Do the Olympics still have a purpose?

Do the Olympics still have a purpose?

PH’s first Olympics gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz

If the Olympic Games ever served a truly altruistic purpose, they have long since outlived it. Yeah, the pursuit of athletic excellence, sportsmanship, and international goodwill is plenty noble. But the modern Olympics are at best a vehicle for agitprop; at worst, a scandal magnet.

— American screenwriter John Ridley

FIVE days from now, the Tokyo Olympics ends, and once again the world has seen the outstanding performances of the world’s best athletes in contests of physical and mental strength that has brought victory and defeat, happiness and sorrow to victors and losers in the quadrennial sports meet that brings together countries across the globe in healthy competition.

As of press time, we have won a gold medal, courtesy of our weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz. This is the first time that the Philippines has ever won gold in the Olympiad, and there are two more in line—boxers Eumir Marcial and Nesthy Petecio—who could both add to our remarkable medal haul in this year’s Games in Tokyo, Japan.

The victories scored by our athletes have certainly united us to cheer for the Filipino’s indomitable spirit to fight against the odds and prove his worth among the best of the best.

I watched the opening ceremony and was a little surprised to hear John Lennon’s eternal lines in his iconic song ‘Imagine’.

Didn’t anyone notice the irony in those lyrics? Why would anyone blast out in a song that proposed “no countries” as thousands of young athletes march under their individual nations’ flags? However, as the line snaked around the stadium and the list of countries were announced, we were simultaneously reminded that in the end, we are after all human with the same motivations and dreams of gold, as well as separate peoples with histories of war and violence.

Still, there is a nagging question in the ongoing Olympics that has raised doubts in our minds: Does the Olympic Games still have purpose in our lives? Does it really unite us as one global community? And does it still have meaning and value in our modern world?
But let us deal with these questions by first looking back at the origins of this quadrennial sports event.

The Olympic Games originated in ancient Greece as far back as 3,000 years ago and was revived in the late 19th century to become the world’s preeminent sporting competition. From the 8th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D., the Games were held every four years in Olympia, located in the western Peloponnese peninsula, in honor of the supreme god Zeus. The first modern Olympics took place in 1896 in Athens and featured 280 participants from 12 nations, competing in 43 events. Since 1994, the Summer and Winter Olympic Games have been held separately and have alternated every two years.

The first written records of the ancient Olympic Games date to 776 B.C., when a cook named Coroebus won the only event—a 192-meter foot race called the stade (the origin of the modern “stadium”)—to become the first Olympic champion. However, it is generally believed that the Games had been going on for many years by that time. Legend has it that Heracles (the Roman Hercules), son of Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene, founded the Games, which by the end of the 6th century B.C had become the most famous of all Greek sporting festivals.

The ancient Olympic game began as a regional religious event and reached the heights of national importance when the Greek empire spread in the 5th century B.C. What was once a friendly and fun-loving event, became a matter of colonial pride!

Sporting activities were an integral part of Greek education. The athletes would start preparing at an early age by professional trainers who helped them develop muscles, regulated their diet, and taught them sporting techniques.

There were many other sporting competitions, but the Olympics remained the most prestigious one. After 13 successful games, two more races were added: the diaulos (around 400-metres race) and the dolichos (a 1500-meters race). In 708 B.C. the very famous pentathlon (a race with five events: a foot race, long jump, discus, javelin throws, and wrestling match) was introduced. Many other games were added through the years like boxing in 688 B.C., chariot racing in 680 B.C., and pankration in 648 B.C.

Greeks took these games pretty seriously. Every athlete had to report to the events one month before the games and had to declare that they had been training for a minimum of ten months. Non-Greeks, lawbreakers, slaves, and murderers were prohibited from participating. Many cities, including Sparta in 420 B.C., were excluded from the games too.

The Hellanodikai judges from Elis were trained specially to organize the event. They had the power to disqualify and punish participants who infringed the law. On the breaching of any rules, the athlete or the city he represented had to pay hefty fines.

The Hellanodikai judges crowned winners with a wreath made of olive leaves and branches, as a sign of victory. Olive was significant to Olympia because it was planted by Hercules himself. In chariot races, the owners received these olive leaves while the charioteer was given a red ribbon to be worn on the upper arm or head. Victors were highly regarded and would often be welcomed to their hometowns with a grand ceremony. Large celebrations were organized in honor of their victory. Olympic winners were considered real heroes and received glory, fame, and historical immortality.

It is speculated that almost 45,000 people would attend these famous games. Food vendors, musicians, and artists would all come together to entertain people. Masses would extend their support with boisterous activities and hooting. No wars were allowed during the period and people would excitedly gather to celebrate the prestigious event.

Around the mid-2nd century, the Roman Empire conquered Greece and eventually the standard and quality of the games fell. In 393 A.D., Emperor Theodosius banned all ‘pagan’ festivals including the famous Olympics. The ancient game lasted for nearly 12 centuries with 293 successful Olympiads before coming to an end.

And almost after 3,000 years, the Games are still being played with much more glitter as it has grown to include the biggest and most powerful countries to the smallest and poorest nations across the globe. But things are different now as we have seen how Olympians are being treated after they win fortune and fame on the world’s stage and are crowned champions in their own right.

At the back of our mind, we recall a Filipino who won a medal for his country for the first time and years later, he was trying to sell that very medal he had won and fought for inside the squared arena of the boxing ring. And there is another boxer who won silver but was duped of his winnings and honor despite his efforts to bring prestige to his countrymen.

These are sad stories, but hey, in the Olympics the victors have their share of glory and the losers have their solitude and sorrow for letting their country down. (ai/mtvn)

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