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Tokyo 2020 the Sporting Saturnalia

Article by Haydn Aarons 

Tokyo 2020 was ‘the Olympic Games we all needed’ stated many news media outlets. I concur, but not for the reasons that many viewers of the Olympics might suspect. Despite often having been held political hostage, used as a vehicle for perverted nationalism, and as an international dais for tropes of shame and abuse, the Olympics still delivers the best of what sport and humanity is and can be. Besides, it did distract us momentarily from you know what.

Sport, in the distant and now perhaps mythic past, was once a truly level playing field in which talent alone could elevate a player, often (but not always) irrespective of social status or political standing, to a place of earned honour, give or take certain amounts of graft. However, as sport has become a global commodity and institutionalised through self-serving forms of administration and bureaucracy, awash with astounding amounts of money, perniciously ambitious politics, and degenerate performance science, a lot of international sport has been corrupted and compromised.

With determined efforts in some sectors sport can and does foster social inclusion and aspire to be a truly democratic institution once again. For example, despite some serious issues with clubs and supporters, the AFL and NRL have made inclusion of First Nations peoples a priority, certainly to exploit talent, but also to the benefit of communities and individuals otherwise marginalised. There is no other professional institution in Australian cultural or social life that can claim around 20% membership of marginalised peoples such as those from First Nations. Footballing codes are among the few sports that have nurtured and encouraged the talent of the socially subordinate.

Professional sport, left increasingly to the market, has become a predictable irritating bore of routine results, monumental egos, and insane salaries, where only a handful of teams and individuals can ever have a hope of winning. European Football is perhaps the worst of the offenders. Powerful clubs and corrupt governing bodies have turned football from a game of the people into an appalling façade of ‘fair play’ and ‘competition’. For example, clubs as wealthy and powerful as some large corporations sign up kids at ages 6 and 7 and don’t allow them to play with their friends, they also buy out community clubs at lower league levels to pilfer and pipeline talent without regard for the club, players, or fans. Sport in all its varieties belongs to the people; it is expression and participation, an organic artefact of culture that evolved historically to complement military training, trade, and religion, but it is also a source of numerous social and individual benefits beyond these applications. Sport is essential in children’s play, a fundamental aspect of successful communities, a pillar of healthy socialisation and personal development, as well as a key platform of public health. Sport as ritual is a powerful act of social solidarity also. Clubs as institutions, long famous, like Manchester United Football Club in the UK were founded by working people such as railway workers, as a form of solidarity and community representation and as a bulwark against prevailing inequalities. Now such clubs are global corporate giants who win to consolidate economic gain and increase value for ‘owners’ but leave fans culturally and economically alienated. In sociological terms, modern sport often starts as empowering gemeinshaft (community) but seems to morph into perverse forms of gesellschaft (contract). The Olympics, however, give us a glimpse of that gemeinschaft still.

The modern Olympic Games championed by French intellectual Pierre de Coubertin in the late nineteenth century was intended as an international event to promote health, fair competition, and cultural understanding leading to a diminution of potential armed conflict, all within the contexts of the amateur ideal. The Games make us healthy, more peace loving, and unite us, if only for a couple of weeks, every four years. And while it’s not difficult to find some of the darkness and excesses associated with other professional sport under the guise of the Olympic movement, what is so intriguing about the Olympics, is that they still somehow magically maintain an ability to live up to most of the intended aims (The Great War, World War II, and other conflicts notwithstanding). Often there are Olympic moments that do transcend the logics and predictability of the power orders that align professional sport with other forms of economic, political, and social dominance. Perhaps its imagined and real connections to the ancient games have something to do with it.

Beyond many of the actual events that comprise the modern Olympics, the Olympic movement aims to maintain the cultural links with her ancient Greek ancestor.  Homage to Greece as the birthplace of particular ideals through sport is evident in the modern Olympics through a number of symbolic acts. The Greek Olympic team is always first to enter the stadium during the opening ceremony, medal announcements are in Greek first, then French, then the language of the host nation. The modern Olympics also commence symbolically at the site of the ancient games in Olympia in Greece with a torch lighting ceremony. The modern priestesses and kourai who light the Olympic torch perform variations of the sacred rituals associated with the ancient games. The modern Olympics continue to carry a sacred significance through contemporary dedications to the various Gods within the pre-Christian Greek Pantheon such as Zeus and Hera who had ancient sanctuaries at Olympia. Apollo and Athena too are honoured in the ceremonies. The ancient games were, like the modern games a strange mix of amateur and professional. Greek families with economic resources paid for their sons to train as athletes, yet events were open to anyone. Women were forbidden to compete, but women were sometimes wreathed as Olympic champions because they could own chariots that won racing events. Athletes competed naked in the ancient Olympics which surely appealed to the erotic dimension of physical exertion associated with the procession of athletic bodies, but also removed any hindrance that clothing, especially ancient clothing, might afford during competition. Not a lot has changed in this regard, and while athletes are clothed, the same practical and voyeuristic concerns and celebrations remain. 

The connections between ancient and modern are perhaps in some measure somewhat trite, imaginary, and constructed odes to what once was, but they also serve to engender and preserve the prestige, honour, and status of the games, giving it a transcendent quality, ensuring a gold medal in any sport and being called an Olympian is of very special significance. The Olympics are about as pure as an elite sporting contest as there is. They are now a brand in and of themselves of course, but what is refreshing about the actual competition is the absence and inconspicuousness of corporate sponsorship logos on apparel and in the stadia of competition (there’s more than enough of that in the broadcasting). This understated corporate environment extends to what athletes earn for taking part. Despite most athletes at the modern Olympics being professional, the direct monetary rewards of winning a medal are often paltry compared to the money on offer associated with the suite of regular professional sporting competitions. Australian gold medal winners receive $20,000, Americans around $40,000. What it lacks in terms of dollars (for most countries) is made up in terms of prestige and status however, which can be converted to economic capital in some cases.   

So, in what ways is it a Saturnalia – to invoke another ancient festival – especially given the United States and China topped the medal table, again, and various favourites in key events ended up winning? There are a number of power arrangements that are up-ended in the Olympics, that are barely contested in any other professional institution or in many other professional sports, for otherwise marginalised individuals, social groups, and poorer countries. Firstly, the Olympics highlight female athletes and female achievement like no other sporting or cultural event. Certainly, for Australian audiences the dominance of Australian women in the pool at Tokyo was an obvious marker of female talent, but one that is celebrated and rewarded publicly as much as any male sporting achievement. Australian women won 10 of the team’s 17 gold medals in Tokyo, and well over 50% of the team’s entire medal haul. Successful female Olympians, who are otherwise usually well behind most male athletes, can often out earn them due to Olympic success. Ariane Titmus, for example, who twice beat legendary American swimmer Katie Ledecky at Tokyo stands to earn between 4 and 5 million dollars in endorsements. Emma McKeon a similar amount. Not bad for female participants of a sport that most of us can only watch for a week every four years.

Athletes of colour and athletes from the global south often dominate key events in track and field and athletes from low-income nations without the infrastructure to develop talent are encouraged and supported to participate, often despite not making a standard Olympic qualifying time in many events. Sub-Saharan dominance in distance running, headlined by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge who won back-to-back gold medals in the men’s marathon, is a glorious tradition, and one now that has an Australian connection in Peter Bol (born in South Sudan) who came 4th in the men’s 800 metre final, narrowly missing a medal. As a kid at school, Bol was told to run in the 800 metres race because they needed to fill spots in the event at the school sports. He had no training, no elite preparation, didn’t know how far 800 metres was, but just ran, and was encouraged by a teacher and her dad, a running coach, to go on. No mention of African gangs during the Olympics, however the broadcast showed incredible scenes of Peter Bol’s extended family erupting into pure joy while watching his race and we were all invited into the Bol family home to share it.

Caribbean and African athletes dominate in track sprinting events that are amongst the most glamorous and heralded events in the entire Olympics. Again, it is arguable that men and women share a somewhat equal stage in terms of exposure here, and similar subsequent financial rewards. The three Jamaican track queens who finished 1, 2, and 3, (Elaine Thompson-Herah, Shelly-Anne Fraser-Pryce, and Shericka Jackson) in the women’s 100-metre final are all multi-millionaires and outside of Australia, household names. The success of those from countries and backgrounds that are usually at the bottom of most other tables coincides with the elevation of otherwise obscure but engaging sports that never get the coverage they deserve. Sports such as volleyball, fencing, decathlon, archery, weightlifting, and table tennis all have their own stories and histories that can inspire and inform. Conversely, there are athletes from powerful and wealthy countries who, due to various circumstances, are on par with athletes from much weaker and poorer ones that evidence the continuing Olympic ideal of amateurism. Take the example of Monica Aksmit an American Olympic fencer. She was given $300 a month by the American Olympic Committee to support her Olympic dream. This amount ensured she had to work as a waitress to pay for her own airfare to Tokyo.

The Olympics produce moments of pure joy and awe that defy everyday cynicism, while suspending unjust social and economic structures. Take the Fijian men’s Rugby Seven’s team that defended their gold medal from Rio and who are Fiji’s only medallists to date. While Fiji is a rugby playing nation, it’s by no means a powerful one. Fiji, like many smaller poorer countries has been totally devastated by the pandemic. After their win, the Fijians all broke down, overcome with emotion signalling to their families and fellow Fijians that they played and won for them. It was hard not to be in awe of their achievement and share the meaning of winning that gold medal. Similarly, Filipina weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz who won her country’s only gold medal to date, in the women’s clean and jerk 55 kg class, made an emotional dedication to her country that her victory might provide some joy amidst the devastation of the pandemic. Crashing the Australian and American dominance in the pool was the wonderfully unpredictable result from 18 year old Tunisian Ahmed Hafnaoui, who pipped Aussie Jack McLoughlin for gold in the men’s 400 metre freestyle by .016 seconds from lane 8! You could barely see Hafnaoui’s race because of the broadcaster’s focus on lanes 4, 5, and 6 where the fastest qualifiers swim from. He was front and centre after the race, however.

The Olympics also provided numerous moments of personal sacrifice, humanity, dignified rivalry, and deep respect between athletes: the shared gold medal in the men’s high jump, decided by the athletes themselves in accordance with the rules of the competition; superstar Simone Biles’ withdrawal from her gymnastics program due to mental health reasons and her insistence to remain to support her teammates; British diver Tom Daley who knitted and crocheted for charity while poolside; and the many scenes of opposing athletes embracing after competition irrespective of the results. The games coverage also featured many wonderfully humble, honest, and down to earth interviews of athletes successful or not. It’s all a far cry from the oafish and lamentable torrents of verbal abuse professional cricketers have levelled towards each other in the name of competition recently, or the nice, staid, scripted verbiage Australian Rules footballers offer after a game.

The Olympics also produce veritable tragedy that ruthlessly inverts our rational assurances where the free play of fate and destiny as ancient forces is again felt. Athletes who train for years but in seconds are cruelled from competition, such as those who break starts and are disqualified, who trip, fall, lose their nerve, tear hamstrings as they launch from a starting block, who finish second, third, or forth by fractions of margins that only sophisticated time instruments can capture. There is a gut-wrenching annihilation of human ambition afflicting the famous and the unheralded together here, that is humbling, which doesn’t really exist in other sports. Finally, the event that can flip social and economic systems on their heads for a couple of weeks has a twin sister: the Paralympics. The only large-scale international event of any kind, sporting or not, dedicated to and celebrating people with various disabilities with the dignity they deserve.

You might think I’ve been caught up in the ‘Olympic spirit’ whatever that is, and can’t see its problems beyond the glamour. Well yes, I have been, but I assure you I can put down my five ringed glasses and see clearly. As much as the Olympics are, in my opinion, a wonderful professional institution for fair inclusion, great fun and entertainment, and a vehicle for inspired storytelling, they can still reflect and promote the dynamics of social and economic injustice. The Saturnalia was only for a weekend, after all, before Roman society reverted back to its usual shape. For all the celebration of our female swimmers, swimming is still a very white sport, here in Australia and internationally. Many Olympic sports are institutionalised within wealthy middle-class frameworks such as athletic programs at prestigious American universities and wealthy European clubs sponsored by big business. Access to the mechanisms enabling participation in the professional ranks of these sports and others like them such as tennis have for too long been the preserve of the racially and economically privileged. Thankfully this is changing. But the promise, and to some extent the reality of the Olympic movement is, talent from anywhere can take part, be seen, and win, and if not win, be respected. Long live the Olympics and with Zeus, Hera, Athena and Apollo’s blessings may it always be a forum to turn the tables on inequality, unjust power, arrogant nationalism, and about now, this bloody pandemic.


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