The Olympic 'Truce'

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April 21, 2008

You've no doubt heard much about the recent protests of the Olympics, with pro-Tibet activists and curmudgeons of all stripes disrupting ceremonies to try to send the Chinese hosts a message. "Oh, but the Olympics aren't supposed to be political!" we hear. For the record, I do admit it's kinda messed up that a post-Communist police state should have the honor of hosting an event created in the spirit of international friendship and brotherhood. (The same goes for countries that like to beat up their brothers, like most of the West, or Africa, or the Mideast -- oh screw it, it's a whole orgy of sibling rivalry.)

That said, I too find myself inclined to join in the chorus of woe; the politicization of the Olympics shows how politics consumes almost everything in society like a bacterial illness.

Consider boycotts (like Moscow in 1980 and L.A. in 1984) and terrorist attacks (Munich in 1972 and Atlanta in 1996), governments refusing in some circumstances to let "their" athletes and "their" teams participate (Teheran forbids athletes from competing against their Israeli counterparts), controversy over the "international" Games mostly being held in rich and powerful Western nations, and of course the constant grandstanding by various elected and un-elected officials.

We call ourselves "free", yet so much in our everyday lives is determined by politics. (Politics, of course, we define as channeling the coercive force of the State to achieve one's own personal ends.) The State apparently knows better than you what to eat, what drugs you ought to be taking, how to manage your medical care, who should marry whom, how to dispose of your trash, what you ought to learn in school, when you should start or stop working, blah blah... There's a law for this and a law for that, tax breaks for the privileged, and plenty of government departments to make our lives miserable. Your economic standard of living is affected by policies crafted by politically connected power brokers. Even the kind of language you use is a matter for political intervention. Will you be allowed to live your life in peace or will you be forced to don a uniform, take up arms and shoot some foreigner who never had anything to do with you -- or at least be compelled to pay for it? This too is a matter for politics to decide. Yes, some will decide, others will fight to be able to do the deciding, all will suffer obedience. And all will grow secretly resentful and try to one-up the other in a fruitless quest for power.

Yet one look at "Yankees versus Red Sox" will show you that division and rivalries are part of our human nature, not simply a bastard spawn of politics and Statism. We cannot fully escape from this, even if we can and should work to minimize the kind of destructive, artificial divisions we get through Statism. Indeed, it will be a long time before we are fully able to "live free or die" as long as our lives and society are shaped by such political conflict and power-mongering.

Yet I am reminded of the "Christmas Day Truce" of World War I, a moment of peace and shared brotherhood in the midst of a horrible conflict. The Olympics, at their best, were meant to serve as a similar moment when coercive, discordant politics could be dismissed and people could find the opportunity to expend their energies on other things -- a celebration of man at the height of his ability and prowess as shown by the Olympic athletes; a celebration of merit over privilege; a celebration of the kind of heights man can achieve (at least in the physical realm); a celebration of true heroism (not the kind that involves bombing poor people for the Nation).

By contrast, coercive politics and Statism, more then merely causing fights at the Seder table, is based on a view of man as something to be corralled, controlled, stifled and held in contempt, in favor of some vague, false "common good". Forgive me if I sound a bit corny or even Randian here, but I tell you this: the kind of flourishing stateless society we wish to develop would depend on a certain spirit of lofty aspiration, which the current state of things would suggest is sorely lacking. It would also depend on the kind of human solidarity shown by the "Aryan" Luz Long to the "Negro" Jesse Owens in front of a glowering Hitler at the 1932 Games.

If the Olympics (and especially the Special Olympics) can promote this positive spirit, then that makes them inherently non-political and even anti-political.

So I say, "Let the Games be the Games." Leave your placards and boycotts and petty political posturing at the door. Let the Senators and the Presidents and royalty stay at home. Let them be forgotten -- ignored even! The Olympics should be a truce, albeit brief, to let us focus on less petty and more humanly significant things.

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Marcel Votlucka's picture
Columns on STR: 29

 Marcel Votlucka writes from Brooklyn NY.  His work focuses on the connections between psychology, culture, and anti-politics.  Visit his new website at