The Implications of the Political Economy of Olympic Ideals

            As the Summer Olympics get underway in London, many commentators are taking the opportunity to reflect on the broader meanings of this quadrennial athletic event. I thought I would focus here on those who are deeply critical of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its choices as the Games begin. Their criticisms point up a broader sociological and philosophical reality confronting many western societies and nations that have emulated them around the globe.

            The IOC justifies the enormous cost of the Olympiad on the Games’ contributions to possible world peace and on its commitment to excellence as demonstrated by the events themselves and the fair competition they embody. The rhetoric is often soaring and edifying, never acknowledging such ugly details as doping and site selection scandals, or issues surrounding the backgrounds of Committee leaders, or the often bruising international and bureaucratic court-like politics that occurs as policies are set, sports selected and norms institutionalized. The Games are instead presented as the best of humankind’s peaceful quest for excellence and as drawing all peoples together around that effort.

            So, it is not surprising that many authors write to remind their readers that the Committee and the Games do not always live up to these ideals and that the process of making the proverbial Olympic sausage is hardly a pretty one. Some commentators go so far, indeed, as to label all rhetoric concerning the broader ideals of the Games as so much claptrap and to call for laying it aside in favor of viewing the Olympiad through the lens of athletic excellence alone. It seems to me this sort of critique is problematic on two levels.

            First, such claims rob the Games of any ennobling possibility. That outcome prevents the creation and pursuit of ideals, but also eliminates a key mechanism by which to reach the earth’s populations concerning the compelling need to recognize the inherent dignity of others unlike themselves to secure more peaceful conditions.

            Second, without such aspirations, the Olympics could fall prey to a complete identification with the nationalism of the various countries participating, and this turn could aggravate international tensions and conflicts in lieu of providing at least a marginal set of claims to mitigate them.

            At a more philosophic level, arguing that the ideals associated with the Olympiad should be jettisoned because they are too rarely reached, exemplifies and may exacerbate a difficult trend already well underway in nations with market economies. These countries tend to embrace a political economy underpinned by a philosophy of individual liberalism, on the one hand, and capitalist consumerism, on the other hand. Put differently, the prevailing political and economic systems or philosophies in these nations in principle arrogate to individuals the choice of what to value and what not to value, what to believe constitutes justice and ethical claims and what not to accord standing, and so on.

            In such an instance, social structures and economic systems alike are merely the byproduct of individual choices and of such bargains as may be struck by those pressing their particular claims and concerns, as no common meanings or shared aspirations are imagined, let alone invoked as appropriate yardsticks by which to measure concerns or interests. While those involved in such negotiations in politics may not (and often do not) represent the entire society, it is such individuals and groups ultimately whose interests nevertheless will prevail in the absence of any institutions that can represent a commons claim. What constitutes a shared community purpose is therefore frequently the result of powerful claims advanced by those able to press them in the absence of any means by which to measure or rank demands. Meanwhile, capitalist consumption claims are innately privatizing and, if not corrosive of communal claims, per se, are at best neutral toward them.

            What this suggests for arguments concerning the IOC is that it is dangerous to jettison Olympic ideals on the basis that they have only ever been imperfectly realized. There may literally be nothing left to replace them but the nationalistic and metaphorically privatizing claims of nations interested in demonstrating prowess, ascendancy or power. As the old saying has it, be careful as you throw out the bath water so as not to lose the baby in the process. Absent ideals, the Olympics, as so many social institutions, has little beyond self-identified claims to animate it. That result could potentially prove deeply problematic not only for the Games, but also for aspirations to attain broader aims for humanity that go beyond individual nations that the Olympics have come to represent.