Games Roll On, Homeward?

A universally popular event common to both the Summer and Winter Olympics is the debate over whether the current host is up to the task or whether maybe the Games should find a permanent home. The argument has been running since the Olympics were revived in Athens in 1896; it has followed them to Sochi, Russia, and is likely to continue to Rio de Janeiro — returning every two years, until, after their travels around the world, the Games finally settle down.

In their original setting, a verdant sanctuary to Zeus in the Peloponnese Peninsula, the Olympics lasted close to 1,200 years (from 776 B.C. to A.D. 393). The reason for their founding is lost in myth and mystery. But their purpose was clear: to bring together the finest athletes of the Greek city-states, to have them compete within a strict framework aimed at ensuring fairness, and to distinguish them from all other peoples, who were excluded. Until the Roman conquest, only Greek men could take part in the Olympics. The Games were fiercely competitive, with the winners and their cities gloating over their humiliated rivals.

In the modern Olympics, global unity is the aim. In London in 2012, some 10,500 athletes from 204 national Olympic committees took part. In fact, so inclusive are the Games that 11 more national teams compete than there are member countries in the United Nations. The scholarly romantics who worked toward the revival of the Games could not have predicted that the events in Athens in 1896 — when 241 athletes from 14 nations participated and Greeks won the most medals — would mushroom into the greatest celebration of human interaction, sportsmanship and spectacle.

Cheating, overcommercialization, corruption, wastefulness, terrorist threats and state repression in host countries have all injured the ideal, but no other peaceful event unites so many people from all over the world in a purpose that is both universal and uniquely personal — to try to be the best. Imagine if there was no such concept, no such meeting of humanity in peaceful competition, if the years were not punctuated by the excitement of these regular gatherings.

The French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, who was instrumental in reviving the Olympics, wanted them to rotate among cities around the world. The Greek hosts of Athens 1896, who also played a major role in the Games’ revival, wanted them to stay in Greece. After the second and third Olympics, in Paris (1900) and St. Louis (1904), garnered little public enthusiasm in their host cities, the Greek capital hosted “intermediate” Olympics in 1906; though successful and widely credited with rebooting the Games, they are not included in the International Olympic Committee’s official history. Since then, the Olympics established themselves and candidate cities have campaigned feverishly to host them. And the debate over a permanent home keeps coming back.

The murky selection process of host cities, the cost overruns that invariably leave a huge debt burden, the displacement of local residents in grand construction schemes, security fears, last-minute preparations and concerns over some hosts’ human rights records and political exploitation of the Games are of continual concern for those who care about them. The Nazis’ racist propaganda in the 1936 Berlin Games, the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches in a terrorist hostage crisis at Munich in 1972 and the tit-for-tat boycotts between Western countries and the Soviet bloc in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984 are the darkest stains in modern Olympic history and good arguments for keeping alive the idea of a permanent home.

In 1976, the Greek government had approved a plan to offer land near ancient Olympia for a permanent site of the Games. In 1984, the United States Senate passed a resolution expressing “the sense of the Congress that the International Olympic Committee should establish a permanent Olympic facility on a site that insulates the Games from international politics.” But it was never enacted, and hosting the Olympics remains an ambition of many countries that want to show who they are and what they can do. The Games are also seen as an opportunity for growth through investment in infrastructure. The fact that most host cities (like Athens) are left with unused facilities and huge debts seems to elude most candidates, as they consider only the benefits of development and of being at the center of the world’s attention.

Because today the Olympic Village is a Global Village, locality is in a sense irrelevant. We have year-round access to Olympic hopefuls and heroes, to our villains and controversies, to the drama that sells stories and products: what matters is access to athletes and their tales. In this context, it’s the opening and closing ceremonies that become the most distinguishing feature provided by the host country.

So let the Games roll on, from city to city, as long as there are countries keen to host them. If and when the time comes for them to settle down in a permanent place, nothing would be more fitting than a return to the corner of the world in which they flourished for over a thousand years. Then, nations may compete for the honor of staging opening and closing ceremonies — in Greece — which will tell the world who they are and what they can do. In this way, the Olympics will carry on as a stage for all humanity, allowing nations, like their athletes, to compete as equals for the chance to prove their difference.

Nikos Konstandaras is the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini.

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