In Views: Olympic Farce

When I lived in Europe, I used to watch the Olympics on European TV.

I loved watching the BBC because their announcers were so good, but the problem was that if, say, a British runner came in eleventh in a particular race, you never found out who came in the top ten. Their cameras would only focus on the local hero.

Then I'd turn over to a French channel to find out who was winning and what I'd see was a bunch of really small sailboats. I didn't even know there was sailing in the summer Olympics, but apparently there is and apparently the French do well in it. So they'd cover it up le wazoo.

We are about to enter the Olympic season, and there are going to be a bunch of obnoxious stories about the overbearing patriotism of the host Americans. My point is first that all nations are overbearingly patriotic come Olympics time. And all nations should be. Patriotism, the love of something larger than oneself, is one of the noblest passions known to man.

But there has been an attempt over the past few years to hijack the Olympic spirit, to minimize national pride and turn the events into a UNICEF-style celebration of global harmony and cooperation. The organizers are trying to turn the Olympics from a series of sporting contests into a multinational festival.

Which is a total perversion. The Olympics are meant to celebrate honorable rivalry and maximum skill, perseverance and toughness. The Olympic events, after all, are won by people who are ferociously competitive. On the medal stands we celebrate their prowess and their drive. We honor them because they are the best on earth at what they do. Through the games, and through competitive sports generally, we celebrate a set of moral habits: Striving for excellence even through pain and tedium; perseverance in humiliating circumstances; facing defeat with honor and celebrating victory with grace.

Yet there is a certain sort of person who chokes on the stark inequality that is inherent in competition — the fact that some are better than others. That sort of person only knows how to celebrate cooperation.  

So now we have a whole propaganda machine built up to spread the distortion that the Olympics exist to bring people from all over the world together to enjoy togetherness — when the reality is that the Olympics are there to bring people from all over the world together so we can see who is best.

The propaganda machine reaches its climax during the only two ludicrous moments of the Olympic games, the opening and closing ceremonies. These ceremonies were fine when their major feature was the parade of nations. You could see the teams, the diversity of nations and cultures, the spirit of friendly but determined competition that is supposed to dominate the games. But over the years this parade has taken a back seat to the great propaganda show, often featuring cute children, multicultural cliches, and Up With People-style dance routines. The whole thing is designed to spread the message that we are all just one great big loving human family.

This is true on an abstract level — we do all share a common humanity — but in practice it's just sentimental goo. And we know it is sentimental goo because it is the kind of effortless emotion that is completely detached from real life situations and difficulties. What is happening to the Olympics globally is a large scale version of what happened to the Olympics in the Communist world during the Cold War.

Communism is predicated on this phony ethos built around equality, worker solidarity, and cooperation. Communists were not allowed to acknowledge any ethos that celebrated and thus regulated individual striving and accomplishment. So when Communist officials found themselves competing with the rest of the world, they cheated on a massive scale, pumping their athletes full of steroids, lying to their own athletes. Their official religion had nothing to do with the actual character tests they were likely to face. They had no moral system that had anything to do with reality. So, untethered, they behaved disgracefully.

I was embarrassed during the last Olympics when an American relay team celebrated a victory by preening for the cameras. That is what is happening. As the official ideology of the games has emphasized cooperation and goo, the standards of sportsmanship have actually declined. Those runners had not been inculcated with the ethos of honorable competition. Nobody ever shared with them the sort of message that Tom Landry shared with his Dallas Cowboys when they expressed a desire to dance in the end zone after touchdowns. "We're the Dallas Cowboys," Landry said. "We should act like we've been in the end zone before."

David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.