Open ceremony today at Rio 2016. Yet how far apart are we from the genuine spirit of the original Greek Olympic Games? Very far. The hallowed dimension of the Games, which constituted within the Greek world a sacred truce, never to be violated, has completely disappeared.
The Greeks placed the Games’ sacrosanctity above the needs or interests of men. Michael Sage, a military historian of the ancient world, emphasizes the religious dimension of Panhellenic festivals like the games at Olympia. As the Games approached, “heralds were sent out to proclaim the truce and it was considered a sacrilegious act to fail to observe it.” Sage explains that
The point of the cessation of hostilities for religious gatherings may be that they were closely associated with the idea that religious ceremonies were conducted under the protection of the gods and so should no be violated by men. This idea is probably also connected with the inviolability of sacred places in time of war and the fact that the most frequent terms connected with truces and peace treaties are derived from the religious ceremonies that served as rites of sanctification and as a guarantee for the observance of these agreements.”
Yvon Garlan, one of the most well-respected students of Greek war in the 20th century, has pointed out that the Greek Olympic Games were “the most ancient and most prestigious manifestation of the Greek agonistic spirit.” Their main features were all reminders of the older initiation ceremonies practiced in several areas of Greece. Their goal was to replace ritual wars and to let the Greek militaristic spirit manifest itself, as war became institutionalized under the framework of Greek organized states.
Today, the sanctity of the original Greek event has completely been lost. (And the efforts by the International Olympic Committee to preserve the classical ideal through staged events like the reenacting of the lighting of the Olympic torch at the temple of Olympia do nothing but add more to the farce.) The “inviolability” of the spirit of the Panhellenic event does not seem to match the reality of our contemporary Games.
Investigative reporting has uncovered many instances of corruption and illegal practices (let alone immoral practices) within the International Olympic Committee. Scandals, bribery, and special interests have tainted not only the organization of several recent Olympic games but also the selection process of the host cities. (Watch for example if you have a chance HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel episode 231 (June 2016) “The Lords of the Rings.”)
Within the strictly athletic arena, doping seems to be the norm, rather than the exception, in several Olympic sports. “Real” Olympic athletes (not NBA professionals or top international tennis players) have a hard time making ends meet. They survive thanks to meager scholarships and, in many occasions, help they get from their families and friends while they try to keep training, competing, and preparing for the games. (And this not in some third-world country but in the United States and Western Europeans nations.)
The sacred spirit of the Greek Olympic Games is all gone but in the hearts and the minds of some very special Olympians who sacrifice everything for years to be part of the event. Other than that, the Games have become a mercantilist enterprise, tainted by corruption, wasteful expenditure of public money, unfulfilled promises, and wide-spread doping.