If you watch the Olympic Games and don’t connect to their magic, to how they so effortlessly conjoin the diverse cultures of our global village in a seamless whole, you’re just watching another sports event.
Alas, the Olympics this year are low-key. The forced smile that Japan managed at the opening ceremonies, which took place in a near-empty stadium meant to seat 70,000, was a mirror of the angst that the coronavirus pandemic has insinuated into out lives.
But the Games are not just games. They are the Olympics and, as theatre parlance has it, “the show must go on”, and as Shakespeare put it, the protagonists must “play out the play” — no matter the adverse circumstances. And the Olympics are nothing if not theatre, where Olympiads enact the core values inherent in our common humanity of justice and fair play on a public stage.
Consider the transformative power of that magic.
At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Germany, which at the time were supposed to showcase Aryan racial superiority, the most successful competitor there was Jesse Owens, a Black American sprinter who won several gold medals, including one for the long jump. In that one competition, a German athlete, Carl Ludwig Long, finished in second place.
Yet, after the event, Long congratulated his Black fellow-athlete and both walked, arm-in-arm, to collect their medals — all in front, not to mention to the horror of an aghast Hitler. Owen later told reporters: “You can melt all the gold in the medals I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the twenty-four carat friendship that I felt for Long at that moment”.
The flag of reunification
Then there was that historic moment, equally well known in Olympic lore, when at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia, the North Korean and South Korean teams, imbued as they were with the benign passions that animate the spirit of true Olympiads, marched as one at the opening ceremonies, holding the “the flag of reunification”.
To be sure, the modern Olympics have never always been consistently benign and politics-neutral, as Olympic purists would’ve wished them to have been. In the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, for example, Germany was barred from participating because it was blamed for the outbreak of the First World War; and in 1980, President Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott by the US of the Summer Games held in Moscow that year to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. (In a tit-for-tat, the Soviet Union, along with its Communist allies, boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.)
And, yes, last week in Tokyo, we were again witness to how politics can weave its way into the fabric of athletics when Algerian judoka Feith Nureen opted to withdraw completely from the Olympics after learning that his draw set him on course to face an Israeli competitor — reportedly to protest against Israel’s military occupation in Palestine.
Always a spectacle
But beyond that, beyond all that, there’s always the spectacle. And what a spectacle the opening ceremony this year was, as a parade of athletes, representing 205 nations, sashayed their way into Tokyo’s national stadium, much in the manner of models at a fashion show, bearing their countries’ flags and wearing snazzy, custom-designed uniforms, as fireworks lit up the night sky.
The whole world was there, including odd-man-out countries like Palestine — essentially an existential state of mind rather than a nation state — which sent athletes fielded from both the old sod and from the Diaspora; and Liberia, a country in West Africa with a population of less than five million, which is considered one of the poorest countries in the world, but nevertheless a country that had marshalled enough resources to send a team to the Games every year since 1956 — though it has not to date won an Olympic medal.
Alas, not only has coronavirus played a spoiler role in the Games this year, prompting the International Olympic Committee to order athletes to “keep a distance” from their fellow-athletes and “avoid hugging”, but so has nature. From day one, nature decided to put in its two cents’ worth of intervention by letting loose extreme heat and then tropical storms that brought with them high winds and strong gusts, which resulted in the cancellation of several events.
Does that mean the Tokyo Games are jinxed? Jinxed or not, the show must go on and the athletes must play out the play. No question that they will.
And we all, as the engaging platitude inscribed on a postcard from days yore would’ve declaimed, wish we were there. Who wouldn’t wish they were at an event that genuinely unites as one the human spirit of our global village — if only once every four years, and if only for 16 days?
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile