SPIRO: Anthems and gold medals are the DNA of the Olympics
The silly season for stories that are vaguely related to the London Olympic Games is now over, thankfully.
No more nonsense about the body shape of some athletes, about the weather, how terrible the red-maggots design of the Spanish team uniform is, the security stuff-ups, any story with the words ‘John Steffensen’ in it and so on, and so on, and so on.
But in the spirit of the Olympics we have a winner for the silliest story in this silly season. Drum roll please! The winner is … CHRIS RATTUE! For his story in the New Zealand Herald titled: ‘Hand-on-heart anthems are anathema.’
Rattue is a rugby league tragic who purports to write a sports column for his newspaper. In his winning entry he managed, for once, not to bag rugby union mercilessly (he couldn’t help making a slight attack, though) but mainly turned his diatribe on the national anthems played during the medal ceremonies:
“Here’s what I really don’t like about the Olympics, and it has nothing to drugs and tennis. Anthems and more anthems. Or, in other words, what passes for patriotism.”
Chris, just listen up for a moment. The anthems and the patriotism play a large part in making the Olympics so special.
If there wasn’t the patriotism and the medal ceremonies there wouldn’t be the world-wide passion for the Olympics. Admittedly, over 80 nations throughout the world have not won a gold medal. But about 40 nations or so presumably have. And with each successive Games we get more nations that have won Olympics gold.
This linkage between the exploits of the athletes and an intense national and possessive pride in their triumphs goes back to the days of the ancient Olympics. The victors were treasured by their communities for the rest of lives, and then lived – as the modern days champions do – in the dear memory of their communities.
I know, I know, Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics (and the pioneer of rugby union in France, Chris), talked about the ‘joy of taking part’ as being part of the ideal of the Olympics. And this is right. To be an Olympian, even if you don’t win anything, gives an athlete a certain immortality. They are in the official records. And hopefully, the modern Olympics will last as long as the ancient Olympics did, for hundreds of years.
But true sporting Olympic immortality goes to the medal winners.
I was taken by John Clarke’s splendid three-part ABC documentary called ‘Sporting Nation’ with the interview with Herb Elliott. The great runner talked about how athletes run for themselves (to win gold if possible) and for their nations. There is no conflict here. The two go together. The athletes get the thrill of competing and, hopefully, winning and their country-people get the vicarious thrill of seeing them achieve their dreams.
My ancestors, the ancient Greeks, thought deeply about the notion of citizenship and the role of athletes in this quest. ‘What is left for man to desire … divinity,’ was one of their insights into how to achieve a good life. As I have argued, going for Olympic gold is a way for citizens to achieve a certain divinity.
Australians have grasped this insight. It is one of the few nations that has competed in all the modern summer Olympics since they started in 1896. Edwin ‘Teddy’ Flack won gold in the 800m and 1500m at those Olympics. By doing this, he has become an Australian icon.
Flack was Australia’s sole representative at these Olympics. About 400 athletes, many of them potential gold medal winners, are representing Australia in these third London Olympics.
Does anyone think, even the clueless Rattue, that if the 1896 Olympics had been a tournament of champions and would-be champions competing solely as individuals, without any association with their nation, that anyone anywhere would have heard or even cared about Flack?
The wonderful thing about the London Olympics, and all the Olympics since 1896, is that ordinary Australians have their chance for immortality. So, finally, it’s ready, set, go for anthems and gold medals for them and for all of the athletes competing in London.
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
- 2012 London Olympics