The Betrayal of the Olympic Ideal

The Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, championed the idea of reviving the ancient Greek Olympics as a way of fostering and encouraging fraternity among the inhabitants of different countries around the world, and thereby reducing the risk of war. In this sense, the Olympic Games and other international sporting competitions have achieved their goal of increasing fraternity and lessening hostility among different peoples. It is certainly a sign of progress when, instead of resolving their differences on fields of battle with swords and shields, guns and bombs, and tanks and planes, as they were wont to do formerly – and unfortunately still do in some parts of the world – rivals resolve their differences amicably with balls, pucks, foils, javelins, racquets, skis, skates, and sticks. Although athletes expend much toil and shed much sweat in the attempt to vanquish their adversaries, they only rarely shed their adversaries’ blood, and certainly not to the point of causing their death, as soldiers and warriors did formerly.

But as often happens with popular movements that become widely adopted, they develop in ways that their founders would not have approved of. Today, we live in a global society that has largely abandoned the ideal of friendly competition championed by Coubertin, who declared that “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.” There are few people who would agree with the cooperative spirit that he espoused throughout his life. Instead, many people now concur with the attitude expressed by American football coach Vince Lombardi, who declared, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” The competitive multi-person model that pits one individual, team, or country against another individual, team, or country has become so dominant and widespread in today’s world that many people mistakenly believe it forms an innate and ineradicable part of human nature.

Even in recreational sports, camaraderie and good sportsmanship on the field have been eroded by competitiveness, so that cheating, poor sportsmanship, and disputatious behaviour are regarded as normal and acceptable. Many people only enjoy participating in a sport when they win, and no longer simply when they play it. Winning at all costs in other domains besides sports has become the dominant model in many societies, with its accompanying harmful consequences of increased conflict, stress, anxiety, inequality, selfishness, and dishonesty, along with a reduced regard and consideration for those who are considered to be losers, whether in sport, work, business, friendship, romance, popularity, the marketplace, and life in general. The belief in the primordial importance of winning has pervaded nearly every aspect of our hyper-competitive lives. Honesty, whether in sports, business, or personal relationships, is one of the many casualties of the hyper-competitiveness, selfishness, and the model of winning at all costs that have corrupted our morals and our standards of behaviour. Because we have allowed these models to spread unchecked and become so dominant, we are increasingly being forced to behave in ways that are harmful to ourselves, to other people, to other living organisms, and to the environment on which we depend for our long-term survival.

Those who spend much of their time watching sporting events and other contests fail to realize how artificial these events are. The rules that determine who is the winner and what kinds of behaviour are permitted, the shape and dimensions of the playing field, the equipment used by the participants, the length of the match or contest, and all the other parameters of the event are determined entirely by human beings. Most spectators and participants of these artificial contests fail to realize the important fact that they are designed so there must be a winner and loser in every match or competition. Because of the ubiquity of sporting events and other kinds of games or contests in our lives, they make us believe that competition, together with the great gulf that separates the winners from the losers, is an intrinsic part of human societies and of life in general. After all, did not the great biological sage Charles Darwin declare that life consists primarily of the “struggle for survival”? And do not the economists tell us repeatedly about the great importance of competition in human societies, in particular in the realm of the free market, where individuals and companies compete with each other for jobs, revenue, profits, market share, contracts, and consumers’ loyalties, as well as the many beneficial effects which this competition produces?

Besides sporting events, the free-market economy is another system that produces winners and losers; and the winners, because they have more money, are more free than the losers – free to choose where they live, free to choose the kind of work they do, free to choose where their children are educated – if they are educated at all, free to choose who will attend them when they are sick – assuming of course that they can afford medical attention, free to choose the clothes they wear, free to choose what and where they eat, free to choose where they go on vacation, and free to choose what they do in their free time. Of course, those who have little or no money do not have the same range of choices available to them as those who have a lot of money.

Free-market or laissez-faire capitalism necessarily produces great inequality and injustice because it is a system based on selfishness, and therefore it will inevitably produce winners and losers, since the winners are generally not willing to share their wealth voluntarily with the losers. It is for these reasons that it has been found necessary to curb, correct, and compensate for these results. Without the many welfare measures implemented in the majority of wealthy countries, the great imbalances created by capitalism would be even greater than they actually are – which imbalances would pose a serious threat to these countries’ political and economic stability.

The prestige, glory, honour, fame, and riches that we accord to winners, and the ridicule, ignominy, anonymity, shame, and penury that are often the lot of losers have transcended the arena of sports and seeped into everyday life. In many places, especially where the free-market mantra prevails that unbridled competition is the best or only way to achieve the ideal society, we see cutthroat competition in its many guises. In the United States and elsewhere, it is considered perfectly fine to do many things that are or should be illegal, such as polluting the environment in order to reduce costs, bribing politicians with campaign donations in order to control their votes and the legislation they pass, and manipulating the legal system in order to prevent or invalidate rulings that go against oneself or one’s company, all for the sake of making money and making as much of it as possible, in the mistaken belief that this will produce the best possible society for all of its members.

One reason why the losers, or those who are less well-off, tolerate this system is because many of them admire the winners, and so they believe that the winners deserve the riches that accrue to them. In other words, they have internalized this model of behaviour, just as, in past ages, many slaves meekly accepted the model of slavery, even though they suffered because of it. Another reason for this tolerance is that, whether in business, industry, the stock market, gambling, lotteries, sports, arts, entertainment, or in other areas, the model of glorifying those who succeed begets in many people the belief – which in most cases is false – that they too can become as successful as their idols.

Another source of competition that was more important in the past is war, which is literally a life-and-death struggle between the members of different groups of people, whether for survival, supremacy, territory, or possessions. The vanquished were either massacred, deprived of their possessions and forced to leave their homes, or became slaves. It is extremely ironic that, as the threat of war has declined for the great majority of the world’s human inhabitants, economic competition has increased its ravages in many people’s lives.

As we will see in the third part of this book, Darwin was mistaken in emphasizing competition between different species and different members of each species. For this seemingly endless and ruthless competition at the level of the individual and species gives way to cooperation when viewed from the level of the entire ecosystem, of which each individual organism or species forms a very small and interdependent part. But if this is true of the natural world, then what about the human world? Must we revise our beliefs about the desirability, importance, and inevitability of competition in our daily lives?

The simple answer, which is elaborated in some of the other essays, is Yes. The model of competition is merely one of many different models of human behaviour, whose present dominance is due to the widespread but mistaken belief about its inherent nature, beneficial effects, and necessity, desirability, and inevitability in economic matters. But freeing ourselves from the false belief that competition is an inherent and unavoidable part of both the human and natural world will not be easy, in large part because we have allowed this mistaken belief, along with the model of competitive behaviour, to permeate almost every aspect of our lives.