The Olympic spirit

I remember in the run up to the London Olympics of 2012, there was a strong undercurrent of pessimism and cynicism – “Too expensive”, “we aren’t ready”, “why bother” e.t.c.  Yet, when the games started – for three weeks – there was an unusual and highly welcome sense of optimism in promoting an event that did help bring the world together.

If there was pessimism before the 2012 Olympics, the run up to the 2016 Olympics has been an unusually difficult on many different levels. I hope, despite all the outer problems, the Olympics can still work a little magic. Whatever happens on the outer level, the Olympics always has the potential to unite the world and bring out the better qualities of human nature.


One of the best expositions of the Olympic spirit can be seen in a documentary about Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony from 2012 “One Night in 2012“. The success of Boyle was to make ordinary volunteers at the heart of the ceremony. The Opening Ceremony was a success on many levels – and gave many people a real once in a lifetime opportunity. (It is available on iPlayer here, and I wrote some more thoughts on personal blog here)

What is the Olympic spirit?

Faster – Higher – Stronger Citius – Altius – Fortius. For me this is the individual effort for self-transcendence. To see how far we can go, physically, mentally, spiritually. Whether in the Olympics or not, we can all strive to transcend previous efforts.

Good will. The Olympics is an opportunity to compete with good-will. Not to win by hook or crook, but to compete with honesty, dignity and goodwill to others.

There is a good story about General Patton who competed in the 1912 Paris Olympics in the modern pentathlon (which in those days was only open to military officers). He shot a bullseye but it was incorrectly missed by the judges. Yet despite reducing his overall position, he didn’t complain, but took it in the spirit of fair-play. Patton spoke of the Olympics:

“Each man did his best and took what fortune sent them like a true soldier, and at the end we all felt more like good friends and comrades than rivals in a severe competition, yet this spirit of friendship in no manner detracted from the zeal with which all strove for success.”

Drug free. It goes without saying that the Olympic spirit cannot tolerate any form of cheating or drug use. The real hope is that if athletes could appreciate the satisfaction of honest competition, there would be no temptation to cheat.

Break down barriers. This is best illustrated by a quote from legendary Olympic runner – Emil Zatopek.

“For me, the 1948 Olympics was a liberation of the spirit. After all those dark days of the war, the bombing, the killing, the starvation, the revival of the Olympics was as if the sun had come out. I went into the Olympic Village in 1948 and suddenly there were no more frontiers, no more barriers. Just the people meeting together. It was wonderfully warm. Men and women who had lost five years of life were back again.”

Another example of breaking down barriers was Jesse Owens brief friendship with German Luz Long. Long was a poster boy for Aryan propaganda at Hitler’s Olympics of 1936, But, Long gave Owens advice to help him jump further and after finishing second behind Owens was the first to congratulate him.

They posed together for photos and walked arm-in-arm to the dressing room. Owens said, “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler… You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the twenty-four karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment”

Oneness-world. During ordinary times, we feel countries are fighting for supremacy. But, in the Olympics the competition is with a sense that all countries start from the same equal footing.


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