Greek ideas travel well, even as their birthplace suffers. When the Greek team and flag appear in the place of honor at the head of the parade in London tonight, maybe people across the world will remember that this unique celebration of sport and civilization started out in Greece nearly 3,000 years ago. Maybe they will even outnumber those who will comment that the Greek athletes represent a nation that is heavily wounded.
During the opening spectacle, over the melancholy of the past three years, in our anxiety over what is to come, it is good for us all to remember that such institutions are useful for judging the living. From 776 BC to AD 393, and from 1896 to today, the Olympics survived because they tapped into a very basic human need — to compete, as equals, with equal opportunities and obligations, to decide who is the best.
From children in a family to the family of nations, we all pursue success and its rewards, we all seek justice and equality, we are all forced to accept compromise and defeat. In antiquity, when only their city states took part, the Greeks made an effort to create a perfect world: A truce over the whole Greek world was sacred, and the Games? judges were brutal in enforcing the rules. The ancients knew that victory — distinction — meant something only if everyone had the same opportunities. Without equality and justice, it was not the best who shone but those who cheated.
Indicative of the decadence that threatens every institution is Nero?s triumph in all events that he entered when, in AD 67, he obliged the Greeks to hold the Olympics out of sequence (because that was when he was visiting Greece) and to disqualify all his competitors. Nero, of course, distinguished himself in many spheres but sportsmanship was not among them. The Greeks at the time were subject to Rome and obliged to humor the emperor. What we must remember, though, is that the Games survived precisely because they did not accept such aberrations as Nero?s triumphs. And the same is true for other major games, such as those at Nemea, Isthmia and Delphi. In the same way, we all remember Athens for the few years which gave birth to democracy and where the arts achieved unprecedented heights — not for the years of decline that followed.
Today, despite all their problems, the Olympics are still going strong — and they belong to all humanity. Every four years, athletes from all over the world compete with their fellow athletes to decide who is best. Every four years a new host city competes with its predecessors. And every day we Greeks have to ask ourselves what we are doing for equality and justice.