Slavish obedience to tradition is never a good thing, but neither is its wanton disregard. So what are we to make of the recent announcement by the International Olympic Committee that wrestling, one of the original sports in both the ancient and modern Olympic Games, is to be dropped as a core sport and will have to compete for a single slot in the 2020 Games against a number of other sports, including baseball and softball, karate, squash, roller sports, sport climbing, wakeboarding (I’d never heard of it, but it appears to be related to water skiing) and wushu, a martial art said to be hugely popular in China? Media reports on the decision stressed the vigorous and successful lobbying by proponents of modern pentathlon, an original sport in the Modern Games, also threatened with removal, which consists of running, swimming, horseback riding, fencing, and shooting – skills required by the late-19th-century cavalry officer caught behind enemy lines – to which I confess a certain fondness due in equal measure to its gloriously anachronistic quality and its complete lack of commercial appeal.
Some traditions are best abandoned. I, personally, am happy Olympic athletes no longer compete in the nude, their bodies glistening with olive oil, though I would make an exception for women’s beach volleyball. The modern Olympics themselves are to a large extent based on a misreading of the role of the original games in ancient Greece. Pierre de Coubertin, who created the modern Olympic movement, was, unusually for a Frenchman, strongly influenced by English ideas of education and sport, especially those of Dr. Arnold of Rugby School, a proponent of the notion that “organised sport can create moral and social strength,” and that, as de Coubertin put it, “L’important dans la vie ce n’est point le triomphe, mais le combat, l’essentiel ce n’est pas d’avoir vaincu mais de s’être bien battu.” (The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well). De Coubertin would have had little use for Vince Lombardi’s world view (Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing), but then he also had little regard for women in sport and believed that they should be excluded from the Olympics.
There is evidence that de Coubertin misinterpreted, and excessively romanticized, the ancient Olympics. Scholars have argued whether ancient Olympic athletes were amateurs or professionals – after 480 BCE, at least, most were professionals – and have disputed de Coubertin’s belief in the contribution of the games to the prevention of war, arguing that a limited truce was declared only to permit athletes to travel to and from the Olympic site and protect the venue from attack during the festivities. What’s more, the idea that, as American sportswriter Grantland Rice put it, “For when the great scorer comes to write against your name, He marks not that you won or lost but how you played the game,” would probably have been quite alien to contestants in the ancient games. The ancient Greeks may have competed for glory, not reward, but the glory came in winning, not in being a good loser. Both Hector and Achilles, after all, were revered for their victories, not their defeats.
Still, some traditions are worth holding on to just because they are ancient and venerable. The modern Olympics are descended directly from the ancient Olympics, however much of the latter may have been lost in the translation. Wrestling was one of the core events of the ancient games and of the modern games, at least until now. Wrestling is one sport in which contestants compete purely for the glory. A few wrestlers may go on to fame and some degree of fortune in pro wrestling, but most of these guys, winners as well as losers, go on to earn a living doing something totally unrelated to the sport in which they have excelled. I have never seen a wrestler pictured on a Wheaties box, sponsored by a major shoe company, or advertising prescription drugs on TV. Some things are valuable precisely because they have no value outside themselves.
The ancient Greeks invented the concept of hubris – defiance of the gods – which typically led to nemesis, or divine retribution. Abandonment of wrestling, an ancient sport one can imagine the Greek gods watching and betting on, in favor of, say, artistic roller-skating, would be hubris at its worst, ditching whatever remains of Olympic ideals to pander to the TV networks’ eternal request for ratings. If this decision stands I fully expect nemesis to follow, perhaps in the form of a bolt of lightning that wipes out the next meeting of the International Olympic Committee.
02-21-2013 5:59 PM