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Olympian Dreams

[Editors Note: With the commencement of the 2012 Summer Olympics upon us, the United Kingdom and the world has been eagerly anticipating this moment since the International Olympic Committee selected London eight years ago. In one of the only events that unifies the whole world, the Olympics disregard cultural, societal, and religious differences, bringing people of all races and backgrounds together to support these athletes. 

In the current issue of World Policy Journal, Peter Berlin, former sports editor of the International Herald Tribune and The Financial Times, points out the not so-obvious effects of the Olympic games. He explains how, despite the honor of hosting this prestigious sporting event, there are economic and social costs that are too often ignored.]

*****

By Peter Berlin

PARIS—When the gun sounds on the evening of August 4 to set the fastest men in the world surging down the track at the Olympic Stadium in London, much of the world will be watching. For the shrinking, but still significant, slice of population that remains immune to the increasingly pervasive global reach of sport, the question is: Why? There are those who cannot understand, may even distrust, competitiveness in adults. Others question the resources—time, energy, and, above all, money—dedicated to modern sports, particularly the great set-piece events like the Olympics or the soccer World Cup.

For sport agnostics, games are for children. Eight men sprinting in a straight line are taking part in a frivolous and useless activity. Surely the hundreds of millions watching on television or, increasingly, computers, tablets, and smart phones have something better to do.

Yet the men’s 100 meters offers a powerful argument for the thrilling and beautiful spectacle sport can offer. It is an elemental test. Every child has raced against his peers to see who is fastest. It is also easy to understand. It can be followed without any grasp of arcane rules or tricky technique. The race may be the briefest event in the track and field program—less than 10 seconds—yet, when the race is close, it can generate nerve-shredding uncertainty and sudden twists of fortune. Even when the race is not close—like the 2008 final in Beijing, when, with the pressure at its most intense as he pursued the greatest prize in his sport, Usain Bolt crushed the best sprinters in the world and smashed the world record despite slowing down at the end—it provides proof of the potential power and grace of the human body. The joyous antics of Bolt after he won also offered a reminder that even when we are grown, the child lives on in all of us. When Bolt drew back an imaginary bow, he unconsciously provided a reminder that throughout history for many young men, the most common experience of human competitive urge has been war. As he draped himself in the Jamaican flag for his victory lap, he advertised the central role that nationalism plays in the popularity of modern sport.

If the urge to compete is part of human nature, then perhaps sports do a service by diverting that urge into events whose outcomes have no effect on the wider world. The very triviality of sports becomes one of its assets. Each nation’s young elite is trained and dressed in national uniforms and sent out to defeat the youth of other nations not on the battlefield but in the sports arena. Yet the relationship between war and sports is far more complex. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, principal founder of the modern Olympics, was an avowed pacifist, but he was initially driven by France’s humiliation in its war with Prussia in 1870. He believed French education focused too much on the mind and that it should emulate British schools and strengthen the body as well.

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