In times of global fracture and crises flaring around the world, it has been the common instinct of the mainstream media and governments to look wistfully at events that bring countries together in an apolitical environment. The Summer and Winter Olympics are probably the most prominent of such events, gatherings of participating countries’ finest athletes. War is fought in robust but friendly spirits on the racetrack, in the gymnasium, or in the pool. Bullets and bombs become volleyballs slammed, barbells lifted, or shotputs thrown. The “unarmed elites” that represent the very best of a nation’s physical pride and self-expression compete—despite the long history of doping issues—on a more or less level playing field, free from the realpolitik of great power competition, economic inequality, neocolonialism, domestic crises, and military conflict.
The father of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1836–1937), is said to have mused, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.” (BBC) Inspired by sporting culture in British schools, he believed that organized sports could cultivate “moral and social strength” (Coubertin 1970). His words are not only comforting to those that do not wish to see the world as a struggle for supremacy between ideologically incompatible blocs, but also resonate with modern self-improvement and motivational advice to not see our lives as a perpetual war of winning or losing against our peers—which can be extremely toxic and self-harming. Rather, we should be on a journey of being “the best version” of ourselves.
Yet even Olympic athletes were challenging Coubertin’s idea early on. Jesse Owens (1913–80), who famously won four gold medals in Track and Field at the 1936 Summer Olympics, is said to have quipped, “If you don’t try to win you might as well hold the Olympics in somebody’s back yard.” (BBC) Owens competed amidst interesting times: he was an American Black man in hostile Nazi territory, where the 1936 Olympics was seen by Hitler and his Nazis as the ideal platform to demonstrate German, “Aryan” superiority to the world. Posterity sees his victory as not simply one for the sports records, but as representing a moral one, a poetic defiance against people—including his own countrymen—that saw Owens as part of an inferior race.
Nowadays we continue to live in times that are more interesting than ever. This phrase is a curse erroneously attributed to the Chinese, who have, with some reason, reprimanded the West in state media for essentially negligible coverage on the Hangzhou 2022 Asian Games. In both examples of 1936 and 2022, we see (geo)politics shaping how nations perceive global sporting events. One could even say the same of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, where there was a great narrative battle between Chinese media and the Western press. In regard to Hangzhou, a China Daily op-ed commented that the 45 participant countries accounted for 55 per cent of the world’s population, with the total number of participants exceeding the upcoming Paris 2024 Summer Olympics’ 10,000 registered athletes. It pointed out:
The Asian Games set a trend and standard for future environmentally friendly sports events, contributing significantly to global climate change movements. Yet no voices of support or praise were heard from Western-financed NGOs or Western media regarding these constructive, standard-setting climate change initiatives. . . . Western media also might have been reluctant to showcase China’s advanced innovative technology, which was on display at the Games.”(China Daily)
Depending on Sino-American relations and Sino-French relations in 2024, we can probably expect reciprocal criticisms of Chinese media from certain interests that wish to project the Paris Olympics as a paradigm of Western soft power.
More broadly, the Global South, which China counts itself a part of, has long split with the Global North on matters such as Ukraine, Sino-American competition, and most recently the renewed violence between Hamas and the Israeli military. The Global South is overwhelmingly sympathetic towards the Palestinian suffering and degradation that long preceded the Hamas attack, while the West, again with some reason, demands that justice should be meted on Hamas for killing innocent civilians.
At this point, we should perhaps dispense with the self-delusion or naivete that global sporting events are an apolitical conclave for the global community to gather in good faith. Perhaps they could be said to represent at least a noble but flawed attempt to remind each other that there are other “imaginaries” other than a world of conflict. This alternative is a world of sportsmanship and fair competition.
Sportsmanship, in sport or diplomacy, is defined as a fundamental respect for one’s competitor. There is a certain echo of sportsmanship in the United States’ current diplomacy with China: the Biden administration has often claimed that the US wants to be in “intense competition” with China without veering into military conflict. Of course, not everyone sees that distinction as one of good faith. And sporting victories and losses simply do not always translate well into other matters: what would a loss taken in good grace mean for Israelis or Palestinians? Using these analogies runs the risk of appearing glib.
Nevertheless, sportsmanship is undoubtedly a powerful currency: celebrated among friends, respected by foes. In Buddhist terms, graciousness in defeat and victory could be seen as a kind of non-attachment to the outcome. Non-attachment can ameliorate the instinct of vengeance and channel it into more productive answers against the enemy. And why even this binary of friend and foe? Applying non-attachment can even help see routes to dialogue and co-existence, the latter being critical in a world where no one wishes for competition to end in mushroom clouds.
Non-attachment can mean flexibility, imagination, and adaptability. Non-attachment does not always mean letting go, but daring to imagine a different path from the one conventionally prescribed. In this sense, could non-attachment be even seen as some kind of strategic asset—for sportsmen and for statesmen?
Non-attachment, far from being stale and emotionless, is the foundation of sportsmanship. It is the basis of possibilities once presumed impossible. In Buddhist teaching, destroying attachment at the root is the route to the ultimate victory: the overcoming of suffering. The Buddha taught from the beginning of his ministry:
“The suffering that arises in the world starting with old age and death takes many and diverse forms. (yaṁ kho idaṁ anekavidhaṁ nānappakārakaṁ dukkhaṁ loke uppajjati jarāmaraṇaṁ)
“The source of this suffering is attachment. When attachments exist old age and death come to be. And when attachments do not exist old age and death don’t come to be. (Idaṁ kho dukkhaṁ upadhinidānaṁ upadhisamudayaṁ upadhijātikaṁ upadhipabhavaṁ, upadhismiṁ sati jarāmaraṇaṁ hoti, upadhismiṁ asati jarāmaraṇaṁ na hotī’ti)
“They understand old age and death, their origin, their cessation, and the fitting practice for their cessation. (So jarāmaraṇañca pajānāti jarāmaraṇasamudayañca pajānāti jarāmaraṇanirodhañca pajānāti yā ca jarāmaraṇanirodhasāruppagāminī paṭipadā tañca pajānāti)
And they practice in line with that path. (Tathāpaṭipanno ca hoti anudhammacārī)(Sammasasutta)
Often forgotten in Jesse Owens’ story is that of his German competitor, long jumper Luz Long (1913–43), who was acknowledged for his sportsmanship by none other than Coubertin. On 4 August 1936 he helped Owens maximize his chances of winning after Owens committed fouls twice, and after Owens beat his jump, was the first to congratulate him. Owens would later reflect: “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. . . . I would melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the twenty-four karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment.” (ESPN)
Long was later killed fighting for Nazi Germany in the Second World War. We will never know the inner workings of his heart or what he truly thought. But his remarkable gesture, borne out of a certain imagination and non-attachment to Germany’s national mood—and definitely to Hitler’s gaze—seems representative of the sportsmanship which history looks upon him kindly for, despite being tied to a regime that was unequivocally in the wrong.
The Nazis’ vision was irreconcilable with the kind of world that, perhaps even today’s China and America can agree, want to maintain. That desire for peaceful coexistence is, at least, one common ground. Let’s start there.
Pierre de Coubertin. 1970. The Olympic Idea. Discourses and Essays. Lausanne: Editions Internationales Olympiques.
Ethics guide (BBC)
Hangzhou Asian Games foster unity, promote green living (China Daily)
The world is coming apart at the seams (Salon)
Self-examination – Sammasasutta (SuttaCentral)
Owens pierced a myth (ESPN)