Χαιρετισμός (if you’ll excuse my Greek grammar)
These words are written at ancient Olympia, Greece, where I participate in the 22nd international seminar on Olympic studies for postgraduate students, which is arranged by the International Olympic Academy (IOA).
I am fortunate enough to be here thanks to being nominated by the Swedish Olympic Committee and together with my 34 co-participants, coming from all over the world with all continents represented, I will spend the upcoming month taking part in lectures (all held by experts within their respective field), work-shops and discussions around the Olympic philosophy of Olympism.
The IOA was created to promote the Olympic movement and Olympism, and since 1961 it has strived to provide an enthusiastic atmosphere in order to inspire the participating students to continue to work with, and for, the Olympic movement, and with that a better world community. It is no secret that the IOA likes to see that we as participants take advantage of the knowledge we gain here to go on and contribute with articles and presentations in our respective home countries.
Using the unique knowledge environment present at Olympia is definitely something I intend to do as much as I possibly can, but on a personal level I also intend to include this whole experience in the on-going work with my master thesis, entitled “Deconstructing Olympism”. The opportunity to present my own thoughts, and to receive criticism from the group of participants here, not to mention from some of the most prominent sport philosophers out there, will of course also be of great value, and one of the highlights of my stay at Olympia.
The special topic of this specific monthly seminar is “The Olympic Movement: The process of renewal and adaption” and the month is divided into four different modules where the first week brings attention the ancient Olympic Games and their philosophy. Rather logical then, the first few days have been packed with visits on archaeological sites and other places with great relevance to ancient Greek history. After waking up early on our first morning in Greece, we managed visits at the National Archaeological Museum, the Acropolis museum and a stop at the Zappaeion building as well as climbing up the Parthenon hill and running on the tracks of Panathenaikon Stadium, and this already before lunch. Among other things, these first few days have also included a visit to Epidauros and the most well-preserved amphitheatre in Greece, an overnight stay in the first modern Greek capital of Nafplio, and of course the experience of feeling the ground of the archaeological site of ancient Olympia. You certainly cannot accuse the organizers of not giving us the chance to engage with the ancient history, and all of the participants are very grateful for the unique experience as such. There are, however, many with me who due to the pace of the initial schedule felt somewhat overwhelmed. How are you supposed to take in that that you are running on tracks that were used for more than 2700 years ago, and more importantly, how does that connect with the understanding of the Olympics of today (with the latter being part of my main interest)?
It is not very far-fetched to state that the historical ties are of great importance at the IOA, and as spelled out during the IOA Opening Ceremony: “Myth and History have always been useful elements of the educational process”. Furthermore, in welcoming us to the IOA campus the IOA Honorary Dean Prof. Dr. Konstantinos Georgiadis told us that the most important thing is to feel the magic of the place. It is indeed a magical place. The campus is very isolated with a beautiful environment, everything you could possibly ask for in terms of sporting facilities free of use, a library stuffed with Olympic knowledge and a swimming pool to cool down in when the baking-hot sun gets too much. Considering that we also get three excellent meals a day and that we initially were informed our stay here is funded by the Hellenistic (the Greek) Olympic Committee, and therefore by the Greek state, one cannot help pondering about how the expenses invested in me enhancing my Olympic knowledge could have been more helpful for the world community if elsewhere spent. Both when it comes to the Greek society and its on-going economic struggle, but also in regard to what is happening on other locations in Europe, as well as in the rest of the world, as this is written.
Paying respect to those that have paved the way for the existence of the IOA constituted great part of the opening ceremony. Wearing formal clothing (which in my case meant the ill-considered decision to wear a black suit during the hottest part of the day) all participants took part in a ceremonial laying of wreaths at the stele of Pierre de Coubertin, who is considered renovator of the Olympic Games, as well as the father of Olympism. As it turns out, in line with what he wished for, de Coubertin´s heart is buried under the statue found on the IOA campus.
The module for the ancient Olympic Games and their philosophy is directed by the wonderfully sympathetic Prof. Dr. Nigel B. Crowther from Canada and Prof. Dr. Ingomar Weiler from Austria, with the latter paying his first visit at the IOA already in 1962. During our guided tour at the archaeological site of ancient Olympia, Prof. Dr Weiler pointed out the exact spot where it is believed that the ancient Olympic athletes sworn the Olympic oath to honour Zeus. For some reason he then asked me to stand on this very spot and read out this oath in front of the group (as it was noted in a passage by the Greek geographer Pausanias). An experience which I, perhaps due to my intense focus on spelling out the Greek words correctly, feel I should have felt more honoured by than what I actually did at the time. In retrospect nonetheless a rather unique and very much unexpected personal event to note. Furthermore, the remarkably well-informed Prof. Dr. Weiler also somewhat dampened the excitement that a large part of the group felt from running on the ancient stadium at Olympia by pointing out that we all had ran in the wrong direction. Apparently there is strong evidence to suggest that a running contest always finished in the direction of the temple of Zeus (which we all had ran from rather than towards).
Another old passage we have been asked to read is by the Greek historian Polybius and concerns a wrestling game at the Olympic Games of 216 B.C. It is told that usually during these times the audience would cheer for the inferior of the two boxers, naturally hoping for an underdog victory. This specific game featured the unbeatable champion Kleitomachos who were up against the daring opponent Aristonikos. The crowd acted the way it used to and gave great support to the latter, who surprisingly enough were winning. Being on the verge of defeat Kleitomachos turned to the crowd and asked them if they realized he was fighting for the pride and honour of Greece, and that his opponent was Egyptian. Did they really want to see the trophy being lift by someone representing the Egyptian King Ptolemy? After hearing these words, the crowd changed their mind to such an extent that Kleitomachos managed to come back from what had seemed a given loss and beat his opponent to secure the victory.
Regarding the issues of fandom, spectatorship, national pride and for what reasons we watch sport, I could not help myself having the Polybius passage in mind when sitting down together with Russian seminar participant Alexander to enjoy the crucial European Championship Qualifier in football between Russia and Sweden. The national pride was very apparent from both partys already from the first minute, but when the obvious lack of quality from the Swedish players became more and more undeniable I started to ask myself why I invested my feelings in a team of such lousy character. Why am I fostered in supporting a team representing my nation rather than, as did the spectators of boxing in ancient Olympics before Kleitomachos pointed the heritage of the contestants, enjoy the sporting-event for the beauty of it in whatever way I want (in the case of the boxing audience – cheering for the underdog).
Leaving various theories of nationalism out of this, the one answer I can come up with is as devastating as the Swedish loss itself – there was no beauty to find in this specific game.
A new crucial game is coming up against Austria on Tuesday. Hopefully I will be able to find an old Greek passage which can explain to Dr. Prof. Weiler how the national players of his Austria had to find themselves surrendering to the beauty that is Swedish football…
More reflections from ancient Olympia is to follow in forthcoming blog posts.