Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet
Issue Number 44
20th September 2000
On Watching the Olympic Games on Television
As we have just bought a new widescreen set, Mrs Gabb and I are watching more than usual on the television. In particular, we have been sitting up late to watch the Olympic Games now being held in Sydney. As it is the sport we both enjoy doing, we have mostly watched the swimming.
I cannot say I am impressed. I can appreciate how fast the swimmers move though the water. But what strikes me most about them is their great ugliness. Many of them have taken to wearing rubber suits, and these, by presenting an undifferentiated surface to the viewer, draw attention to the shape of their bodies. The women have unattractively large thighs and very small breasts, but otherwise are fairly womanly. The men, however, look barely human. They have enormously wide shoulders and even more enormous feet. One of the swimmers—an Australian youth whose name escapes me—has size 17 feet. He looks like a circus clown with them, but seems happy enough, since they help him to swim faster than all the other competitors.
This is what the “Olympic Ideal” has come to mean—not the cultivation of athletic grace, but the mere breaking of records. By the 1960s, the records had been set as high as any normal athlete could manage, and so those who wanted to continue breaking them had to take drugs to enhance their performance. I think it was the Soviets who really began this, in their efforts to prove that socialism created a faster, stronger human being; and by the 1970s, their team trainers had become little better than pharmacists with a talent for knowing where to hide needle scars from the drug inspectors. But, once started, the drug race had to be taken up by anyone else who wanted not to be beaten off the field.
Today, this race is growing too risky to maintain. Drugs continue to be taken, but sophisticated testing and routine invasions of personal dignity are disqualifying too many athletes. And so the search is on for natural freaks—those for whom we might normally feel pity, but whose deformity can with training be turned to advantage in the competition for medals.
This is, however, likely to be only a transitory resort. As very few people are born with size 17 feet, or legs four foot long, or whatever, I am sure that genetic engineering will soon be called in to supplement the work of nature. The champion swimmers of 2048 will probably be seven foot tall, have pointed heads, vestigial sexual organs—or, in the case of women, no breasts—double jointed knees, and webbed flippers instead of feet. They will need to be carried to and from the pool, and may not live much beyond the age of thirty. I have no doubt their trainers will swear themselves blind that these variations from the norm are entirely fortuitous, nor any doubt that the television commentators from the countries where they were manufactured will shout themselves ecstatic whenever one of them swims half a mile in less than thirty seconds.
In my younger days, I always wanted to look like a swimmer. Though I occasionally tried for the ideal, I never achieved it, and am now a person of considerable size. Looking at those freakish young men on television the other evening, and thinking forward to the likely horrors of the coming century, I am almost reconciled to being fat.
The Greeks, of course, managed their Olympic Games with more sense. The ancient cycle of Olympiads ran from 776 BC—at least, that is when the earliest records of victors begin—to 393 AD, when Theodosius I suppressed all pagan rites within the Roman Empire. During this time, the Games were held for five or six days every fourth July at Olympia in central Greece. As might be expected, the Greeks had none of the chivalrous spirit that became fashionable in the English athletics of the Victorian age; and the thousand years of their Olympic Games are swelled with scandal. According to Pausanius, who wrote about the sites of mainland Greece in the second century, the first known bribe was given at the Games of 384 BC by Eupalus of Thessaly, and the last I know of was given by Sarapmmon of Arsinoites at the Games of 127 AD. Between these dates, the custom emerged of forcing athletes caught cheating to dedicate a statue to Zeus; and Pausanius describes many of these. Otherwise, there was cowardice: Sarapion, an Alexandrian wrestler, took fright and ran away from his opponent at the Games of 27 AD. There was cross-dressing, as when one Callipateira dressed as a trainer to get a closer watch as her son competed in the Games. Her sex was discovered by accident, and though she was not punished, the judged ordered that the trainers should go about in future as naked as the athletes. And there was sordid or bizarre behaviour among the non-competitors, as when the philosopher Peregrinus burned himself to death at the Games of 167 AD.
Even so, the Greeks always acted in the best possible taste. Their Olympic stadium was a work of the most beautiful architecture, They set up statues of their Olympic champions that are among the greatest works of art ever created, and commissioned odes to them by poets such as Pindar and Bacchylides and Simonides. Above all, they never thought to measure the performance of their champions.
Though they lacked the obsession with measurement of time and space that lies at the heart of our civilisation, the Greeks did appreciate the value of accurate measurement. Eratosthenes, for example, used simple geometry to measure the circumference of the Earth—he noted that at noon on a certain day, the sun shone directly overhead at Syene, but cast a shadow in Alexandria; and measuring the angle of the shadow, projected two lines downward to a deduced angle at the centre of the Earth, thereby finding what fraction of the whole circle was the arc that lay between the two cities. This achievement, for all its abstract genius, rested on his ability to measure the 500 mile distance between Alexandria and Syene. Again, Archimedes was able to calculate the fineness of gold in a crown by comparing its weight with the volume of water it displaced. The Greeks had the tools to measure distance and clocks to measure time as accurately as any of us still need for our every day purposes; and they had the scientific curiosity to use these. But they never, so far as I know, used them to measure sporting achievement.
I do not know who was the first non-mythical Olympic champion recorded. But the last one was an Armenian called Varastad. They all had their olive crowns and—so far as the arts of their times allowed—their odes and statues. We can still admire the Disc Thrower sculpted by Myron and Eniochos the Charioteer from Delphi, and even base gloomy thoughts on the possible life and times of Varastad. But we have no idea how fast they were. The achievements of one Olympiad were celebrated—but, being unmeasured, could not be compared with the achievements of any other. The judges at the ancient Games would probably have been shocked at the thought of fawning on some deformed creature because he had shaved nine 32nds of a second off a speed record set six months earlier and that would be broken three weeks later by three 64ths of a second. The olive crown went to the best of those competing at the time, and that victory was the only one that mattered. The competitors were expected to be graceful and well-proportioned. That is, they were expected to look like the people I used to want to look like myself—and, to be honest, still do hopelessly want to. No one with size 17 feet would have been suffered to enter the ancient Games, and most of the athletes who now win medals for running would have been pelted off the racetrack for their ugliness.
I have read much nonsense about the ancient Games—usually written by people whose words were about sweetness and light but whose thoughts were wholly and obviously about boys exercising naked in the sunlight. The Greeks were a strange people, and if the games they watched never matched the horror of what the Romans enjoyed, their Olympics were frequently brutal and corrupt. But they did have the humanity never to inflict on their athletes what we do on ours.
So here is an issue of Free Life Commentary that has not once mentioned Tony Blair or the Conservative Party or the New World Order. But, as ever, it does end with a lament on the degeneracy of the times in which we live. O saeclum insapiens et infacetum!