The ruthless ideals of the Olympics return

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The Independent Online

The history of the modern Olympic Games is, in outline, quite simple. It goes from the lofty heights of a recreation of the old Olympic ideals by Baron de Coubertin downhill to an enormous modern jamboree where everyone is desperate for medals. It starts with the cult of the amateur and ends with the quest for undetectable drugs. It starts with the idea that it is better to take part than to win and ends with the idea that winning is everything.

In other words, as the performances get better and better, we lose sight more and more of the original Olympic ideals.

Or that is what I thought until yesterday, when I was glad to have it all put in perspective by Daniel Mendelsohn, a Princeton lecturer in classics, writing in The New York Times. He said that if you studied the original Greek Olympic Games, you found it was as ruthless and brutal an event as anything in the ancient world. Winning was everything. People would push themselves to the limit to win, and often died in the attempt, especially in the more violent fighting events. The idea that the Olympics could be symbolised by a cuddly toy would amaze the Ancient Greeks. Death would be more of a symbol.

And why was winning a life-or-death matter ? Well, says Mendelsohn, more than anything else, to gain immortality. The Greeks did not have the Christian or Muslim belief in a glorious afterlife. There was nothing better awaiting us when we died. If you were to gain immortality, it was through being remembered here on Earth, and one of the best ways to be remembered was to be crowned victor at the Olympic Games.

So when the Baron de Coubertin restarted the modern Olympics, his emphasis on fair play, amateurism and the sporting spirit was obviously as far from the old Olympic ideals of win-or-die as it is possible to get. The modern Olympic Games were gentlemanly and amateur back in 1896, and every change they have undergone since has brought them nearer to what they were really like.

I suppose, too, that a lot of people in modern times have achieved immortality through their Olympic feats. Bannister... Landy... Jesse Owens... Zatopek... Mark Spitz... all modern Olympic heroes whose names are known to people who have no interest in sport. Which makes it all the sadder that I have no idea of the names of any contestants who carried off Olympic victories in ancient Greece, and nor, I suspect, do many of my readers. All those runners and boxers and jumpers who strove to become immortal - where are their names now?

And yet it is extraordinary how, today, sporting immortality does become conferred on certain people. Mention the name of Dr WG Grace, or Babe Ruth, or Joe Louis, or Borotra, or Dixie Dean, and most people's folk memories will stir with recognition, just as I suspect Lance Armstrong's name will last for many years. Of course, someone like Armstrong represents a level of dedication that most of us would find impossible even to aim at. Even in the world of cycling, he is in a class apart, because he does not train for a year of cycling, he trains for one race only: the Tour de France. While other cyclists are pedalling round Italy or up the Spanish mountains, he is in France, practising for the big one, memorising the route.

You wouldn't catch Lance Armstrong at the Olympics, I think. They would be rather too trivial for him. And yet, more than anyone else I can think of, he does represent the Olympic ideal. The ancient Greek ideal, that is. The real, ruthless, uncompromising and distinctly chilly ideal.