An Alternative Olympics
by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante
(First Published in City Press, September, 2004)
At the close of the Athens Olympics, I felt a little depressed because I had come to enjoy this massive expression of international play. I did not want it to end. The world was at peace, people played and laughed with each other regardless to race and color. It was a time for all humans to appreciate each other and to compete with each other on equal terms. It was a moment of beauty.
The modern Olympiads are directly related to ancient Greece. Having the games this year in Athens was a wonderful reaffirmation of the role that the Greeks have played in the construction of the modern world. However, one wonders what would have happened if the games had been based on the formulas developed in ancient Egypt or ancient China?
All games are rooted in somebody’s culture. Someone had to develop that particular form of playing. Take the fact that the ancient Greeks did not permit women to come to the Olympics, neither as participants nor as spectators. It was strictly a game for men. If the Olympics board made such a proposal in these days it would be laughed out of the room as some primordial form of male chauvinism.
The ancient Greeks competed naked, that is, in the nude. This was considered a form of enjoyment only for men, old men who were titillated to see the firm bodies of young men running the Marathon or some other track. In the book, Greek Homosexuality, the writer ties the Greek fascination with nudity to the sex, something that was different traditionally in Africa. In fact, Africans did not consider nudity something that necessarily aroused sexual excitement. Far from it, people in certain parts of Africa, Asia, and South America found nudity to be useful in given climates. It was rarely or never associated with sexuality.
Unfortunately one of the influences of the Greeks on modern civilization is the loss of innocence about the body. Fortunately for the contemporary Olympians they do not have to participate in the nude and they will not be put to death if they lose. In the American press there have been many stories about the Iraqi Olympians. With glee some writers say, “If Saddam Hussein had still been in charge of the country, many Iraqis would fear losing in the games because they would be physically punished.” Whether that would have been the case or not, we cannot tell, but we do know that the ancient Greeks often killed the losers.
It was not just the Greeks who took games seriously. It was the case in many cultures. The Mayas in Mexico, during the pre-Columbian era, used to have a ball game that was played so seriously that the loser was thrown into a massive pit where he died instantaneously.
With its origins in the first Olympiad around 800 BC the modern games have a long and glorious tradition. Men and women from all countries participate in a pseudo nationalistic game of war in which one side pits its best people against those of other nations. A certain amount of pleasure is assured when the South African team defeats the Nigerian team and an even greater pleasure is derived when the South African team defeats the British or the American teams. It is a game of symbolic warfare where a little bit of jingoism is allowed and everyone is expected to wave a flag or sing a song like the the various war chants of African nations. Everything is meant to suggest something of the strength and character of the nations in competition. Thus, it is expected that the winning team will gloat over its victory as if it had just dropped bombs on the other team. In the end, the conquest by individuals is underscored by the playing of the national anthems of the winners who stand higher on the platform than the runners up. If you are not in the top three category, then you do not show up anywhere.The Iraqi team received the loudest applause during the opening ceremony; it was predictable. Everyone wanted them to do good, and they showed spirit. They demonstrated what we had already known that people confronted with the worst type of oppression, real warfare, and exploitation, can bring themselves to find space, psychological and physical space, to compete, laugh, and enjoy themselves.
African people have known this for the longest time. Under the apartheid regime, whites were often amazed to find that black people found time to laugh, to play, to enjoy relationships, and to have families through all the difficulties. Africans in America were in slavery for nearly 250 and yet they produced some of the richest drama, literature, poetry, art, and music in the United States. How do people do these things? What is it that causes people to have such resilience? Well, it is the fact that human nature can turn the most awful situations into victories of the spirit.
Nat Turner, the African American revolt leader, said in 1831 that you might destroy the body, but you cannot destroy the spirit. The will of the people is often stronger than the oppression. We know, certainly, that there are always casualties of the pitched battles between good and evil. All good people do not always win.
What if the games had been played along lines established by Africans long before the Greeks held their first Olympiad? Long before there was a Greek civilization Africans were developing contests of racing as in the Jubilee festivals of ancient Egypt, sailing races on the Niger and Nile, or climbing coconut trees as tests of agility and speed in West Africa, or wrestling among the Nuba and Ibo and many other people of Africa?
You do not believe for a minute do you that the idea of contests, games, sports came from the Greeks? Of course you understand that all societies have always had games. Africa is no different. In fact the first games recognized in the world are the African Jubilee games first held around 3000 BC, or close thereafter, according to historians. This is more than two thousand years before the Greek games.
History is so interesting because the people who win are the ones who get the chance to write the story. European people are now writing the story of sports when in fact the idea of competition was started in Africa. So the story will be revised when African historians complete their work, something that is already underway.
When Imhotep, the builder of the Sakkara Pyramid finished his work, he had built an arena where contests and displays of physical strength would be demonstrated. It waqs not just the pyramid; it was an arena where spectators and participants intermingled until the time when the participants had to perform.
People usually came from every part of the nation of ancient Egypt for the contests. They flew their flags representing their respective ethnic regions. In fact the idea for the modern flag is based on the African notion of flag, best represented by the glyph for the divine in ancient Egypt. It is a flag, just like the flags that used to hang over the temples at Karnak, Abu Simbel, Kom Ombo and other ancient African temples.
The ultimate display in ancient Egypt was when the king demonstrated that he could run around the track thirty times to demonstrate his prowess. Now, suppose the leaders of the world were the last ones to have to perform when the Olympics was closing. You would have George Bush and Saddam Hussein, Thabo Mbeki would race against Abdoulaye Wade, Tony Blair againt Jacques Chirac and so forth. You might also bring the contests down to the level of the various ministers and let them compete against their counterparts from other countries. It would be something to see these leaders out on the field, dressed to run the races or to make the giant leaps against other world leaders and ministers. Colin Powell should surely run against somebody. But he is not a president or prime minister. We should keep it at the level of the heads of state.
They would have to demonstrate their physical prowess and stamina before the assembled masses of the world. They could use no surrogates; they would have to run themselves. This would truly be a world spectacle. In the end the idea would not be for victory, but for restoring balance and harmony to the world. It is like the mock war that the New Guineas have each year when young men go out to fight against their closest neighbors in a mock display of war. When it is over they all sit and eat dinner together. The gods are satisfied.
In the current contests the mega-countries, China, Russia, United States, and Brazil had the largest contingents because of wealth, training facilities, and population. This changes as populations and economic conditions change. But what does not change is the sense of pride that comes to an individual who has done as well as he or she could have done in the competition. Nothing more could be asked of any athlete from South Africa or anywhere else in the world. We accept with pride the fact that they have achieved their personal best. Now let us all go out and run and jump a little.
Molefi Kete Asante is one of the most published contemporary scholars, having written more than sixty books and three hundred articles.