The Olympics madness

Nationalism, chauvinism and greed have overtaken the Olympic games to an absurd degree, says Patrice de Beer.

The current Olympic games in London recall Karl Marx's remark that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. In this case the tragedy is provided by the slavery that surrounded sport in Greek and Roman times, and by the "panem et circences" (bread and circuses) used to pacify and divert the Roman plebeians, such as forcing Christians and "barbarians" captured at the borders of the empire to kill each other or face being eaten by lions. Today, the farce is supplied by the jingoism that dominates big sports events, the Olympics above all. Recent examples are the way that modern Greece was put on the front stage in 2004 before it plunged into an economic abyss, and that China in 2008 used the Beijing games as a symbol of its rise to world power (three-quarters of a century after Nazi Germany's propaganda show).

What is happening now in London continues this trend, even if it could have happened the same way in many other countries. The British always tend to feel a bit special, and superior to others, something we French know well as we share with Britain the same illusions and sense of a lost grandeur. But, still, is it not the task of analysts to keep their heads cool when faced with a tidal wave of "sporting nationalism"? And to warn those of the rude awakening - or hangover, as we in a wine-drinking country would say - that will come when the games are over? For both holidaymakers returning from the sun to autumn rains and realities, and governments facing again the hard facts of rising unemployment, taxes and prices (and the unpopularity which goes with them) it could prove a very hard landing.

Television has helped to transform what was originally a symbol of peace and the collective cohesion of a Greek nation split into conflicting cities into a mediatic circus. Now billions of people can watch events live, day and night, and listen to the ridiculous and sometimes odious comments from sports "journalists", almost all equally bad. This is the result of what television has been nurturing for decades, a new nationalism through sports broadcasting, mostly (outside the United States, which has its own favourite TV sports) of soccer.

People who used to recognise themselves in their local clubs now identify with teams that carry a larger symbolic weight, especially in countries divided by local nationalisms: as among Catalans, who identify with Barça (Barcelona FC), or among Scots and Welsh with their soccer and rugby teams. When these fight against their Spanish or English counterparts, this sense is especially strong. Not to talk about flag-waving, insulting of the opposing side and hooliganism in international competitions. At its extreme sport has been a trigger of violence, as with the "soccer war" in 1969 between El Salvador and Honduras, which left 3,000 dead and hundreds of thousands of people displaced.

Jingoism is not a new phenomenon but it has now reached a stratospheric and absurd level. Some people even tak of banning flags and national anthems in order to restore some normality to the games. But is that even conceivable, for the Olympics have become not only a way to express nationalism (or chauvinism) but big business. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), its members and affiliates at national level, as well as sponsors, shamelessly exploit this goldmine by appealing to the public's gullibility and the greed of competitors and agents.

But governments will continue to waste billions in organising Olympic games, and the public in cheering its athletes as they do their favourite artists. Yet it still does some good to stand against this insane evolution!

About the author

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde