Not everyone is a winner at the Olympic Games

For some it is all about winning, for others it is about inclusiveness

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg - s
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Pierre de Coubertin, a French Baron who is regarded as the founder of the modern Olympics, asserted that “The important thing in the Olympic games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle…” Since the modern Olympic games started in Athens in 1896, the games, as much as sport as a whole, became more than just about participation – it is a reflection of us and our societies. The utopian ideal that winning comes second to sportsmanship has long been discarded, setting winning medals as the ultimate goal - preferably gold. It brings with it national pride, international recognition, celebrity status and monetary reward. Obsession with winning led to cheating via the abuse of performance enhancing drugs not only by individuals, but also through state sponsored programs.

One of the welcome novelties of the current games is the introduction of a team of refugees. It reflects the tragic reality that today there are more than 21 million refugees, out of 65 million displaced people; the number of a medium sized country. The participation of refugees from war torn countries such as South Sudan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia, is a victory of the spirit of the Olympic games not only through raising awareness of the magnitude of the plight of refugee people, but also the talent among them, not only in sport, which goes to waste while their situation is unresolved.

However, the games also underline biases, prejudice, discrimination and the very nationalistic nature of our world. It took women many years to gain equal opportunity to participate in almost all of the Olympic sports, but the commentary by some of the media outlets is still rife with sexist comments. One commentator on NBC news attributed Katinka Hosszú’s wonderful achievement of breaking a world record and winning a gold medal in the 400-meter individual medley to her trainer husband. Remarks about female athletes’ appearances, martial statuses and age are disproportionate compared to commentary on that of male athletes. More attention was paid to Doaa Elghobashi wearing long sleeves and a hijab in a volleyball match with Germany, than to her making history with her team mate Nada Meawad by being part of the first Egyptian female Olympic beach volleyball team – a combination of misogyny and Islamophobia.

For some it is all about winning, saluting the national flag and singing the national anthem. For others, it is about the inclusiveness and human endeavor to improve

Yossi Mekelberg

Olympic games also act as a showpiece for the hosting city and country. The competition to host it is fierce and in many cases severe corruption is involved, followed by a ruthless approach to deliver the games, including gross violations of human rights. The 2008 games in Beijing and those of 2014 in Sochi were tainted by forced evictions, illegal home demolitions, and ill-treatment of migrant workers who built the sports facilities. Promises to regenerate the areas where the games take place seldom materialize and the facilities mainly serve elite sport when the games are over and rarely the wider public. In Rio, despite constant promises to the IOC to improve the appalling local police record on human rights abuses, including widespread homicide, temporary improvement was actually followed by further deterioration. The largest global display of fraternity is ostensibly not extended to everyone. In a country with a high level of poverty there are a copiously large number of empty seats in many competitions that locals cannot afford to buy tickets for.

And then there is a question of nationalism in a seemingly globalized world. Why is it so important for us that the winning athletes are of the same nationality as ourselves? Why don’t we judge the performance and efforts of individuals and teams on their own merit, instead of the athletes’ nationality? It is rather bemusing to see the Brazilians supporting everyone who plays the Argentinians, though rather inappropriate when an Egyptian Judoka refuses to shake the hand of his Israeli opponent. However, politics has played part, though usually negative, in many previous Olympics. Boycotts and demonstrations were part and parcel of previous games, whether in the fight against Apartheid in Montreal 1976, or shunning the 1980 Moscow Games as punishment for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

A powerful message

In Constantine P. Cavafy’s powerful poem “Ithaka,” based on Homer's account of Odysseus's adventurous, though hazardous, journey home, the message is similar to that of Coubertin, placing value on the effort invested and the lessons learned from a journey rather than the final destination. “When you set out for Ithaca ask that your way be long, full of adventure, full of instruction… But don't in the least hurry the journey. Better it last for years, so that when you reach the island you are old, rich with all you have gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth. Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.”

The journey of the modern Olympics is 120 years old yet it still divides the world between those who focus on winning and fame, or even financial gain, and those who see it as a reflection of our changing societies. Universal (almost) participation underlines for instance changes of attitude towards those who have been disadvantaged throughout the centuries. It reflects the progress made in recognizing the rights of women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and refugees. Next month’s Paralympics, also taking place in Rio, are a testament to the changing attitudes towards disability. Yet, the Olympic Games are still a journey in progress, through which we examine what is important to us as individuals and as a society. For some it is all about winning, saluting the national flag and singing the national anthem. For others, it is about the inclusiveness and human endeavor to improve. In the four years until Tokyo 2020, we will have plenty of time to reflect on the meaning of the legacy of Rio 2016 for humanity on its long voyage.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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