The language of the Olympics

The rhetoric of the Olympics may be about world peace and unity,  but its everyday language is all about winning and superiority. Russia leads for the moment not because it has the most number of medals (the US does), but because it has more of the gold.  The games are cruel in this sense.  They do not leave any room for celebration by the losers.

“Sport is a romantic metaphor for warfare,” wrote the author John Ralston Saul.  In fact, the Olympic Games, both in their ancient and modern versions, were viewed as a substitute for war.  The ancient Games, held every four years since 776 BC,  always took place in the context of a sacred truce among the warring Greek city states.  And indeed, during the Cold War years, when two ideological systems fought one another, the modern Games substituted for nuclear war.

The Cold War has ended but the legacy of this modern rivalry is still visible.  Russia has turned capitalist and is in the throes of a political and economic crisis, but one thing at least appears to remain unchanged: the care of its athletes.  China is also veering toward capitalism, but the state subsidy for its athletes likewise appears undiminished.

Today, the Olympic Games may be seen as the arena for all types of combat – White versus Black versus Yellow, rich nation versus poor nation, Confucian ethic versus Protestant ethic, authoritarian versus democratic.  There are many possible sub-texts in the Olympics, but the most important will still be the demonstration of the athletic superiority of nations that are already dominant or aspire to be dominant in the political and economic domains.

When their teams play well, nations feel better about themselves.

When they see their players kneel before their opponents, their selfesteem sinks and they become cynical about the possibility of progress.  In this sense, the Olympics are viewed as a test of national will and a nation’s capacity for perseverance, discipline and excellence in all areas of human endeavor.

The world out there is not a level playing field.  Some nations are genetically bigger, taller and stronger.  They also tend to be richer. Small nations like ours must choose those games in which we can truly excel, and train twice as hard.  Cuba, which dominates Olympic boxing, has shown what a poor, small country can do to establish its presence in world athletic competitions.

It may be argued, of course, that Filipinos too have made their mark in other global competitions, like beauty contests.  This may be so, but a succession of international beauty titlists does not tell much about us as a people, at least not in the way a victory at the Olympics invites attention to the collective qualities of a nation.   Olympic triumphs electrify entire nations because of what they signify: the will to power, the discipline, and the solidarity of a community.

The solitary athlete, whose pursuit of excellence is primarily a private initiative, is a rare creature in world competitions.  World class athletes are projects of nations; they are the accomplishments of collectivities, of cultures, of social systems.

To say it simply, we do not take care of our athletes, or, for that matter, of our artists and the geniuses of our people. That is why other nations that can offer them support end up appropriating their talent. We conveniently invoke the ideology of poverty to explain our failure to excel in anything.  Yet we were never too poor to pay our global debts.

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As with all worthwhile things, the breeding of the nation’s athletes begins in the local community.  In a series of tournaments at ascending levels, the best are identified and they become the nation’s collective project.  One good example is baseball, which has heroically survived the hegemony of basketball in our country.

There was a time, not too long ago, when every village had a softball or baseball team.  Games were held in the wide open rice fields, where the girls served not as spectators or cheering squads to boys’ games but took the bat as equal players.

The best girls’ softball teams these days are being formed inexplicably by the remote village of Pulungmasle in Guagua, Pampanga.   A selection team from this barrio won seven consecutive victories in May 1994 to bag the National Softball Championship.  Their victory earned them the right to compete in the August 1994 Little League Softball World Series in Portland, Oregon.  With some help from the Philippine Sports Commission, the whole town of Guagua  (which was then busy struggling to stay above the floods and the Pinatubo lahar threat) went out to give these 9 to12-year-old kids a warm send-off.

They were No. 5 in the 1994 World Series.  But in 1995, they returned and took fourth place.  They have trained very hard over the last year. They know more now about the environment of world class competition, and they are confident that this year the Philippines will be No. 1. About half of the team competed last year.  But none of the 14 girls who make up this year’s team — not to worry — is beyond 12 years old.

Our team leaves on August 5.  Their tickets are taken care of, but Guagua Mayor Manuel Santiago says they need clothes and pocket money.  Generous Filipino families will be hosting them in Portland because there are no funds to enable them all to stay in one place during the games.  This arrangement is not very conducive to building group morale, but it is the best the girls can have unless some farsighted congressman or senator  agrees to share a small portion of his pork barrel with these Olympians from Pulungmasle.


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