Bread and Circuses
Let me make clear at the outset that I really enjoy the Olympic Games. Having followed, listened to or watched every games in the last half-century, I have accumulated an extraordinary jumble of memories, from the extremely painful – the thrill of hearing Kol Yisrael broadcast the report from Munich airport that the German police had successfully saved the kidnapped Israeli sportsmen in Munich (yes, it really happened, and then-premier Golda Meir, along with half the nation, drank a ‘lechaim’ before the correct version emerged) – to the merely weird, such as the introduction of high-jumping backwards via ‘the Fosbury flop’ in Mexico City (yes, people used to jump up facing the bar, which was considered normal…).
Nor have I allowed that enjoyment to be marred by growing awareness of the unsavory aspects of the games. The old Soviet Bloc countries used to pour resources into their athletes, but these resources included not just money but also drugs that ‘enhanced’ their performances, as well as altering their metabolisms. How dastardly! How shameful! But we then discovered that the evil empire was not alone in these pranks, and even the good guys, including supposedly squeaky clean countries like Canada (remember Ben Johnson?) and the Scandinavians, were also at it. Anyway, any system that took little kids and forced them to train for many hours each day, whether at swimming, gymnastics, or whatever other sporting slavery they were pressed into performing, was fundamentally warped – even if it was promoted in the land of the ‘free’. The Olympics was never for squeamish people with high moral principles. They were for people who wanted to have a good time and not think about big ideas, just to relapse into mindless – but largely harmless – nationalism for a few days.
And they still are. But the world in which the Games themselves are held has changed – not just in the geo-political sense, but in a deeper, more all-encompassing sense. Indeed, one could legitimately claim that the ghost of the old USSR, of Ceaucescu’s wondrous gymnasts and the East German medal machine, is not only alive and well, but has won the larger contest. It seems to me impossible to deny any longer that the Olympic games is now a global spectacle, a circus in the full Roman tradition of ‘bread and circuses’. For those unfamiliar with the term, here is instant enlightment from Wikipedia:
“Bread and Circuses” (or bread and games) (from Latin: panem et circenses) is a metaphor for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the creation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or policy, but through diversion, distraction, and/or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace…the phrase also implies the erosion or ignorance of civic duty amongst the concerns of the common man.
That could hardly be surpassed as a description of the Olympic Games in the 21st century, when the common feature of all countries from America to Vietnam and from Brazil to North Korea is the emergence of a rich elite, increasingly detached from the increasingly impoverished masses – and even from the increasingly pressured middle classes of the developed countries. The common interest of all the elites in every country is to ‘divert, distract and satisfy the immediate shallow requirements of the global populace’. If the Olympic Games, the World Cup and professional sport generally did not already exist, they would have had to invent them. As it is, they have merely had to massively magnify the pre-existing frameworks they found in place, following along the path laid down by the USSR et al vis-à-vis their hapless populations.
Unfortunately for the ruling elites, it is proving much easier to provide the games and circuses than to deliver the bread part of the formula. Even the most powerful countries, the richest elites and the cleverest manipulators are unable to make the rains come, whether in the American Mid-West or in northern India or southern Europe. The result is wilting harvests, soaring prices for corn, wheat, etc. and a looming shortage of these essentials. Keeping the masses quiescent requires, as a sine qua non, keeping their bellies full by putting reasonably cheap bread, pita or rice on their tables. If that can’t be done, games and circuses will prove quite inadequate to prevent upheaval and revolution.