The Greatest Show on Earth arrived in Beijing last week and has mesmerized the world since its spectacular opening ceremony at 8:08pm on the 8th of August. You guessed it; eight is considered an auspicious number for Chinese because it is phonetically similar to the word for luck in Mandarin. The Olympics are the greatest sporting event because they represent a microcosm of the human condition, inviting us to celebrate human potential and even the nobility of man. They are an event worth celebrating every four years to remind all of us that we are made for greatness, though at times they serve to remind us of man’s capacity for the ignoble as well.
The Olympics demonstrate man’s capacity for greatness far better than other hyped sporting events such as soccer’s world cup (no matter what Europeans want to call it, it is just soccer), the world series baseball (I’m still trying to figure out how many nations play in that) and even than the tri-nations rugby cup (although its organizers were smart enough to limit the competition to the nations that play the sport best – Australia, New Zealand and South Africa). The problem with all those sports is they come down to just one event between just two teams to determine a single winner.
The Olympics, by comparison, with its myriad of events played over two weeks by thousands of athletes from every country able to send a team, celebrates the accomplishments of both individuals and teams and invites all of us to strive to be better. Indeed, the successes of the man-fish Michael Phelps in the pool, setting a new record by winning eight gold medals (see, the Chinese have the numbers thing right) in a single Olympics, should be celebrated not just by his fellow countrymen, but by all of us. His story is inspirational; from a schoolboy bullied for having extraordinarily long arms, to Olympic champion because of those arms. And those arms are proof, if proof is needed, that his talent is in fact a gift – a gift that makes him not only different but truly special, even unique amongst men.
Or consider the expression of joy on the face of Jamaica’s Usain Bolt as he slowed, just before taking the tape at the finish line of the men’s 100 metres, to celebrate being the fastest man on earth, and, despite slowing, still managing to smash the world record he had set only in May this year. There was a time when it was said the 100 could not be run in under 10 seconds; in the 40 years since that barrier was broken it has fallen steadily as training techniques, equipment and human physique have improved. Can we look forward to the 9.5 hundred as technology and physique improve further in years to come?
The same joy was seen on the face of Russian Yelena Isinbaeva when she pole vaulted into Olympic history clearing 5.05 metres to break her own record and the record set by men before women were even allowed to compete in the sport at the 2000 Games. Isinbaeva could not contain her happiness at the moment she cleared the bar. Who watching the event did not share her joy or understand her struggle to achieve greatness? And does it not inspire all of us to try harder to do better in our own fields of endeavour?
There is a call to nobility in the Olympics. They call to put aside petty differences and material concerns. Even as Georgian and Russian troops were locked in bitter battle, their women’s beach volleyball players took a moment to embrace each other, setting an example for politicians from both sides of their divide. Whatever their respective armies may have been fighting about was forgotten in that touching moment. George Orwell, a great writer who is right about most things, had it wrong when he said “serious sport” is “war minus the shooting”. Sport can lift us higher.
Consider also the passion of the athletes themselves, exemplified by the those in the less popular sports like shooting. On meeting one of Australia’s shooting team members, Ben Burge, I was surprised to find that he does not enjoy the support and sponsorship that high profile athletes get. Burge had to take out a personal bank loan to purchase his equipment and take unpaid leave from his day job in a nursery in the months leading up to the Games in order to train and prepare. What drives him? Love for his sport and the desire to be the best that he can be, even though it meant no medal at these Games – he was eliminated at 40th place in his specialized event of “rifle 50m three positions”. At least this Commonwealth Games medalist rose to the challenge. And, importantly, he shows us how to be graceful even in the face of defeat.
Who could not feel the pain of a nation when China’s gold medal hopeful for the 100 hurdles, Liu Xiang, limped from the field in the heats because of an injury to his foot? Even the number on his vest – 1356 – seemed to represent the aspirations of China’s 1.3 billion people, comprised of 56 ethnic nationalities. Much was riding on the shoulders of Liu and the disappointment for China was profound.
Of course, his failure has also shown China’s Achilles heel – it’s potential to fall into extreme nationalistic sentiments on occasion. Since his withdrawal, many of the country’s netizens have been blogging their disappointment, some unfairly accusing the athlete of betraying his motherland and of cowardice. Fortunately, the majority of Chinese are more mature than this and online polls have shown more than 60 percent still favouring their hero and wishing him a speedy return to form.
In the Olympics we can, sadly, also see the capacity for the ignoble that is in all of us and that cries out to be resisted. Whether on the part of a Government trying to cheat the world by replacing what it saw as an unattractive child singer with a more appealing face to mime her words, or athletes who play to win at all costs, even risking their very health as well as honour by doping, the tendency to cheat is a symptom of the ends justifying the means philosophy. It subverts our potential for doing what is right to doing whatever it takes. It makes the step to Hitler’s eugenics smaller than one can imagine.
Calls to allow some types of drugs to be used to enhance athletic performance, including possibly even genetic therapy, will grow louder as safer drugs can be developed. The proponents will tell us that if the health of the athlete can be protected, why not allow them to enhance performance through medical advances. After all, Usain Bolt surpassed even the dreams of Jesse Owens because of improvements in the quality of the running tracks, better shoes, and higher protein diets. Even Michael Phelps wore Speedo’s special shark-skin technology swimming suit. So why not allow tomorrow’s athletes to also indulge in a little drug taking to help them achieve better personal bests?
No doubt there is some mad scientist working in his basement now, inspired by Michael Phelps, to develop a genetic engineering procedure that will bring about a nation of men and women with extended limbs to perform better in the pool.
Drugs in sport should be resisted precisely because ends should never be allowed to justify the means. It can never be anything goes; or everything will go. If anything is to be allowed, we will have given up what we are as human beings, including our human potential. We will have given up our capacity to achieve true greatness. In the 2004 animated film, The Incredibles, the villain, Syndrome, a mad scientist who is making superpowers for himself through scientific technologies meant to make up for his lack of natural talents, tells Mr. Incredible that after he has patented and turned his inventions into mass products, superheroes won’t be special any more. If our athletes become dependent on drugs and genetic engineering to be the best, how will they be gifted? Why should we continue to celebrate their victories once the victories become empty?
Maybe the ancient Greeks had it right when they required athletes of the original Games to compete naked. While we don’t have to go that far (though some sports are getting close), we should continue to honour the spirit of those Games which celebrated the potential of authentic athletic achievement and which strove to ensure a level playing field for all concerned.
May the Games continue, every four years, in the noble spirit of the founder of the modern Olympics, the Baron Pierre Fredy de Coubertin: Faster, higher, stronger.
Alistair Nicholas is based in Beijing, China, where he runs his own public relations company. His blog, Off The Record, covers everything on public relations and life in today’s China.