Does the 'Olympic spirit' still exist, or has it been swallowed up by commercialisation? I was delighted to be invited to a debate with a star-studded panel exploring this very issue, which took place yesterday at the Institut français du Royaume-Uni (that's the French Cultural Insitute in the UK).
The debate, entitled ‘Olympic Games: What are We Talking About?’, marked the launch of Are You Game?, the Institut’s inspiring series of sporting lectures, debates and screenings building up to the London 2012 Olympics. Scroll to the bottom of the blog for a list of upcoming events or visit the website for more.
In the grand wood-panelled library at the Institut a star panel assembled: Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, the 11-time Paralympic gold medallist; Denis Masseglia, President of the French National Olympic Committee and Dr Dikaia Chatziefstathiou, an academic specialising in Olympic studies, to name a few. The aim was to pinpoint why billions of people around the world drop everything to watch this four-yearly sporting extravaganza. Is there a unique Olympic spirit - and does it still exist?
Over the course of two hours my brain was packed with more Olympic facts than I’d absorbed in the rest of my life. We learnt how the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, conceived the idea for the Games after visits to England at the end of the 19th century. He visited Rugby School, where the sporting programme set up by Thomas Arnold had a remit far beyond mere physical fitness. It was a moral and social imperative using the ethos of sport, the values of team work, fairness and discipline.
Inspired by the English sporting system, de Coubertin channelled his energies into creating the modern Olympic Games. It was an event to bring athletes together from all over the world – not to compete for material prizes but to push their limits and perform at their best. Olympic glory wasn’t just reserved for the winners, but shared by all the athletes who took part – the event was designed to raise each athlete in mind and body.
116 years after the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, does the Olympic spirit still live on? The points made by panel members pointed to a singular answer: yes. Global politics has shifted and money in sports has spiralled (at least in certain sports), but the Olympics remains a unique - and relevant - event. Their argument was that the Olympics and Paralympics provide a rare moment of global unity, where athletes of all creeds, races, cultures, gender and social classes gather in a single city for a single sporting aim. More countries attend the Olympics than sit in the UN.
Then there’s the Olympics and Paralympics as tools for social change. We can all think of Olympic moments that made history, from Jesse Owens's triumph in the face of Nazism with four golds at Berlin's 1936 Olympics to Joan Benoit winning the inaugural women’s marathon in 1984.
That’s before we even get to the Paralympics. Baroness Grey-Thompson summed up the impact of the Paralympics perfectly, telling the room “the Paralympics has changed attitudes towards disability more than legislation ever could.” In 2012, for the first time, the Olympics and Paralympics share the same sponsors and more equal media coverage - sending a resonant message worldwide about how we should value those with a disability.
Grey-Thompson started to well up as she described the moment London won the Olympic bid back in 2005 in Singapore. “In my whole life that was the most emotional I’ve been. As much as we were celebrating, we knew we had the chance to do much for others,” she said. The panel argued that the Games encourages young people to take up sport, promotes gender equality and challenges attitudes towards disability and class – so let’s see how many heart-stopping, history-making moments we can produce in London this summer.
Whenever we start to moan about the minor irritations that have dogged the London 2012 Games - ticket sales, traffic congestions and spiralling costs among them - perhaps we should stop and think about the true meaning of the Games. It’s a tremendous feat that every four years all of the world can gather in peace and unity to applaud human endeavour – and London should be honoured to play host.
Find out more
Upcoming events at the Institut français du Royaume-Uni
Ready Steady Doc! The 5th European Documentary Festival (February 16-23). Visit: europeandocfestival.org.uk
Are You Game? conferences:
Too Much Money in Sport? March 15
Are Hooligans Offside? April 12
Embedded May 9
Writing about Sports June 14
Film Season at Ciné lumière: ‘Actors and Athletes’, a selection of films about sports (June 28-July 1)