Last week I took myself to the cinema for a few hours respite from the media coverage of the Olympics. I saw, among other films, Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words and was struck by how international her life was. She left Sweden early on and lived subsequently in California, Italy, Sweden (again), Paris and London. The peripatetic lifestyle endowed her with fluency in several languages and exposed her to multi-cultural influences. No doubt she retained a kernel of Swedishness deep down but she had the rare opportunity to experience life as a global citizen – or at least, as a Western Hemispherical one, which is a step in the right direction if, like me, you mourn Brexit as a lost opportunity to push civilisation beyond the destructive rivalries of nationalistic interests and towards the idea of transnational governance.
The news is full of issues which affect us all a lot more than our position in the Olympic medal table: cruise liners are sailing through the North-West Passage so that tourists can see the last of the ice and, in doing so, contributing to its demise; plastic micro-beads are accumulating in the sea and clogging up the biosphere, and the best we can do is phase them out of cosmetics by 2020; nations fight wars over the possession of oil, minerals and water – resources which belong to the planet not to random groups of individuals. A logical thought-process might be expected to conclude that humanity must act in unison to avert disasters of its own making. As the diplomat Mohammed El Baradei said, “Our primary allegiance is to the human race and not to one particular colour or border. The sooner we renounce the sanctity of these many identities and try to identify ourselves with the human race the sooner we will get a better and a safer world.” We need a global approach to saving the ‘global village’ but, unfortunately for us all, the extent to which global activity is considered successful is measured in commercial units i.e. the ubiquity of iPhones, Coca-Cola and gas-guzzling SUVs – all of which exacerbate rather than resolve the problems by creating competition for finite resources.
Meanwhile the Olympic Games steamrollers on, dominating the news as if none of this mattered. And to what purpose? Bearing in mind the fact that many of us are not very interested in physically competitive sports (although we may be pleased for the individuals whose lives are raised by it), the cost and the hoo-hah appear to be out of all proportion to the benefit. And to those who argue that it’s pure entertainment I would point out that the net result of this entertainment is an extreme and sometimes bitter whipping-up of international rivalry: this year Russia is sulking because it was caught out cheating and China is smarting because it thinks Team GB must be up to no good. The original ethos of healthy competition is tainted by individuals who cannot bear to lose and by cynical regimes looking to seduce their constituents with trophies – by fair means or foul.
Surely the many billions of pounds that are raised in broadcast fees and commercial sponsorship (47% and 45% respectively) could result in a legacy which is more significant than a few sports arenas, some extended infrastructure, the propagation of a league of super-athletes and the exaltation of national banners? What are the Games, with their high global profile, contributing to world peace and environmental co-operation? I think it’s time to put the International Olympic Committee under the control of the United Nations and ban all flags but the Olympic flag. There is no inherent evil in competition – it raises standards – but let those standards be attributed to the human race, not nations A, B or C. We may never have a global government but we can at least strive for a global conscience: and a nation-neutral Olympics could help us get there..