Spartan Olympics

 
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By Khaled Diab

In an era of economic austerity, we must revive the idea of a permanent venue for the Olympics, which would also help to de-politicise the games.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

The Olympics have sometimes been used as a podium for shameless propaganda. Image: okänd

The London Olympics have been an entertaining spectacle and, as usual, a thrilling sight of sporting prowess, enabling largely harmless shows of patriotism, as fans cheer on their national stars, often in some of the world’s most obscure sports.

But this carnival carries an exorbitant price tag. Although the UK government has announced that the 2012 games will cost the taxpayer less than initially advertised, the final cost will still be an astronomical £9 billion ($14 billion). At a time of severe austerity, high youth unemployment and dramatic insider bank heists, it is welcome news that the Olympics in London will cost less than half of the Beijing games.

Nevertheless, this is an enormous cost for what, judging by previous experience, is an investment in disposable infrastructure that, like in Athens and Barcelona, usually lies abandoned and decaying for years as a monument to modern excess.

Given the amount of scarce resources the games require, organisers and their supporters have for years sought to deflect criticism by talking up the regenerative power of the games on deprived urban areas and the economic dividend the raised profile delivers the host city. But research suggests that both these claims are tenuous at best.

So that leaves national prestige and/or vanity. While there is nothing wrong with channelling nationalism into the often harmless avenue of sport and people seizing the chance for some good-humoured flag waving, but it is the taking part that should matter, not the hosting.

Besides, sporting nationalism is not always harmless or good-humoured. In fact, the Olympics have sometimes been used a podium for shameless propaganda. The most notable case was the 1936 games in Nazi Berlin. The silver lining was the sportsmanship exhibited by German athlete Luz Long who helped the African-American athlete Jesse Owens to win the long jump – a poignant gesture of subversion against Nazi race politics and American racial segregation.

In the West, the Beijing Olympics were also rightly criticised as an attempt by the Chinese authorities to whitewash the country’s poor human rights record, democratic deficit and the Tibetan question, not to mention the separatist rebellion in Xinjiang which flared up shortly before the games.

But despite its self-image, the West is not above playing such political games, and the London Olympics can be seen partly as a propaganda exercise to try to repair the damage to Britain’s image abroad caused by its bloody military misadventures of the past decade. Ironically, the United States led a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet Unions 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, yet no one has spearheaded a similar boycott against the UK for taking part in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. British double-standards here are not as blatant as America’s, given that the UK did allow its athletes who wanted to compete to go to Moscow.

So how can we both reduce the cost of the Olympics and abolish the political track and field side events?

The answer is, symbolically speaking, to make the games less Olympian and more Spartan, by re-establishing the ancient idea of a permanent neutral venue for the Olympics. This would not only depoliticise the hosting of the Olympics, but would also slash costs dramatically and ensure the efficient reuse of infrastructure.

Finding an appropriate location would not be easy. Olympia in Greece would certainly have a powerful symbolic advantage, but some of Greece’s neighbouring rivals might object.

To avoid the political wrangling that would inevitably arise in deciding where to locate a permanent Olympic venue, the International Olympic Committee could invite interested countries to bid a tiny part of their country which would be declared, rather like the UN headquarters, neutral international territory.

The different sites would be put up for an international vote and the selected one would immediately become a non-political international zone. In addition, an international fund would be set up to construct a fully-equipped Olympic city with all the necessary sporting facilities and accommodation.

Of course, though this would save a bundle in cash, it will not entirely de-politicise the Olympics since the games will remain an outlet for petty nationalism and flag waving. But it will allow a purer expression of the Olympic ideal: it seeks to make of sport an arena where countries can cast aside their political differences and build understanding through friendly competition.

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