preventing possible new ones, and on reconsidering institutional power relations rather than on reconsidering the applicability of the Movement ideals. Evidence of these last points is provided by the fact that the areas receiving major attention by both most IOC members and the media have been the ones related to the group organization, composition and structure and the ones related to the Games bidding process (which affect the members’ power relations) in contrast to the areas related to the role of the IOC (which could enhance and fortify the philosophy of the Movement). In consequence, the IOC seems to have gained in transparency, accountability and the IOC may become an increasingly representative and effective organization in terms of management (the creation of an Athletes Commission looks to be a great advance in the direction of representation). However traditionally disregarded areas associated with the principles of Olympism do not seem to have received much attention.

An innovation worth mentioning is the fact that these educative and cultural aspects of the Movement have been merged into what is called the Commission on Education and Culture and this might provide better opportunities to influence IOC decision making in the future. Yet, as the IOC Reforms have been focused on organizational and bidding issues, it is not very clear whether the new Commission will be able to address or encourage other more influential departments to address the Movement fundamental philosophical contradictions.

The Recent IOC 2000 Reforms, although very relevant to the survival and modernization of the IOC, have still not made consistent steps in the direction to establish a stronger cultural and educational policy that guarantees the survival and “modernization” of the Movement. Great opportunities for the successful application of these policies lay in two of the most problematized components of the IOC practices at present times: the involvement of the mass media and the controlled use of the highly developed IOC marketing and communication strategies. My research on the potential impact and relevance of

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the Cultural Olympiad explores the beneficial effects of better integrating the Olympic Cultural program within the IOC promotional practices. A similar approach could be given to the Olympic Education program. The question is open to debate.

This paper was originally written as a critical review of the 8th International Post-Graduate Seminar on Olympic Studies at the IOA (4th May-14th June 2000). References to authors relate to lectures given by these scholars during the seminar.

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