Why do the Olympics matter?

Throughout history, and today, sport has brought bitter national rivals together while providing hope in tough times.

Wodjan Shaherkani''s may withdraw from the games if not allowed by the IOC to wear a hijab
The 2012 Olympic games were the first in which all countries had female as well as male athletes [EPA]

The year 2008 in Kenya started out as one of the darkest periods in the country’s history. For the first four days of the year, the country was in lockdown, all traffic was banned from entering the city centre, and television and radio broadcasts confirmed that parts of Nairobi, the capital, were burning.

Neighbours had turned against neighbours, and in the aftermath, thousands of citizens were forced out of their homes either in fear or by violence. For the older generations that recalled the darkness of the state of emergency, there was a deep sense of loss because we were squandering the uhuru (freedom) for which so many had lost their lives. For the younger generation, there was a palpable fear because we had never seen anything like this, except when reading stories about turmoil in Somalia or Sudan. But this was Kenya: things like this didn’t happen in Kenya.

In the end, Kenya survived, not least because a few months down the line, a skinny 24-year-old boy sprinted across the finish line in Beijing and won the marathon gold medal. Samuel Wanjiru, born into poverty in rural Kenya, trained in Japan and capped off what turned out to be a magical Olympics for Kenya. That year, Kenya won 14 medals, six of which were gold, making it the most successful African country in Olympic history.


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Beyond pride, this was a moment of national unification that quite literally cooled the fires of ethnic violence that had disrupted the country, seemingly irreparably. When the Olympic team came home, there was no Kikuyu, Kalenjin or Maasai. There was just the black, red, green and white bands of the flag, and those young men and women who had given us a retort to everyone who thought Kenya was just another failed African nation.

The Olympics matter. It is easy in a world where cynicism is everywhere to lose sight of the few moments of optimism that punctuate our droll existence. For one thing, sport has proven time and time again to be the one thing that brings together even the most bitter national rivals. For 90 per cent of the world, life is pretty terrible at least half of the time. The Olympics matter because for two weeks, or at least the four hours of the opening ceremony, we can suspend reality and participate in the delusion that all nations are truly equal and everything can be alright, because a skinny man or woman ran across the finishing line incredibly fast. They force us to accept that the notion of “sportsmanship” can triumph over bitter wars in many guises.

For instance, the Cold War contest between the US and Russia produced some of the most outstanding sporting rivalries, and most of us who remember those decades remember rushing home early or staying up late at night to watch these rivalries play out. The Olympics give us a platform to identify and dissect our national identities – mention that communist penchant for precision and anyone who has watched Olympic gymnastics or swimming knows what you mean.

For the smaller nations in the world, the parade of nations is a magical ceremony at the beginning of the two weeks where the people of Nauru or the Comoros can hear their country’s name called out alongside those of the United States, Russia and China. For geography nuts like myself, it’s an amazing opportunity to study for the next round of the flag game: finally learning that the flag with the blue and yellow bands belongs to Ukraine, or the difference between the Ghanaian and Senegalese flags. Most of these nations will not win medals, and that will be the first and last time that their countries are heard from during the two-week period, which only adds to the magic of the opening ceremony.

Female competitors

To be sure, the Olympics are a complex and problematic enterprise. If you know the history of the games, you know that for many years, people of colour were forbidden to compete under the racial segregation laws that were pervasive during the early 20th century. You know that the now-celebrated torch relay was devised by Hitler in order to showcase Nazi Germany. You notice that the first week of the Olympics is the more “white” portion of the ceremony, showcasing sports that people of colour historically do not excel in like swimming or gymnastics, and the second week, when the athletics begins, is where black athletes from Africa and the Caribbean really shine.

Hopefully, we will remember Hamadou Issaka from land-locked Niger, the former pool cleaner turned rower who reminded us that sports aren’t always about winning but sometimes just about finishing the race.

If you are a person of colour living overseas, you accept that this means that you will learn more about the athletes competing in the first week of the Olympics than in the second. You will also pick up that only sports where women’s bodies can be photographed in the most exploitative way will get any sustained coverage. Finally, you will recognise that what was initially designed to be a showcase of the power of the human body often descends into a cacophony of advertising and product placement, particularly if you are watching in the US.

In all of this, it is important to remember that the Olympics are also about Jesse Owens, and his remarkable achievements during the Berlin Olympics that took at direct swipe at Nazi Germany in their own backyard. It is about Owens using his moment in the limelight to point out the inconsistency of the US preaching equality abroad but refusing to meet with their most successful athlete because of the colour of his skin. It is about Tommy Smith and John Carlos bringing the plight of African Americans to the world’s attention in 1968. It’s about Kipchoge Keino wining gold at a time when African economies were collapsing and finally proving that Kenya produced more than coffee.

If we are lucky, 2012 will be about the independent Olympic athletes who danced into the stadium and reminded us that many of these young people train intensely for four years for a chance to stand to represent the hopes and dreams of places that many of us have never even heard of. Hopefully, we will remember Hamadou Issaka from land-locked Niger, the former pool cleaner turned rower who reminded us that sports aren’t always about winning but sometimes just about finishing the race. With any luck, despite our cynicism, and in spite of the media’s attempts to focus only on the more photogenic swimmers or sprinters, or the medal table as evidence of which country is “the greatest”, the 2012 Olympic games will be remembered as the first in which all nations had a female competitor, and we will celebrate 17-year-old Sarah Attah and 16-year-old Wodjan Shaherkani from Saudi Arabia.

Nanjala Nyabola, a writer and political analyst, is currently a graduate student at Harvard Law School.