East to Olympia: Recentering Olympic Philosophy between East and West

Article excerpt

Introduction

By going to Beijing in the summer of 2008, the Olympic Games seem to have ventured farther than ever from their cultural and geographical origin in ancient Olympia, Greece. This can be viewed as a triumph--but a triumph of what? Some may see it as a victory for Western cultural imperialism; others as a victory for Olympic multiculturalism. We see it rather as a unique opportunity--an opportunity for the Eurocentric Olympic Movement to counterbalance its Western values and ideals with those of China and the East, thereby re-centering its philosophy between East and West, and redirecting Olympism back toward its origins in ancient Greece. This process does not require changes in the language of the "Fundamental Principles of Olympism," but rather an expanded understanding of how that language may be understood from diverse cultural perspectives. The effort by Easterners and Westerners alike to "re-center" our understanding of Olympic philosophy will serve the Movement well in the present age of globalization.

Olympism's central goal of world peace can hardly be called Eurocentric or even distinctively Western. However the pursuit of that goal is hampered by the tradition of interpreting Olympic philosophy exclusively from the modern European perspective. The ancient Hellenic philosophy from which modern Olympism is supposed to derive is not a characteristically Western product, as is often assumed. Rather, it is a "centrist" perspective that resulted from a need to mediate among diverse Hellenic cultures in the ancient Mediterranean world. Such a perspective contained in its original form many more characteristics which are now associated with the East. (1) By examining the language of Olympism through the divergent lenses of modern European, ancient Chinese, and finally ancient Hellenic ideas about metaphysics, ethics, and politics, we hope to recast Olympic philosophy in a new and ecumenical light. This more flexible and cosmopolitan understanding of Olympism not only better reflects the Movement's ancient Hellenic heritage, it also better serves its current multicultural goals. In honor of the Olympic Games' first visit to China, let the Movement take this opportunity to move Olympic ideology East toward Olympia!

Philosophy: The Way Is Not the Only Way

"Olympism is a philosophy of life." So begins the Olympic Charter's statement of fundamental principles. (2) In the attempt to consider Olympic philosophy from both Eastern and Western perspectives, we must first reflect upon the meaning of philosophy itself. What does it mean to have a "philosophy of life"? Is everyone in the Olympic Movement expected to have the same philosophy of life? Can philosophy transcend cultural differences?

Rene Descartes, the "father" of modern Western philosophy, thought of himself as a "citizen of the world" (3) and regarded his work as culturally transcendent because it used what he thought were the culturally unbiased tools of reason and logic to uncover universally valid truths. For him, "the power of judging well and distinguishing true from false--which we properly call 'good sense' or 'reason'--is naturally equal in all men." (4) Descartes' method, which he called scientia, was to reject everything he previously believed because it might be prejudiced, and then to rebuild knowledge by solely rational means from the cornerstone of one logically irrefutable truth. Because modern Western philosophy traditionally viewed its project as objective and universal, it tended to regard its conclusions as correct, certain, and paradigmatic examples for all to follow. Conflicting theories would be methodically tested according to rational standards in a competitive "marketplace of ideas" and the last one standing would be the truth--or at least the closest thing to truth that we can muster. From the perspective of modern Western philosophy, then, Olympism aims at articulating a single universal truth. …