What’s the point of Olympic teams?

What’s the point of Olympic teams?

The delayed Tokyo Olympics have begun. Many are understandably asking whether my country’s sending of an Olympic team is really worth it. The Australian government spent a mind-boggling $AU340 million on our team for the Rio Olympics. The 10 gold medals that we won at the 2016 games was one of our worst-ever results. Each gold medal costs Australian taxpayers $AU34 million dollars. We are on track to spend a great deal more on our Olympic team for Tokyo. 

It is not just the money that is a concern about the 2021 Olympics. We are doing all this during a once-in-a century pandemic. Some are asking whether the hundreds of millions of dollars might be better spent on vaccination programs against Covid-19 at home and abroad. It is not clear that sending a team is even safe. 

Australia is not alone in spending staggering sums on Olympic teams. Britain, for example, now spends four times more on Olympic competitors than it does on sport for schoolchildren. In the last 20 years, many other developed countries, such as Germany, have copied Australia’s heavy spending on Olympic sport. This is the main reason why Australians no longer win so many gold medals. 

Such state subsidization of Olympic teams is hotly debated. The Australian Olympic Committee, among others, tirelessly asserts that the benefits of Olympic gold are “obvious” and “significant.”

But others claim just as much that such benefits are illusory; for these critics, such state subsidization is highly questionable in an age of cuts to public services or during a pandemic. It wastes scarce public money that would be better spent on doctors, nurses and physical-education teachers. 

What is needed in this hot debate is a careful analysis of the ‘obvious’ benefits that Olympic gold brings. The ancient Greeks competed in Olympic games for 1,000 years. They had clear views about what the benefits of victory in them were. By studying their views, we get insights into what gold medals might do for us.  

The Greeks would have been horrified at our subsidization of an Olympic team. They did not waste public money on getting sportsmen to the games. Individuals were ready for the Olympics because their families had paid for the private classes of a physical-education teacher. Olympians paid their own way to Olympia and their own expenses during the Olympics. 

Yet, the Greeks valued Olympic gold more highly than we do. Each city-state gave its Olympic victors free meals and free front-row tickets at sports events – for life. These were the highest honors that the Greeks could give. They were otherwise given only to victorious generals. That they were given to Olympians shows that the Greeks believed that such victors significantly benefited their city-states.  

National Olympic committees may not be good at explaining what this benefit is. But the Greeks were. A good example is a speech about an Athenian victory in the chariot-racing contest at the Olympics of 416 BC.  In this speech, the victor’s son explained that his father had entered seven teams, more than any other before him, because he had understood the political advantage that victory would bring Athens. He knew that “the city-states of victors become famous.” The speaker stated that Olympians were representatives of their home states. Their victories were “in the name of their city-state in front of the entire Greek world.”

What made an Olympic victory so politically valuable was publicity. The Olympics were the biggest public event in the ancient Greek world. The Olympic stadium seated no less than 45,000. The result was that whatever took place at the Games became known to the entire Greek world, as ambassadors, sportsmen and spectators returned home and reported what they had seen.  

Because so many Greeks attended the Games, it was possible for the whole Greek world to learn of the sporting victory that a Greek city-state had gained through one of its Olympic competitors. Such a sporting victory gave city-states of otherwise no importance rare international prominence. To those that were regional powers it gave uncontested proof of the standing that they claimed in relation to their rivals.   

The only other way that a Greek city-state had to raise its international ranking was to defeat a rival state in battle. But the outcome of a battle was always uncertain and could cost the lives of many thousands. Thus, ancient Greeks judged a citizen who had been victorious at the Olympics worthy of the highest public honors because he had raised its standing and done so without the need for his fellow citizens to die in war. 

We still view Olympians as our representatives and we are still part of an international system of competing states. Consequently, an important lesson from the ancient Olympics is that international sporting success does improve a state’s standing. The ancient Olympics do provide some justification for the state subsidization of our Olympic teams. 

But we must not push these parallels too far. For good or for ill, we are not ancient Greeks. International competition is no longer confined to sport and war. New bodies, such as the G20, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Health Organization, also rank states in terms of education, health and vaccination rates. In this new world order, we will only hold our ranking if we spend just as much on our doctors, nurses and teachers.

David M. Pritchard is an associate professor of Greek history and discipline-convenor of classics and ancient history at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is the author of “Sport, Democracy and War in Classical Athens” (Cambridge University Press). 

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