Polishing tarnished ideals

IN 1976 MY Aunty Pam, who had returned from her job as a nurse on the volcanic island of Karkar just off Madang in Papua New Guinea and was by then matron of the health centre in the Aboriginal settlement of Cherbourg in southern Queensland, bought my three brothers and me a Montreal Olympic Games T-shirt each. We wouldn’t take them off. The Olympic Games were a few weeks away. We remembered, from 1972, Shane Gould and Mark Spitz; Kip Keino and Lasse Viren.

We believed in the Olympic Games. We were athletes too. We’d competed in Little Athletics, striving to beat our best times and distances and heights whenever we donned the colours of the Red Devils club, and in school athletics where we did our very best for Oakey Primary and Oakey High. Perhaps one day we’d be off to the Olympics ourselves.

I had a child’s eye, of course – the focus of which was sharpened by the idealism I now realise characterised our family home. My father, a clergyman, loved sport. He believed it was a force for good. He believed in playing fairly, for the love of the game, and to the glory of God. No matter what sport we were playing, or at what level, he believed we had an obligation to give our very best, to develop the (limited) talent that the good Lord had bestowed on us – even when he realised that our efforts were not about to get us within cooee of the national championships or the Olympic Games. We were a family of enthusiasts.

It was an interesting time. Like anything people find worthwhile, sport was targeted by those who could see a dollar in it. Sport was becoming increasingly commercialised, increasingly professional. Sport existed in a state of flux in the 1970s: in part harking back to the amateurism of the previous years, in part trumpeting its arrival as the most exploitable of commodities – a commodity which was going to make media moguls, sponsors and sporting organisations extremely wealthy and powerful.

Around our table Kerry Packer and his privately owned cricket circus was interfering with the natural order of things, and the Olympic Games was part of that natural order. The Olympic Games and the so-called ‘Olympic Movement’ enjoyed an elevated status not unlike the United Nations. Or the Commonwealth of Australia. It was an institution, seemingly ordained by a higher authority.

When I left home for university, although I had an interest in ideas and an inquiring sensibility, I had a naive and superficial understanding of the Olympic Games, and of sport generally. I had a cursory knowledge of the ancient Olympic Games. I could probably name the year and venue of all the modern Olympic Games, and I knew the story of many heroic athletic performances, especially by legendary Australians. I also had an idea of the place the Melbourne Olympics of 1956 had in the popular memory.

When first at Union College at the University of Queensland, my idealistic and romanticised view of the modern Olympic Games was affirmed every Sunday night for many weeks when I watched the next instalment of Bud Greenspan’s superb series The Olympiad on television – epic stories about the finest athletes from around the globe. The narration was epic. The musical score was epic. The national anthems – especially ‘Oh say can you see’ – were epic. I was intoxicated by the emotion of it. The Olympic Games were great, even if they were being politicised during 1980, my first year at uni, when some countries boycotted the Moscow games. Chariots of Fire was released the following year. The story of three English athletes at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games, it was another epic piece. There were sweeping shots of fit young men training, the grand music of Vangelis, and the movie’s hero, the Reverend Eric Liddell, the most principled of athletes who ran for the love of running, to represent his country, and to the glory of God. Eric Liddell was one of ours.

Brisbane hosted the Commonwealth Games the following year, and although separate to the Olympics, they affirmed the ideals – internationalism, the pursuit of excellence, the concept of a major festival – the Olympic Games also projected.

Given Australia’s enthusiasm for both the Commonwealth and Olympic Games, the idea of Australian cities bidding for the forthcoming Olympics was a consistent backbeat in the sporting life of the nation. Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney all had enthusiasts pushing the cause.

But, by then, even I knew that the Olympic Movement was not as pure as I had grown up believing. I was yet to formally study sports history and sociology, but increasingly the murkier side of the Olympics was being revealed. The IOC remained relatively unknown, and few people took much interest in how the Olympic Movement was constituted or administered, or of the overall structure of the Olympic Movement. If anything, there was misunderstanding that the Olympic Movement was part of government, or at least was a quasi-government organisation.

But we all enjoyed the sporting festival every four years. We cheered for our own, and celebrated the memorable performances across all sports, but especially in swimming (where Australia tended to do well), athletics (where we didn’t) and those sports – hockey, cycling, rowing, sailing – that had a prominent place in Australian life. The Olympics encouraged many young Australians to strive in their chosen sport in the hope that one day they’d represent their country. By then, the most talented were eligible to receive support and many did so from government, via the Australian Institute of Sport.

However, all was not rosy. Numerous controversies served to challenge the authority and integrity of the Olympic Games. The use of performance-enhancing drugs undermined the credo of fair play; some athletes and teams possessed a win-at-all-costs mentality. The temptation was considerable. To be an Olympic champion was to win global fame and enormous rewards, both personal and financial. Success at the Olympic Games was also a propaganda tool for nations, governments and ideologies, and some regimes were accused of illegally supporting athletes systematically.

The games were increasingly politicised. There was concern over corruption at IOC level. Commercial relationships were becoming more and more intriguing. The media rights had become so valuable that the power of Juan Antonio Samaranch and the IOC escalated rapidly. Yet still, every four years, the Olympic Games retained a massive feel-good dimension that played on national sentiment, the will to strive for excellence, and the celebration of youth. Sponsors and advertisers cashed in on it.

I had mixed feelings about all of it.

WHEN I BEGAN postgraduate study in 1990, I became involved in general Australian Studies, and in sports history and sports sociology. I was influenced by two teachers in the Department of Human Movement at the University of Queensland: Dr Ian Jobling and Dr John Nauright. Ian Jobling is a historian whose research has focused on Pierre de Coubertin and the revival of the modern Olympic Games, Australia at the Olympic Games, and the place of sport in Australian life. He has been actively involved in the Olympic Movement, and believes in the Olympic ideals. John Nauright is also a historian, one who is heavily influenced by the practice of cultural studies. His interest is in looking at sport through the many available lenses of cultural anaylsis: gender, race and ethnicity, political power, economics and so on. He was very good at analysing sport in a way that exposed its underbelly, and challenged the assumptions of many students. Both academics had their strengths. I was involved as a tutor in an introductory subject, the wordy title of which was ‘Socio-cultural Foundations of Human Movement Studies’. It was compulsory and, given that most students were more interested in the biomechanics of the outswinger and the VO2 max of the elite rower, it was tolerated. However, some students became enthusiastic, and went on to honours in sociology or history.

The Olympic Games had a small place in what was a broad course. As a tutor, I could get away with cursory knowledge, but with Sydney making a strong bid for the 2000 Games, all things Olympic were topical.

They became even more topical when British investigative journalist Andrew Jennings exposed the IOC and its practices – the character and political affiliations of its members, its relationships with other major sporting bodies and major multinational companies – in his book The Lords of the Rings: Power, Money and Drugs in the Modern Olympics (Stoddart, 1992). It became an influential book with follow-up editions, and is now regarded as one of the finest sports books of modern times. Much had happened since Montreal in 1976 – that T-shirt was now used for washing the old Corona I drove – and while a belief in ideals remained, I looked at the Olympic Movement with the cynicism of someone who had learnt how the world actually works. The Olympic Movement is a brilliant microcosm of that complexity – and it knows it. I was to learn a lot more about that complexity in a pretty short time.

AT THAT TIME, Ian Jobling, who has faith in the best of the Olympic Movement, while being saddened by the worst, was involved in Olympic education. When I began my PhD research (a doctorate I never completed) on an Australian sports-history topic examining the relationship between sport and community, he asked if I would be interested in attending a program at the International Olympic Academy in Greece.

‘What’s the International Olympic Academy?’ I asked. I had never heard of it.

He explained that, run by the Hellenic Olympic Committee and the IOC, and supported by the Greek government, the IOA was like an Olympic university and conference centre where people gathered to meet and to study. It had been going since 1961 and conducted sessions and seminars, ran postgraduate courses, hosted researchers, historians, artists, journalists and anyone with an interest in the Olympic Movement. Ian had been a visiting lecturer and researcher at the IOA and spoke very highly of it.

My time was all funded by the IOA. I just needed to provide the airfare, which I managed to scrape together. When I boarded the Olympic Airlines flight, all I knew was that I would be joining twenty-five or so other postgraduate students from around the world and we would spend nearly two months together in intense Olympic study (whatever that meant). And that I was required, at some stage, to deliver a research paper. I was certainly not prepared for what subsequently occurred. It was to be one of the most remarkable two months of my life. It had an enormous impact on me intellectually, and I learnt a lot about people, history and culture.

Arriving in Athens I found a man called George holding a card with my name on it. He took me to a beautiful hotel where the twenty-five students from around the world were gathering. On the first night we enjoyed a formal dinner, which had the tone of an official state function. We were treated like diplomats. There were so many people to meet. All were either postgraduate students or young academics. Some were attending because they had been nominated by their national Olympic committees, some had been elite athletes, but all were scholars in history, education, sociology and even journalism. I met Alexei from Ukraine, Zenon (a classics scholar) from Greece, Barbara (a skier) and Eric (a judo champion) from France, Wen-Chung (a historian) from Taiwan, Susan (a historian) from Canada and Azgan (the Albanian triple jump champion). There was also Ahmed (an engineer) from Sudan, Soula (a Cypriot volleyballer and educator) and Stepan (researching his PhD in journalism) from Russia.

Friendships were germinating. Ignited by the Greek food and wine, the spirit of good will and internationalism made for a beaut start. We had much in common, as scholars and as people. Yet there were many cultural differences. Chang-Yung, a South Korean who relied heavily on his electronic dictionary (which made for some very funny moments over the weeks), spent the evening trying to establish an order of birth dates, as well as getting to know everyone.

The following day we began a tour of Athens, Corinth and the Peloponnese (to Nafplio, Epidaurus, Monemvasia, Sparta, Mystras, and so on). We were taken to many important sites where a leading historian of antiquity, Professor Weiler from Austria, was our guide. Despite the fact there were only a handful of native English speakers in the group, English was the language of the course – and I marvelled at the number of languages the European and Asian participants could speak. Australia felt a long way away.

Professor Weiler was assisted by a wonderful woman from the Greek Ministry of Culture who ensured we always got a Greek perspective. Ancient Greece and the ancient Olympic Games are an important element of Greek cultural identity. We visited the sites of the Panhellenic Games. The Olympic Games were part of a four-year cycle of games that included the Isthmian Games (at Corinth) and the Nemean Games (at Nemea). We also visited the site of the Delphic Games, where the oval-shaped stadium has the feel of a country footy ground, albeit one carved out of rock, and one where mountainside boulders have had an impact. There is a brilliant two-thousand-year-old sign carved into one of the outside walls that says ‘Patrons are not to take wine from the stadium’. (Has anything changed?)

After almost two weeks, our minds filled with historical information and our hearts filled with the wonder and connectedness that such a tour brings, we arrived at the International Olympic Academy on the edge of the village of ancient Olympia. The security guards opened the gates and let us in. We drove through the groves of pines and oleanders, past the pool and the football pitch, past the dining room and offices and seminar and lecture theatres, to high up on the hill where, amid stands of eucalypts, looking back over the academy, stood the living quarters, a ring of two-bed rooms. I shared one with Halvard, an educator from Norway who had been instrumental in designing an Olympic program for the children of Lillehammer during the Winter Olympic Games earlier in that year of 1994.

Immediately, we went down to the site of the ancient Olympic Games and, in the late afternoon, ran the stade (the length of the running track). Over the next days our sessions were conducted at the Olympic site and in the rooms of the academy. A number of archaeological teams were digging, continuing to discover more ancient finds even after all the years. The leader of a German excavation team was a magnificent relic of the 1960s in his bandana, cheesecloth shirt and cotton pants rolled to the knees, smoking his pipe, calling his entourage together to explain something.

During our time at the academy we were expected to work hard. Lectures began after breakfast and went through to early afternoon. Lunch was served. Then siesta – that most civilised custom of Mediterranean life. Then sport. We played soccer (the dean, Konstantinos Georgiadis, had been a professional football player in Germany), basketball, volleyball and then a swim. Then late afternoon seminars, dinner and then evening sessions (sometimes involving further discussions, or a documentary or music). Then, with the energy that such an opportunity helps you find, quite a few of us would walk the few kilometres (among the fireflies) into Olympia to a tavern run by two brothers (‘the communists’, as they were know in the village) who would seat us under the grapevine, and fill us with beer and retsina, octopus, dips and bread and halvar. Eventually we’d head back to the academy. And do the same thing the next day, six days per week.

The lectures were revelatory. They were delivered by professors who were leaders in their respective fields: Professor Weiler and Professor Wolfgang Decker (from Cologne) on sport, philosophy and education in ancient times; Dr Norbert Mueller (from Mainz) on the thinking and writing of Baron Pierre de Coubertin and the emergence of Olympism as the Olympic philosophy; Dr Jobling on the revival of the ancient Olympic Games; Dr Christopher Hill (from England) on the contemporary games; Professor Lamartine Dacosta (Brazil) on Olympic philosophy and sport for all; and other visiting academics and experts such as Don Anthony (British Olympic Academy), historian John Daly (from Adelaide), and numerous Greek academics and officials.

Indeed, the underlying premise in many lectures, seminars and in private discussions was that, like all organisations which take a strong position on things, the Olympic Movement should be in a state where it never stops questioning itself. To that end the International Olympic Academy is the conscience of the Olympic Movement and there have certainly been times when speakers at the IOA have suggested that Olympism, the Olympic Movement and Olympic Education may be better off distancing itself from the practice of the Olympic Games and the rampant commercialism of modern sport. The Eurocentric nature of the games has also been challenged, not just in the postgraduate sessions of which I was part, but in the sessions when delegates from around the globe meet to discuss Olympic issues.

So what are these Olympic ideals that form the basis of Olympism?

DE COUBERTIN WAS a fascinating character. A Frenchman of aristocratic heritage, he wanted to revive the ancient Olympic Games and, more importantly, the philosophy of education that had its origins in ancient Greece. In trying to convey what that was, and what it meant, he wrote over eleven hundred ‘tracts’ that drew on the philosophy of the ancient gymnasium – the place of the mind and the body in the development of the child. He drew on the understandings of the British public schools: the muscular Christianity of the nineteenth century. He drew on Christianity itself, and other religions. But, like many spiritual concepts, Olympism defied strict definition and description. ‘Olympism,’ he once wrote, ‘tries to concentrate in a luminous beam all the principles that contribute to the perfection of man.’

In identifying de Coubertin’s philosophy, the International Olympic Academy says that, like the ancient Greek philosophers, he believed that physical beauty, strength and health – when combined with moral and spiritual virtues and promoted through exercise and competition – could create the well-balanced individual. He believed sport and physical education turned people into better citizens, more honest and efficient, and more likely to enjoy an optimistic and pleasant disposition with a stronger personality. He believed in amateurism over professionalism, and the notion of Citius, Altius, Fortius.

Beyond the personal benefits of such a philosophy, de Coubertin believed in the benefits to the immediate community – the village, the city, the nation. He also believed in the international benefits – that sport and physical education and the revival of the Olympic Games (the initial steps in the 1890s occurred at a time of fierce national rivalry, the consequences of which were catastrophic) could work towards peace and goodwill among peoples and nations.

These ideals were expressed in the Olympic Charter. Many have done much to pursue such ideals over the years. The ideals contain a sense of hope.

But de Coubertin also created an organisation that was ultimately unaccountable. It was his brainchild, and he established a committee of eight men who would oversee the revival of the Games – first in 1896 in Athens, and then every four years since, as in ancient times. Members were added to the Committee over the years and now stands at one hundred active members. It oversees the Olympic Movement, which has become a massive network of national Olympic committees and provincial Olympic committees. It is extremely powerful.

For some it is an entré to power and status, and even wealth. To others it is a quasi-religion, and it has the characteristics of a religious organisation. One of the more intriguing aspects of my time at the IOA were the rituals and ceremonies surrounding the Olympic hymn, the Olympic oath and the laying of the wreath at the de Coubertin monument (a role which I performed with respectful reverence). I was also invited to give the speech on behalf of the students at the closing ceremony and, in recent years, to contribute a chapter to the book that celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the IOA.

I left with an open mind, and a hope that the very best of de Coubertin and the vast Olympic Movement would prevail against the tide of rampant commercialism and the shameless pursuit of self-interest of some involved (at whatever level). The world needs its dreaming. But I did not return to Australia to become a proselytiser, preaching with missionary zeal, the pillars of the faith. I do know this though: the International Olympic Academy made me think. It made me challenge my own understandings. It helped me to continue to develop those things I believed were important.

I recall one night at the taverna, when the conversation was jumping everywhere, the feeling of felt truth. In that moment, brought on by rich conversation about the music and poetry of James Taylor and the plight of the Irish soccer team (it was during the 1994 World Cup), I felt that spirit of genuine fraternity descend. These were people from all around the world attracted to Olympia, a place where for millennia a sporting and cultural festival has taken place, and was still taking place.

It was so peaceful, so perfect. I learnt so much.

The International Olympic Academy affirmed my understanding that people and organisations always face challenges. We fall easily, tempted by shiny promises.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review