Academic journal article Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

On the Structural Origins of Olympic Individuality

Academic journal article Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

On the Structural Origins of Olympic Individuality

Article excerpt

With the human sciences again caught up in hand wringing over the Western "structure versus agency" antinomy, it is worth recalling that historical inquiry into particular cases has its own way of clarifying theoretical fusses. Take for example the presently notorious argument between Marshall Sahlins's mytho-structural and Gananath Obeyesekere's psycho-pragmatic understandings of Europe's early encounters with classical Hawaii.(1) Commentators who see the issue as first of all one of plain old-fashioned quellenkritik have had little trouble determining both the empirical winner and what is ideologized in the accompanying "theoretical" debate.(2)

The status of mythic forms and practices in intercivilizational encounters is, however, a serious substantive and not merely a polemical issue. Moreover, it is one which forces itself upon any Olympic "theorist" - that is, historico-etymologically speaking, any "official Olympic spectator." In a forthcoming book on the Olympic victory ceremony, I pay particular attention to the surprising mythical aspects of multicultural rites, documenting along the way that Sahlinsian "Captain Cooks" are being created right in front of us today.(3)

In this paper, I will focus instead on the nearly complete "historylessness" of the victory ceremony in contemporary popular and professional discourses in Francophone and Anglophone Western Europe and North America. I will suggest that the remarkable extension and consistency of this silence mean that it must be far more than simple ignorance or disinterest. I will explore whether this silence is not instead a perceptive answer to the main historical problems of the Olympic victory ceremony. I will argue that it was indeed a "structure" - or rather the installation of a modernist structure of identities into Olympic ceremony by almost anonymous actors - that provided the ceremony mass publics today have so thoroughly naturalized and taken for granted. In making the emergent category of "individuality" in modern (and modernist) Olympic identity practices the final "author" of the ceremony, I believe I am making an historical and empirical claim.(4) It is, of course, intended to spur debate and further research.

The Olympic Victory Ceremony in Popular Discourse

The victory ritual has become both utterly familiar and thoroughly resistant to analysis, making it perhaps the most curious of all Olympic performances today.(5) The effortless, seemingly natural reproduction of the ceremony in Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas disguises the problem of how such a rite could travel so well. This ceremony is an object of genuinely global popular culture, in the precise and purely demographic definition assigned to this phrase in my work.(6) On the dimension of simple reportability, everyone in many places and many people anywhere in the world will recognize and attach a reference to a name of the thing. Performative visuality, nonverbality, and simplicity of forms, including abstract cognitive forms like "ludic victory" (if not always the particular ludi) contribute to this diffuse familiarity, in which, of course, mass media have played a key role. But the special abilities of mass-mediated Olympic performances to conceal radical diversities of cultural meanings under apparent, stereotypical, and routine sets of perceptions for any single cultural audience are a factor that should not be overlooked.(7)

The Universalist Illusion

Just the name of the performance form within the two historically official languages of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) illustrates this "universalistic illusion," the complex and active process of licensing, organizing, and concealing diversity through innocently "general" or "common" language. While in English called either the "Olympic victory ceremony" or the "Olympic medal ceremony" (and therefore offering a significant semantic option), naming the rite is yet more ambiguous in French, not to mention in interlinguistic space between French and English in official Olympic settings. …

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