DOES India need to attend the London Olympics in 2012? Not really.
The Olympics of the 21st century are rarely anywhere near the concepts of the ancient Greeks. With the exception of the competition itself, everything else is governed by money. And it’s money where the London games got into their current mess which might see an Indian boycott.
The “skin” to encircle the Olympic stadium has provoked a storm of outrage, after the contract was awarded to Dow Chemical, now the owner of Union Carbide, a firm held responsible for the deaths of nearly 25,000 people and injury of more than half a million at Bhopal in 1984.
Nobody could argue with that sensitivity. Even decades on, such a horrible tragedy remains fresh on the minds of millions of Indians, and to watch their nation’s athletes walk into the stadium covered by a skin made by a firm connected, however after the fact, to Union Carbide, would be difficult or even impossible.
Playing athletes from countries with which you have had actual or diplomatic conflict may be difficult but is not impossible because sports is literally a different competitive field than the stadium and audience surrounding it.
The Greek mathematician Pythagoras said there were three kinds of people who attended the Olympic games. The lowest of the low were those “who come to buy and sell”. The athletes are above them, and “best of all are those who simply come to look on“.
You can lose yourself in games, both as audience and competitor. As the computer and video games industries expand, more and more people are becoming the competitors, frequently merely against themselves.
There is still an attraction of the big sporting events, such as the Commonwealth Games, last held in Delhi, or the Olympics. But at every moment of the day, people are far more engaged in games offered by their phones, their tablet devices, computers and games consoles.
The iPhone in particular changed gaming. Who needs elite athletes when you can shoot birds out of the sky with Angry Birds. Earlier this month it was announced that the game had been downloaded more than 500 million times worldwide, flinging an estimated 400 billion birds to their deaths.
Killing in virtual space is entertaining of course.
Consider how many Wii or PS3 games mimic professional sports, not only for your personal fitness but to put you in the professional’s shoes. I’ve no doubt games will allow Olympic competition at home, for those unable to afford tickets, which is pretty much everyone. The line is blurred between competitor and audience.
But as much as you put yourself into the sporting world, gaming is really about taking you out of the real world.
The ancient Roman satirist Juvenal (circa 100AD) wrote that citizens had given up on the idea of political involvement after leaders realized they could give out “bread and circuses” to get to power.
In context, the full phrase says: “… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
We still want circuses, ideally directly to our phones when we need a distraction from the serious issues around us. How do we resolve the dispute over the Olympic stadium skin? “I’m playing Angry Birds right now – I’ll get back to you.”
Dayna Galloway, a lecturer in game design at Abertay University in Scotland, one of the leading institutions for the next generation of games creators, says these digital circuses are about learning. “Computer games fundamentally involve placing yourself in a different world,” he says. “By presenting a range of choices you can interact with, players get to make a decision and see what response that generates.
“At its root, computer games tap into a very basic human need – of learning through play. Computer games offer us safe, exciting environments to do exactly that.”
Behind the modern Olympics, and the games industry, is the buying and selling. As much as professional sporting circuses are about offering distractions, audiences are in the prime moral position as observers of the spectacle of sport and the spectacle of business.
Social gaming in particular has blurred the lines between those first and second tiers – we are athletes and audience. But we’re still above the buying and selling.
So just because the London Olympics has literally sold its skin to the firm that bought the firm responsible for Bhopal, does not necessarily taint the athletes or spectators. They exist in the same space, but are different.
India boycotting the London Olympics cannot bring back the lives lost at Bhopal, nor the health of tens of thousands of others – if only it was so simple. The national concerns are nevertheless completely understandable.
Just like the Pakistan cricket match fixing convictions this month, athletes and spectators are getting dragged into the buying and selling when that should be kept much more at a distance. We are getting distracted from the point of sport, just as we let sport distract us from the world.
India can do without the modern Olympics. But it would be a shame if we forever abandoned an appreciation for sport and the human drive to push ourselves to the physical limits, and to enjoy it, apart from the money. At some point we need to find the original circuses again.