by Irina Jiang
Image: Bryan Turner/ Unsplash
The Olympics games were established three thousand years ago in Greece and have since become the most preeminent sporting event in the world. Apart from being a renowned sporting competition, the Olympics is beloved for a beautiful Greek principle: the Olympic Truce. First beginning in the eighth century B.C, it was a Greek tradition that commanded all inter-state conflicts to cease over its duration and allow citizens to travel between nation-states freely to enjoy the games. This spirit has spread around the world throughout the centuries. Thus, the Olympic Truce is identified by the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as an important message that promotes peace. However, in an era when most physical conflicts between nations are not as prevalent as they were when the Olympics were first founded, the spirit of the Olympic Truce is neglected. Despite the flying UN flag above every Olympics field, a battle is called under the roaring Olympic flame; the winner is announced by the medal ranking.
The disregard for the Olympic Truce was apparent during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. After being delayed for a year due to COVID-19, it aroused much excitement but later disappointment. Athletes were treated unfairly by the judges and were pressured by the tremendously high expectations of spectators, both of which are against the original intention of the Olympics spirit.
In the men’s all-around gymnastics competition, Chinese athlete Xiao Ruoteng lost the gold medal to Japanese athlete Daiki Hashimoto by a margin of 0.4 point. The result sparked dissatisfaction among Chinese audiences as Xiao and Hashiomoto received the same score of 14.7 on Pommel Horse, despite Hashimoto’s foot landing out-of-bounds while Xiao performed almost perfectly. The audience contends that Hashimoto should have gotten more penalties. Though the competition was based on the scores of all six events (Floor Exercise, Pommel Horse, Still Rings, Vault, Parallel Bars and Horizontal Bar), the scoring of Pommel Horse alone could have won Xiao the 0.4 point he needed for a gold medal. Many argued that the judges were favouring athletes from the hosting country. The anger found its outlet in Hashimoto himself, with many accusing him on social media, saying that he should “be ashamed of receiving the gold medal”. The 19-year-old Olympic champion unfortunately became the victim of the judges’ unfairness and Chinese audiences’ overwhelming patriotism. The underlying cause of this phenomenon is alarming: though the Olympics was founded to appreciate sportsmanship and promote peace, nations are now so focused on medals that the faults of the judges are blamed on the athlete for his achievements.
Those overwhelming patriotic sentiments not only defy the Olympic Truce and its message, but also put tremendous pressure on the athletes. Under high expectations from the audiences, athletes are competing not for themselves but for their countries’ pride. Two Chinese ping-pong players, Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin, apologized regretfully in their interview for not winning the gold medal and “disappointing the audiences”, even though they took home a silver. Ping-pong is a strength for China in the Olympics with the highest expectations to win gold medals, but winning the silver is by no means a disappointment; winning any medal should rather be celebrated, for the Olympics is the world’s most competitive game. Their regrets show the unhealthy extent to which athletes were pushing themselves for national pride. However, the Olympics should never be a competition to show national strength in the first place. It was only ever meant to be held as a friendly sporting event where the top athletes met and the world relieved itself from existing conflicts. As IOC states, “The International Olympic Committee (IOC) actively pursues the goals of protecting the interests of the athletes and sport in general, and contributing to the search for peaceful and diplomatic solutions to the conflicts around the world.”
Apart from patriotic sentiments that are evident in all games and the discussions around it, the Olympics has long been used as a political tool. The most famous example is the West’s boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow during the Cold War era as a protest against the Soviet’s invasion of Afghanistan. Sixty-five countries refused to participate in the games, putting the hard training of all athletes in vain. This again shows the old Greek tradition was undermined to be more of a political strategy than realizing its true value: the Soviet Union ironically used the peace promoting game to veil its invasion of Afghanistan that sixty-five countries had to boycott such a meaningful event to discourage the invasion. It was hypocritical that the Soviet Union was chosen as the host country of the Olympics in the first place when it had displayed obvious signs of aggression towards other countries.
Looking into future Olympics, it is unlikely that acts such as boycotts will happen again, but the political side of the games deserves consideration and reflection. The Olympics is special in that athletes are known for their nationalities. Unlike other sporting events that recognize individuals or club communities, the Olympics easily catches audiences by triggering their patriotic sentiments. However, it is better to be cautious with those sentiments, as they put the athletes under undue pressure and can even inflict conflicts on social media.