”Restoring the ancient Olympic Games”


The thesis that the modern Olympic Games represent the “restoring of the ancient Olympic Games” occupies the central position in modern Olympic mythology. It is on account of that thesis that Coubertin got the title of “The Restorer”. From the very beginning, Coubertin, according to Carl Diem, insisted that the modern Olympic Games conform to the time in which they appeared. He “did not want to build a museum ruin” that would be ”the copy of  antiquity”. Of course, it does not mean that Coubertin was not inspired by the ancient Olympic Games and ancient society. He took over from antiquity, that “high culture of mankind”, the following “Olympic ideas”: ”celebration in the name of peace”, ”dedication to idealism” and the idea of “human perfection”. The program of the Games was intended to be “modern”, which means to express the time in which the Games were created, to serve it and follow its changes. (1) Since for Coubertin the past is unhistorical, he does not “restore” the ancient Olympic heritage, but takes from “the past”, which is ready for use, what might be “useful” to insure free “progress”, and dismisses everything that could get in the way of “progress”. As for Rudolf Malter’s interpretation of Coubertin’s relation to ancient Olympism, (2) Urlike Prokop rightly claims that Malter misunderstood Coubertin: his aim was not to “restore the classical Olympic Games”, but to produce a certain educational effect by adopting the “formal elements” of the old Greek Olympism. (3) It is a political instrumentalization of ancient Olympism, and not an attempt to renovate the Hellenic spiritual heritage. Coubertin idealizes antiquity and uses this idealized picture to create an appropriate spiritual background, give modern Olympism a “cultural” aureole and deal with the emancipatory heritage of Hellenic civilization, which, as an inherent part of the emancipatory heritage of mankind, represents conditio sine qua non of the development of civil society. At the same time, Coubertin tries, like Hypolitte Taine, to portray Hellenic society, in contrast to the “gloominess” of everyday life, (4) as an “ideal world” which should be sought for and thus create a spiritual refuge that should prevent man, in his strivings for a better world, from turning to future. This idealized ancient world takes the role of the “otherworld”, which, like Huizinga’s Middle Ages, becomes an indisputable and unattainable model to the modern world.

Coubertin constantly refers to the original ancient traditions and glorifies their “immortal spirit”, which is actually the racist spirit of free Hellenes, and not the “international” (colonial) spirit of monopolistic capitalism. The ancient Olympic Games were the form of the Hellenes’ spiritual integration and demonstrated their racial “superiority” to “barbarians”. Only “pure-blooded” Hellenes were allowed to take part in the Games, provided that they had never been convicted and had not offended the gods. Ancient Olympism did not pursue globalism, nor was it a form of the spiritual enslavement of other peoples; it was meant to draw a borderline between the “civilized” world and “barbarians”. Modern Olympism, by contrast, tends to be a universal and global spiritual movement, and thus follows the Christian doctrine as a universal ideology, from which it derives the “Olympic missionary work” of the Jesuitical type. It appeared as the crown of the ideology of (colonial) bourgeois “internationalism” and thus is the means for achieving certain global political and economic goals. The first Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, were already organized accor- ding to the Romanized Olympic Games, which were devoid of their original religious and racist spirit. In view of that, it is absurd to refer to an “original pureness” of ancient Olympism and, in the Modern Age, try to create a “Church” in which to the “immortal spirit of antiquity” – “all peoples will bow”.(5)

According to the modern Olympic doctrine, the Hellenic world has no dynamics of development and is on the same time level, just as the whole past of mankind. Coubertin borrows from that world what he considers useful for his Olympic idea, disregarding the concrete historical moment in which the given phenomenon appeared and without which its nature cannot be understood. Coubertin raises to the level of myth whatever he finds useful for his conception and transfers it to the Modern Age without any regard for the historical distance that separates us from antiquity. Speaking of a “restoration of the ancient Olympic Games”, he wants to show a direct spiritual link between the ancient Olympic spirit and the modern Olympic Games. The “suprahistorical” character of “ancient Olympism” should give modern Olympism a mythical character and thus insure its eternity. Keeping to the unhistorical approach to antiquity, Coubertin “overlooked” the fact that Hellenic society already experienced a degeneration of the original (religious) Olympic spirit, which had begun at the time of Solon with the corruption of the Games, (6) only to end with the Macedonian invasion and in the Roman period. “The immortal spirit of antiquity” perished within ancient society itself. The “true Olympic Games” moved into the sphere of myth, which becomes the basis of a critique of the established “Olympic” reality. Homeric Hellas, turned into a legend, was the real source of the original Olympic spirit, which in Greece itself was to be distorted and destroyed. When Greece became a Roman province, the Olympic Games lost their sanctity and, organized according to the principle panem et circences, became a banal demonstration of Roman “internationalism”. Thus the Hellenic cultural heritage was abused for the spiritual integration (colonization) of the conquered peoples into the Roman Empire.

Coubertin subordinated his relation to the ancient Olympic Games and Hellenic civilization to the creation of a positive man and positive society. In that context, one of Coubertin’s key views is that the old Greeks “were little given to contemplation, even less bookish”, (7) which became the starting point for his dealing with the Hellenic spirituality and philosophy. Trying to deprive man from the possibility of confronting the existing world, Coubertin eliminates from Hellenic culture – the spiritual cradle of Western civilization – all that can induce man to pose crucial questions on his human existence, the world and his relation to it. The pivots of the ancient religion (philosophy) were not only the Olympic and other playgrounds (Delphi, Eastham, Corinth), the gymnasion and palaestra, but, above all, the temples, the shrines, the mysteries, the cults, the academies, the theatres, the public forums, the sophists’ teachings, the poets’ word, the works of sculptors and architects, the Homeric poems and the accords of the harp… It is only in the light of their spiritual and contemplative life that we can grasp the depths of the ancient conception of life and the Olympic mystery. By reducing the life of the Hellenes to a primitive physical agonal activism, Coubertin failed to see in the Olympic Games the highest religious ceremony that represented the crown of the spiritual life and the philosophy of living of the ancient world and thus the climax of the ancient agon. Miloš Đurić writes about that: “For, all the forms of the Hellenic educational life developed in the sphere of agonal activity, as the richest source of glory: poetry, music, dance, painting, sculpture, building, philosophy, politics, as well as the forms of moral conduct. And the agonal will found its most concentrated expression in real agonistics, namely, at musical contests and the competitions in stadiums and hippodromes on the occasion of great festivities.” (8) The Hellenic cosmos is full of gods who symbolize not only an abundance of the forms of life, but also man’s complexity and the richness of his natural, emotional, spiritual and intellectual being. Only in the totality of Hellenic life the ideals and principles of that world acquire their full significance. Only their critical consideration, starting from the concrete totality in which they appeared (namely, as concrete historical phenomena), can we discover their humanist potential, which can serve as an inspiration for modern man. Coubertin could not apply this method not only because in that way he would have questioned the values of the ancient myths he sought to use for creating his Olympism, but because, at the same time, he would have questioned the legitimacy of modern Olympism as a “humane” movement. It would have turned out that modern Olympism was only a “humane” mask of the world it professed to overcome. Trying to turn modern Olympism into a comprehensive religious world view and way of life, Coubertin removed from Olympus all the deities that questioned his rigid utilitarian world view and his positive man, who is the embodiment of that world. We should bear in mind that the principle of “control in heads” – which means the creation of the character and conscious of a loyal and usable (positive) citizen by using romanticized myths and by producing a mythological conscious is the most important postulate of Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy”. Coubertin deals with the emancipatory heritage of Hellenic civilization and from a distorted and desacralized Olympic myth creates the starting point for a “historical picture” of the ancient Olympic Games and Hellenic society. This distorted picture, which is supposed to give a mythological dimension to the “supratemporal” and “eternal” values on which capitalism is based, becomes the foundation for reconstructing the original.

The ancient religion represents the culmination of ancient spirituality and vividness. The abundance of cults and a constant agonal activism are the expressions of rich forms and an intensive experience of life. Coubertin tends to subject the entire life and man to modern Olympism as a totalitarian spiritual force which not only seeks to create a positive one-mindedness and “purify” man’s being from all that is human and that can question the expansion of capitalism and indisputable domination of the bourgeoisie over the working “masses”, but seeks to cripple it and thus deprive it of the possibility of “restoring” its human character. As a fanatical Procrustean follower, Coubertin deprives man from Eros, imagination, emotions, reason… Most importantly, he discards the libertarian impulses of Hellenic culture, not only the Promethean myth, but also the critical thought that questioned the fundamental relations and values of that world. Not even the indisputable authority of gods could have prevented Hellenic society from resisting injustice and developing a critical thought. According to Miloš Đurić “in the Homeric poems the gods are already subjected to a sharp critique, either through their mutual reproaches or by ‘people complaining of their cruelty’, and this testifies to the open-mindedness of Hellenic society.” (9) The highest level the Hellenic world reached as far as humanism is concerned, which was the result of its emancipatory possibilities, was its capability of generating a thought that questioned the existing world, revealed its inherent lies and injustice and offered the possibility of it being overcome. Only by confronting reality and the ruling ideology, on the one hand, and the thought that sought, by confronting the existing world, to liberate man and elevate the notion of humanum to a higher level, on the other hand, is it possible to grasp the real nature of ancient humanism. In short, a libertarian agon is the essence of Hellenic humanism. The possibility of overcoming the Hellenic world by reviving the conscious of universal creative powers and man’s libertarian dignity – freedom as man’s highest value – represents the best product of Hellenic culture and it planted the seeds that in the Modern Age came to bear fruit. One of the main tasks of modern Olympism is to destroy the seeds of antiquity and thus deal with mankind’s libertarian traditions and human dignity.

In his appealing to the “immortal spirit of antiquity” Coubertin does not have in mind the emancipatory impulses of Hellenic culture, but the conservative spirit of the ancient Olympic Games. What makes the original ancient Olympism and modern Olympism so close is the fact that both tend to be the guardians of the past. Coubertin tried in the Modern Age to deal with the contradiction established in antiquity between the original conservative spirit of the Games and the emancipatory tendencies which, particularly with the appearance of demos on the political scene of Hellas, started to develop. It is in these terms that we can speak of a “continuation of the ancient Olympic spirit” in the Modern Age: through the “immortal spirit of antiquity” modern Olympism becomes the bastion of a militant conservativism.

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