Olympic Dogmatics

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Coubertin cites the words of Albert Thibaudet according to whom “religious life consists in learning writings by heart, but the Greek religion is a religion without books”, (12) and this becomes the “golden rule” of modern Olympic paganism. Not the knowledge of “God’s Word”, not its repetition, reflection and experience, but the fight for victory over others and the fight for “victory over oneself” (the principle of “greater effort” as the basis of “perfectioning”), become the foundation of the Olympic gospel and the main way of performing the religious service. Life itself, reduced to a constant struggle for survival, becomes the source of a (positive) religious spirit and the service to superhuman powers, while Olympism becomes the building of its cult. Similarly to ancient Olympism, modern Olympism seeks to be a comprehensive spiritual power to which man does not serve through contemplation and meditation, but through everyday agonal activism. There are no guidelines offering man a possibility of establishing a (critical-changing) relation to the existing world and posing the question of the purpose of life. Life as a constant struggle between people, nations and races for a place under the sun – that is the essence of Olympic piety. Like Homer’s heroes, modern (petty) bourgeois do not preach sermons in order to call up gods, they preach in their merciless struggle for domination. In that context, the Olympic Games appear as an idealized expression of the main life principles of the established world – as their virgin form. They are a “festivity of youth” (Coubertin), designed to renew faith in the “eternal” Olympic ideals and provide “moral strength” necessary to proceed with new vitality from where it was stopped. That is why Coubertin attaches such importance to the “sacred rhythm” of the Olympic Games, which by no means must be interrupted.

Unlike the Christian “In the beginning was the Word” and Goethe’s “In the beginning was the Deed” (“Im Anfang war die Tat”), in Coubertin there is no beginning in the development of human society, but a continuity of the animal world whose development is based on the laws of evolution – which are “superstructured” by the dominant spirit of capitalism. It is an activism that blindly follows the dominant logic of life expressed in the Social Darwinist principle bellum omnium contra omnes and the progressistic principle citius, altius, fortius. In that sense, Coubertin’s religio athletae does not involve only a complete submission of sportsmen to the dominant spirit of capitalism, but their being completely accustomed to the role which, as a symbolic incarnation of that spirit, they have. From their physical appearance and movements it is clear that with their whole being they should be in unity with the dominant spirit in order to adequately express its renewed strength and indestructibility. Under the guise of a struggle with Christian dogmatism, Coubertin deals with reason as the basis of human behavior and the criterion for its appraisal, and introduces evolutionary apriorism which proclaims the laws prevalent in the animal world the highest and indisputable dogma. What was attacked was a religious conscious that directs man to God and to the “true” life in the other world, but also the thought which from the human point of view questions those processes and tries to place them “under control” of the true human values. In the form of fight against religious dogmatics and theoretical reason, the strivings to establish universal criteria for establishing a critical distance to the existing world and create the ideal of future, are dealt with. A “theoretical” and “contemplative” man is replaced by a “practical” and “utilitarian” man.

Although he rejected religious dogmatics, Coubertin gives the Olympic “commands” profusely, and they become a peculiar Olympic gospel: “the battle at Waterloo was won on the sports fields of Eton “; “arms turn a young man into an adult”; “sport is an intelligent and efficient means in colonization”; “the white race is the purest, the most intelligent and the strongest”; “brotherhood is for angels, and not for man”; “the stronger survive, the weaker are eliminated”; “inequality is the oldest law against which it is useless to fight”; “a woman who is guided by reason rather then emotions is not only abnormal, she is monstrous”; “it is not the spirit that makes a character, it is the body”; “combatant spirit in a muscular body” (mens fervida in corpore lacertoso) and so on.

In Coubertin, there is no good and evil, which means that there is no moral reasoning. Man is released from ancient hybris and Christian sin, only to be released from (personal) responsibility for his deeds; in Coubertin, there is no Socrates’ daimenion or conscience. In addition, by abolishing God as a fateful power, Coubertin deprived man of the possibility of transferring responsibility for his actions on him, and of asking for “pardon for his wrongdoing” on account of his devoted service and repentance, and thus of “atoning for” his (miss)deeds. Modern Olympism deprives man of any possibility of wrongdoing, since it releases him in advance from any (personal) responsibility for his deeds, which only “spontaneously” follow the logic of life determined by the laws of evolution of the living world and appearing in the form of “progress”. Those who question this logic are treated by Coubertin not in the way the Church treats “sinners”, but as “antichrists”. At the same time, by putting on the Olympic robe mankind’s greatest butchers become (Olympic) angels. Coubertin does not threaten the disobedient with hell nor does he offer a reward in the form of Eden: life itself, reduced to a merciless struggle for survival, rewards some (the “strong”) and punishes the others (“the weak”). Injustice which man suffers every day is not evil, but is something inevitable and is founded in the natural order, so it is useless (and thus meaningless) to question its moral (humane) justification. “Mercy” of the rich does not result from pursuing “social justice”, but is a political means for calming down the workers’ dissatisfaction and establishing “social peace” – in the conditions of such relations between class forces when the workers’ submission cannot be insured by sheer force. As far as Coubertin’s principle “to fight well” is concerned, it represents the unity of the fight for life and fight for the ruling order and is not based on a respect for universal rules: “well” does not have an ethical, but a utilitarian character. A fight to preserve racial pureness, to maintain a stable development of the ruling order and for a colonial expansion represents the greatest duty for the members of the ruling class. They are responsible neither to God nor to people, but to “progress”.

One of the main documents suggesting the nature of modern Olympic paganism is Coubertin’s interview, published in the French magazine “L’Auto” on September 4, 1936, on the occasion of the Nazi Olympic Games: “It has been announced that, from the technical point of view, the Berlin Olympic Games were a complete success. I could answer that, for me, it is enough. But it would not provide an explanation. Surely, the sports side must be the dominant element of the Games, but I do not think that the Games should be held without an element of passion which is only capable of giving them the meaning they are supposed to have. I have always sought this passionate vehemence, I have desired it, invoked it with all my powers. For a competitive sport, in itself, is not an ordinary thing that can comply with firm and inflexible rules. Let us understand, the Olympic Games are a fierce, wild fight suitable only to fierce and wild beings. To surround them with the atmosphere of a conformist weakness without passion and excessiveness, would mean to distort them, to deprive them of any exceptionality. Not to speak of the Games at which the participation of women and young people is allowed, generally of the weak. For them there is another form of sport, physical education which will give them health. But for the Games, my Games, I want a long passionate cry, whatever it may be. In Berlin, they fought for an idea which is not up to us to judge, but which was the passionate challenge I keep looking for. The technical part is, on the other hand, organized with all the necessary care, and the Germans cannot be attributed with unfairness. How can you expect me to renounce the celebration of the XIth  Olympiad in such conditions? For, also, that glorification of the Nazi regime was an emotional shock which enabled their enormous development.” (13) “Passionate vehemence”, “fierce fight” suitable only to “fierce beings”, “excessiveness”, “a long passionate cry” – all this indicates that the purpose of the Olympic religiousness is to give vent to the animal nature of Coubertin’s bourgeois. It is a peculiar “call of the wildness” which in a “civilized” form appears as an overt “will to power” that seeks to deal with the civilizatory norms which try to stop the attempts of the master race to conquer the world. In this text Coubertin revealed his original Olympic intention. The rules that apply to ordinary people do not apply to a bourgeois who hurries to conquer the world: he is released from any responsibility. At the same time, he is deprived of the qualities that characterize the “Homeric” as well as the “heroic man” of antiquity: Eros, emotions, readiness to sacrifice and repent, to protect the weak, childish cheerfulness… Insatiable greediness, the main feature of Coubertin’s “new man”, devoured all that is human in man. To purify mankind from the “deposits” of the human, which means to purify man from humanity, is one of the most important tasks of Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy”.

What modern Olympism bows to is neither the Christian God nor the Olympic gods, but the expansionist power of monopolistic capitalism. It is the source from which Coubertin draws the power for his Olympic mission and on which the success of his “renovation” is based. Coubertin’s visit to Arnold’s grave at Rugby has a symbolic significance: it was a pilgrimage to the original spirit of the colonial power of Victorian England, whose creator, according to Coubertin, was Arnold. Here is how Coubertin describes it: “In the twilight, alone in the great gothic chapel of Rugby, my eyes fixed on the funeral slab on which, without epitaph, the great name of Thomas Arnold was inscribed, I dreamed that I saw before me the cornerstone of the British Empire.”(14) The conquering (oppressive) power of capitalism is the real source of Coubertin’s religious enthusiasm. The crucial point of Coubertin’s Olympic piety is best expressed in his original Olympic call “Rebronzer la France!” which corresponds to the cry for God of a fanatical Christian. The dream of the “master race”, embodied in the European bourgeoisie, conquering the world – this is the “vision” Coubertin cherished till the end of his life, the realization of which, handing down into their hands the “holy” Olympic “lance” (Diem), he was to bequeath to the Nazis.

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