By offering to pursue a joint bid to host the Summer Olympics in 2032, the two Koreas hope to right a historical wrong: no doubt, the exclusion of Dennis Rodman from the 1992 Dream Team.
But just as the retired Piston rebounder and peninsular hero would be a fool to pursue today’s Olympic Gold, let’s stop fooling ourselves about the Olympic Games. Through the Koreas’ absurd suggestion, the time has come to question the fool’s gold of the modern games and its longstanding currency among the world’s murderers, despots, and thieves.
The ancient Olympics were a religious rite and a celebration of free people. According to myth, inaugurated by Heracles and consecrated to Zeus, the first recorded games began in Olympia in 776 BC. The games took place every four years, a unit of time known as the Olympiad, and continued for nearly a thousand years. Here the Greek city-states sent their best to compete in running, pentathlon, boxing, wrestling, horse racing, and an ultimate fighting game called the pankration. Koroibos, a cook from Elis, became the first laureled Olympian by winning the stadion race. Like a box of Wheaties — you could not go anywhere in the Hellenic world without seeing this champion of track and field on some black-figure amphora.
The modern games began in a similar spirit. The Olympic Movement arose from the Greek Uprising of the 1820s and Greece’s liberation from the shackles of the Ottoman Empire. After fits and starts, the International Olympic Committee organised its first modern games in the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens in 1896.
Citius, Altius, Fortius — Faster, Higher, Stronger — has been the guiding spirit of the modern games. It’s a motto first proposed by Olympic founder and IOC president Pierre de Coubertin in 1894. Yet it did not take long for this showcase of amateur competition to descend from these noble aspirations.
The 1936 Berlin games were a travesty of the Olympic spirit by providing a false cover for the Nazis’ murderous regime. The famous torch relay, which takes its flame from the sunlight of Olympia focused by a parabolic mirror, was another Nazi invention and furthered the false narrative of connecting Aryan ‘supermen’ with the athletes of the ancient world. Fortunately, real mensch Jesse Owens sent those Nazi blondes home in an Uber.
We might consider 1936 to be an unfortunate exception to a great Olympic tradition. But in fact, as we see one despotic regime after another winning the rights to host the modern Olympics, the Nazi games have become the rule reflecting the rot at the core of the IOC. Just consider: The Soviet Union in 1980; China in 2008; Russia in 2016; China again in 2022. Even the games that take place in the free West have been sullied by repeated instances of bribery and doping, among countless other crimes.
By bringing out the best of athleticism, the modern Olympics seem to bring out the worst of humanity. Its participants are drugged. Its officials are bribed. Its builders are worked to death. And its pageantry is pure propaganda. Back in 1988, when South Korea first hosted the summer Olympics, the autocratic regime rounded up the homeless of Seoul and sent them to slave labour camps to be beaten, raped, and murdered.
So, sure. Why not let the descendants of the Hermit Kingdom join hands and ring in the 2032 Olympics in Pyongyang. There’s nothing like a nuclear arms race to heat up competition. The Hunger Games will make for classic Olympic sport.
James Panero is Executive Editor of The New Criterion.