The Spirit of the Olympics

The modern Olympics is a fruit of cultural hybridisation - of English imperial classicism and moral improvement, of Greek national assertion and of French anglophilia.

Whatever their origins in the neo-classicism of European gentlemen in the age of Victoria, the ideals of international peaceful competition between noble individuals have too often found themselves dragged into the world of realpolitik, whether the rassenpolitik of the Nazis in 1936, Cold War conflicts, black power in 1968, terrorism in 1972 or, now, the values competition between the West and Russia.

2016 is no different in this. We have two global conflicts to the fore this time - the resentment of the urban poor at expensive circuses that they think divert funds from their real needs and a clash of values between the West and Russia on 'doping' which has the character of earlier Cold War attempts to carry on a cultural war by any means possible. The urban poor have a point. Academics have great difficulty demonstrating the economic utility of the games to the host nations while Business Insider today gave us a grim article on the decaying sites of past events.

But the main interest is in the doping scandal which is positioned, as in so much of Cold War history, as a simple matter of good and evil instead of a conflict of assumptions, suppositions and priorities. To believe that Russia is alone in doping beggars belief but it is probably true that Soviet culture took a very different view from the West of athletic prowess and that this has resulted in a crisis of values where Russian resentments seem incomprehensible to Westerners with their residual (and probably rather fantastic) classical view of Ancient Greek moral perfection.

This is not to take either side but simply to note that if the Olympics were (in their origin) a celebration of individual achievement by heroic exemplars contributing to national pride (taken to extreme limits by Leni Riefenstahl in 1936) within a continuous cultural tradition, they also became a symbol of collective endeavour in the improvement of humanity as a whole through exemplars who represented what the working class could be if it was given every assistance to excel. This, too, went to its extreme of forcing the issue through socialist investment in extreme training.

For one side, doping is an individual corruption. For the other, it is an ambiguous misinterpretation of the mission - less heinous perhaps because of the good intent. The clash in 2016 is between two decadent versions of older idealisms. The first has individual achievement now set in a ring of commercial exploitation where the nation state is just a means to an end. The second has degenerated into the bad habit of winning at all costs through a sort of sub-transhumanist reliance on biochemical enhancements. But perhaps there is a way out of this. Two suggestions are made here.

The first is that the travelling circus with its costs, its national branding shows and politicisation be settled on two fixed locations specially built - for summer and winter sports - that, like the original Olympics, are removed from national jurisdiction, a New Olympia under UN jurisdiction. The second is that there be two sets of games alternating every two years (keeping to the core four year cycle) for 'pure' unenhanced humans and medically approved 'enhanced' transhumans respectively, different but transparent and equal. Something for everyone, in short.