Saturday, August 9, 2008

Flawed, but still noble

Any noble notion that is implemented by human beings will inevitably fall short of its ideals. The Olympic Games are no exception. But the glory of the effort, the pursuit of excellence that the Olympics embody, make the exercise worthwhile.

The Olympics are among those well-intentioned international institutions that purport to represent humanity’s highest aims. Like the United Nations or Greenpeace, the Olympics stand for ideals that ought to be universal, while implementing them imperfectly.

In practical terms, the Olympics combine competition among the planet’s greatest athletes – this is the ideal aspect of the Games – with unmistakably human oversight, represented by the International Olympic Committee.

For decades, the IOC has been the object of criticism, accused of corruption and complicity with the world’s worst regimes. The IOC’s coddling of the repressive People’s Republic of China has been well-documented since the day the 2008 Games were awarded to Beijing. Until recently, the IOC had planned to ban the newly democratic Iraq from this year’s event, claiming the country had politicized its process by replacing members of its national committee. This is the same IOC that raised no objection when Saddam Hussein was imprisoning and torturing Iraqi Olympians who underperformed.

In this way, the Olympics, and the IOC in particular, have much in common with the U.N. Both are playgrounds for tyrants, where bureaucratic elites overlook genuine injustice while scrutinizing the shortcomings of free nations. But these undeniable weaknesses do not outweigh the nobility of their aims.

Like the U.N., if the Olympics did not exist, we would have to invent them. Certainly, the world’s leaders should have a forum to meet and discuss things, just as nations should periodically put their weapons and differences aside for the sake of athletic competition. These ideals may have been pursued imperfectly, but they are still worth pursuing.

Fear of imperfection should be no deterrent. If human beings attempted only what we know we can do right, the world would be nothing but gibberish and genocide. The Olympics aspire to something better.

Inevitably, when athletes compete under flags, folks assign national significance that obscures the simple nobility of the event. But the notion of sport as proxy for politics was always a flimsy one. During the Cold War, from the Summit Series to Rocky IV, audiences in the East and West imagined that the success or failure of their athletes would vindicate or discredit their ideology. Of course, this conflates two unrelated issues. An athlete may be strong of limb or fleet of foot at the same time his government is utterly wrong about freedom of speech or foreign affairs.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, the quadrennial clash of ideology has been downgraded, but is not dead. Reports indicate that communist host-country China hopes to score a symbolic victory over its rival for superpower status, the United States, by topping the medal count in 2008. But now, as then, such notions are meaningless.

If China were to win every gold medal, it would not change the fact that communism is the most murderous, miserable ideology ever devised. And anyway, this is scorekeeping for politicians. The athlete’s lot is human competition, a universal language.

It is unlikely that the athlete in the arena, blessed with God-given talent and the discipline to develop it, is contemplating his voting choices – if he has the good fortune to represent a genuine democracy, that is – while performing.

One expects, rather, that he is focused on achieving his utmost at the moment that is likely the pinnacle of his life and career. The magnificence of such a spectacle is unique to the Olympics and deserves our attention. Unlike those whose best skills are, say, orthodontics or accounting, an athlete in top form is a thing of beauty to behold.

The Olympics could never be entirely apolitical. It is impossible to remove politics from even the most benign of human affairs. No one is suggesting that the Olympics require the comity of a global church picnic, with potato sack races contended at a world-class level. But it would behoove us to keep our eyes on the real prize. That is, the glory of sport.

The Olympics’ ideals are just that. While we live in an imperfect world, impurity will hold sway. But there is much to admire and enjoy in the Olympics’ pursuit of perfection. Let the Games begin.