Olympics and the perversion of sport

Are the Olympics the high point of a sporting religion? Harley Filben investigates

It has been a commonplace since the 19th century that art is the new religion; and equally it has been a commonplace since the rise of that peculiar individual, the sports pundit, that sport is itself a form of art. From this, we may deduce - in dubious syllogistic fashion - that sport is a religion.

For many, of course, that whimsical logical figure is surplus to requirements. People alienated, for example, from football support are prone to pronouncing the same throwaway judgment upon those whose identification with fairly random clubs seems as complete and all-consuming as the born-again fanatic’s identification with Christ. Yet posing it this way forces us to consider the thing not as a peremptory dismissal of an individual’s cultural outlook, but as a factor with positive effects on the shape of sport today.

Religions are a unity, if you will, of theology and practice. They are thus contradictory. Religious practice is immanently historically specific. Empirical examples abound of this fact: Christianity’s path from the Jesus movement in ancient Palestine to the fissile doctrines of the reformation is one; but equally the revival of the pre-Christian tribal religions of Europe as so many neutered variants of new age spiritualism. Theology, however, for its claims to be meaningful, has to be transhistorical; it must trace a path from the genesis to the eschaton, along which our guide is the same supernatural animating force.

What, then, is the catechism of the Olympics? It is above all a cult of the human body: its strength, speed, capacity for endurance are to be pushed to their limits. In its (modern) origins, the true ‘Olympic ideal’ was amateurism - this was not simply a revulsion, on the part of the reactionaries that founded the International Olympic Committee, at the grubbiness of money, but rather a veneration of the British public school system and the place of sport within it.

Sport, then, was not simply about winning, but the inculturation of an aristocratic elite. It is no accident that, when rugby union and rugby league split over professionalisation, it was the plebeian-dominated clubs that went for the latter.

This atavistic aristocratism, though the ‘amateurism’ of the games was often little more than a joke, was a common feature of almost all reactionary ideologies of the period - not least the vigorous racism of one Adolf Hitler. The modern games have been marked by this ideology, in different ways, throughout their history. The best example is the torch relay which, along with the Volkswagen Beetle, is one of the two innovations of Hitler’s regime to have survived the holocaust reputation intact.

The Beetle’s survival is, I must confess, somewhat of a mystery to me - the cars, when all is said and done, are perfect examples of hideous Goebbelsian kitsch. The torch, alas, survives for perfectly obvious reasons. For Hitler, the propaganda point was simple: trace a path from the supposed birth of ‘western civilisation’ to its pinnacle - the state of the Aryan race, purified of the weak and the alien, and ready for war.

This was only the infusion of, precisely, the public school’s ideology with particularly heady racist mumbo-jumbo. The former institutions bred successive generations of colonial administrators, whose domination of the ‘savages’ of Africa and Asia was ideologically justified by the same logic - an ideology cultivated in part through the rituals of ‘gentlemanly’ sport. Today, the torch relay provides just such a Hitlerian opportunity for any nation able to grease enough palms to host the games - you, too, can make the most spurious of all claims on continuity with the ancient Athenians and Spartans.

It was not enough for Hitler to have the relay. To prove the point, the Germans had to win in 1936. Here, the fundamental contradiction presents itself. The ideology of amateurism may be precisely calibrated for all who venerate the military-aristocratic ideal; in the grubby matter of actually winning things, however, the ‘coercive laws of competition’ endemic to capitalism come into play.

Hitler’s Germany was the first country to take truly seriously the task of bringing home a decent haul of medals. Lord knows it was not the last. A new practical dynamic, inevitably, was unleashed: the gifted gentleman amateur - who was not even wholly dedicated to sport, let alone, say, the steeplechase - was supplanted by an increasingly sophisticated industrial apparatus, dedicated to the production of top athletes.

This has increasingly made a mockery of the notional disavowal of ‘professionalism’, of course, but also the Olympic veneration of the public school. The latter, after all, was supposed to produce a caste of rounded individuals. The most efficient way to win at the Olympics - barring the triathlon, pentathlon and so forth - is to have a few individuals whose job it is to sprint, to box, to row … The division of labour becomes increasingly specialised.

The results are not even sportspeople in the traditional sense, but individuals who are physically mutilated by their training - often from an early age - to be inhumanly good at a single restricted activity. This is the point to mention doping: if London 2012 is not a stunning exception to a very well-established norm, it will be a competition between biochemists as much as it is a competition between athletes.

All that need be said here is that doping is both an inevitable consequence of the industrial approach to sport, and - ironically - unconducive to athletes’ long-term health and fitness. The fate of eastern bloc athletes of the 1960s and 70s, when it was Brezhnev and the like trying to make a point about the superiority of Stalinist ‘communism’ to the declining west, is merely the most famous example: crude use of steroids and testosterone treatments left these people’s bodies permanently mutilated.

Equally we could turn to the other recent sport story to break on these shores - Bradley Wiggins last weekend became the first Briton to win the Tour de France cycle race. If ever there was a crystal-clear illustration of the status of doping in today’s sporting world - a dirty little secret, about which everybody knows but to which one admits on pain of death - the cycling circuit is it. Despite innumerable anti-doping committees and so forth, the last thing the sport’s establishment likes is for anyone actually to admit to the scale of the problem. Paul Kimmage, an Irish cyclist who blew the whistle in his 1990 book Rough ride, was utterly ostracised as a result. (20 years later, he is at least taken seriously as a journalist.)

The Olympics has faced the same problem in the decades since its industrialisation. Hot air must be blown about ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘sportsmanship’; but really to deal with doping would mean the destruction of the Olympics.

It would entail the dissolution of the reactionary and flagrantly corrupt International Olympics Committee. It would mean liberating track and field, and swimming pool, and archery range, from their perverse current condition as hostages to the repugnant pomposity of national states. This gargantuan waste of an event, which eats money faster than Shane Warne eats pies and reduces talented athletes to stunted show-ponies and glorified advertising hoardings, only survives because an ever more visibly stupid bourgeois establishment considers it a matter of national pride. It would, finally, mean the extermination of the ‘Olympic ideal’, its theological dogma, its embodiment of elitism and reaction, whose historical failure manifests itself in the almost comical hypocrisy of the Olympic establishment.

None of this, finally, means adopting the standard leftist sniffiness about sport. Sport is art, quite as much as dance, or theatre, with which it shares the aestheticisation of the physical spontaneity of life. As such, it is quite as capable of producing something beautiful. It does so today in spite of its corruption by bourgeois society’s ideological decay, which turns athletic achievement into a celebration of pointless sacrifice.