The following Second Thoughts column ran in the Camrose Booster on January 21, 2014
Myths of the Olympic Games
Dr. Stacy L. Lorenz
Associate Professor, Physical Education
Augustana Campus, University of Alberta
Much of what we think we know about sport is not quite what it seems – and, frequently, such myths and misleading stories are used by those in positions of power to uphold their preferred vision of how sports should be. As a result, myths play an important role in the modern world of sport.
Myths are often used to maintain the status quo, or to support particular projects or ideas. One of the places where the use of myth is most prominent is the Modern Olympic Games. Olympic officials, Olympic boosters, and, in particular, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have utilized mythic stories, distorted versions of reality, and, in some cases, deliberate falsehoods to promote their agendas for the Olympic Games. As we look ahead to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next month, this is a good time to consider how some of these Olympic myths have shaped our understanding of the games.
For example, one of the most powerful myths related to the Modern Olympics is that the amateur ideals that have guided the Olympic movement since the late 19th century are based on amateur principles that originated at the Ancient Olympic Games in Greece. According to this view of ancient Greek sport, the original participants in the Olympics were “pure” amateur athletes, competing out of a simple love of sport and for no material gain.
However, the reality of the ancient Greek games is that many Olympic athletes were very similar to today’s professional athletes. Although there were no direct money prizes for winning at Olympia – champions simply received an olive wreath – Olympic victors were usually richly rewarded by their home cities following the games. Successful Olympians received cash gifts, generous pensions, civic appointments, and, in at least one case, a senate seat. According to historian David Young, such awards could be worth a modern-day equivalent of up to $1 million. And top athletes earned significant prizes at other sporting competitions in ancient Greece, as well.
Ancient Olympians even acted like today’s “free agents” and competed for different city-states when they were offered more money. For example, the sprinter Astylos won Olympic titles for Croton in 488 BC and 484 BC, and then another Olympic crown for Syracuse in 480 BC. Croton was experiencing economic difficulties at the time, and Syracuse likely promised him more lucrative incentives for victory.
The ancient Greeks didn’t even have a word for “amateur.” Instead, ancient amateurism is a myth, created by 19th-century sportsmen who sought an earlier precedent for the type of elitist sporting system they themselves favoured in the contemporary world.
Therefore, in contrast to what the IOC claimed for almost a century, professional athletes could actually be considered more legitimate Olympians than amateurs. And even though professionals have been allowed to compete in the modern games since 1992, a sense of amateur purity is still attached to the Olympics. In comparison, our “regular” professional sports somehow seem more tainted by money and greed than the Olympic Games.
Another influential myth put forward by the IOC is the idea that the Olympic Games are not political. This long-standing notion of neutral Olympics free from politics serves as a way of stifling dissent and protest, such as potential criticism of Russia’s draconian anti-gay legislation by athletes or coaches during the Sochi Olympics.
But political issues don’t “intrude” on the Olympic Games – in fact, politics are what the games have always been about. Since the Olympic Games were re-established in 1896, the political elements of the competition have been central to the meaning and purpose of the Olympics.
After all, the main goal of the Olympic revival in the late 19th century was to foster international peace by uniting the youth of the world in “friendly” athletic competition. This is an explicitly political goal. And, for decades, cities and countries have used the opportunity to host the Olympic Games as an instrument of image-building, self-promotion, and propaganda. In other words, the Olympics are inherently political.
Like the myth of ancient amateurism, the myth of politics “intruding” on the Olympic Games serves the interests of the IOC and allows those in power to pursue their own (often political) goals. In the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics, this is just one of several self-serving Olympic myths that demand closer attention.