The Common Good
September-October 1996

Live from Mt. Olympus

by Danny Duncan Collum | September-October 1996

The Atlanta Summer Olympics descended upon media-mad America like a vast mind-numbing, soul-sapping fog. 

The Atlanta Summer Olympics descended upon media-mad America like a vast mind-numbing, soul-sapping fog. The Olympic telecast, in any season, is like the Deep South heat so much discussed at the Atlanta games: It is there, and it won't go away. Mere mortals are powerless over it.

The other Leap Year staples—the Democratic and Republican political conventions—were once like this, too. The coverage was gavel-to-gavel and wall-to-wall for at least four days per party on all three networks; even political junkies got sick of it. Now the conventions get, maybe, an hour of prime-time per night. This is all part of an inexorable process that will lead to the banning of all not-for-profit activities by the year 2020.

The word from the sales department is that politics doesn't pay, at least not over the counter, in public. So the conventions are off the screen. There is no commercial payoff to Jefferson's ideal of an informed and enlightened electorate. Like all other values without price, that ideal is out the window in the Free Market Era.

The Olympic Games used to carry an aura of unsightly non-profit, touchy-feely ideals. The Games were inherited from the ancient Greeks. Every four years their best athletes climbed to the home of the gods, Mt. Olympus, to offer the finest of human performance.

The Games were revived at the turn of this old century with a lot of mush about international brotherhood and something called "amateurism." That was supposed to mean running the race or playing the game for the pure love of it. Excellence for its own sake and perfecting a skill simply for the joy of a job well done were suitable goals.

Unolympian political conflict did enter the world of the 20th-century Games for good and ill. For instance, the Olympic establishment rolled over for Hitler in 1936 when his regime was allowed to host the Games, but it finally stood up to South Africa three decades later when the apartheid state was banned. In 1968, Mexican students and workers seized upon the media showcase of the Mexico City Games as a time to move against their ruling oligarchy, and were brutally suppressed. That same year, just weeks after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., African-American athletes made a moving and dramatic nonviolent protest at the Games.

In the Cold War days, the Olympics, like everything else, were an arena of superpower competition. In those days the ideal of Olympian internationalism was invoked for the cause of human survival. The peaceful sporting competition between the United States and the U.S.S.R. was supposed to somehow make an armed conflict less likely.

THE OLYMPICS WERE something of a bloodless patriotic crusade back then. In America ordinary citizens actually made contributions, of their own money, to support our Olympic team. The idea was to show that our voluntary private sector could outdo the state-run sport machines of the Soviet bloc.

The Olympic mills of the East were brutal and dehumanizing affairs. We who are old enough heard the horror stories every four years: In Russia, children who showed athletic potential were taken from their parents in grade school and sent off to sport farms to be cultivated into full-grown world-class athletes. In East Germany, female athletes ended up hairy-chested and infertile when overdosed with male hormones simply to build up their competitive muscle mass.

The Communist systems, of sport and everything else, were worse than the free market, and they had to go. But with them went the non-commercial buffer zone around the Olympics. Before the Soviet collapse of 1990, the capitalist world kept the myth of Olympic amateurism afloat in order to maintain the moral high ground of beating "socialism" at its own collectivist-altruist game.

That's all behind us now. Today there supposedly is no more "socialism," all trade barriers are down, and everyone at the Olympics is an unabashed professional. Meanwhile, in the years since the fall of the Wall, the Olympian spirit of international cooperation has become fused with the mundane human lust for home entertainment and carbonated beverages.

The Cold War "peaceful competition" framework for the Olympics has been replaced by a naked rush for corporate sponsorship bucks. The result is the first great cultural monument of our grand and globalized, get-rich-quick New World Order. In the post-Cold War Olympics, we can see all of the ideological implications of corporate globalism laid bare, dramatized, and blown up larger than life. In the New World Olympics, the score is kept in dollars, the only countries are Nike and Reebok, and the only crime is not getting paid.

Atlanta was the perfect location for this Olympian triumph of the dollar. "The city too busy to hate" has always prided itself on letting greed override all ideological considerations, even white supremacy. The lesson Atlanta learned from the Civil War was that Northern industrial money won the war, and the South better wake up and get some of it. On that pragmatic foundation was erected the semitropical megalopolis that is home to Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, and CNN.

In Atlanta this summer, we have all ascended Olympus at last. But there is only one god left standing, and its name is Mammon.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches creative writing at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore..

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