East to Olympia: Recentering Olympic Philosophy between East and West

Article excerpt


By going to Beijing in the summer of 2008, the Olympic Games may seem to have ventured farther than ever from their cultural origin in ancient Olympia, Greece. (1) 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. But it is best seen 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, (2) 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"--the Olympic Charter's official declaration of the Movement's foundational philosophy--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 as it tries to find common ethical and philosophical ground among diverse cultures in this age of globalization.

Olympism's stated goal, "to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity," (3) 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 a 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. This philosophy contained, in its original form, many more characteristics which are now associated with the East. (4) 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, I 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, but also better serves its current multicultural goals. In honor of the first visit of the Olympic Games to China, let us learn from our experience and 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. (5) 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? (6)

Rene Descartes, the "father" of modern Western philosophy, thought of himself as a "citizen of the world" (7) 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." (8) Despite the gender exclusion implied by his language, he seems at least to have meant that reason was universal across cultures. Descartes' method, which he called scientia, was to reject everything he previously believed because it might be prejudiced by unreliable sense-data, 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. …