Classically Inclined

September 7, 2012

Bread and circuses: some thoughts about the Olympics, Paralympics and theory

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:52 am
Tags: ,

We’ve completed the Olympics and are now working our way through the Paralympics, and I’m lucky enough to have attended both. I saw some of the men’s volleyball and the Graeco-Roman wrestling for the Olympics, and I spent Tuesday at the athletics finals of the Paralympics. I will own up that the only reason we ended up at the Graeco-Roman wrestling was because I suggested I’d be a bad classicist if I didn’t nominate them as one of the events we tried for… it ended up being our only Olympic medal ceremory, so there we are. Clearly I wasn’t the only person who used this logic in making their applications, as the photo illustrating this post attests. Being inside the stadium proper was also amazing – not just for the architecture, or indeed the absolutely gripping blind long jump competition, but for the sense of being one small part of a cheerfully enthusiastic crowd cheering on all comers.

Celebrating in togas; photo courtesy of Bill Gloyn.

Being the academic type that I am, I have been trying to find various theoretical models for thinking about the Games. The obvious one, as a classicist, is the ‘bread and circuses’ model, exploring the use of lavish spectacles to please the masses and keep them on the side of the people paying for the games. Magistrates often paid for the games in Rome and the cities of the empire in order to curry favour with the people; some of the guests at Trimalchio’s dinner party in the Satyricon criticise their local officials for not putting on a good enough show. The most famous example occured during the Byzantine empire, when the rivalry between the Blue and Green chariot racing teams grew so fierce and their supporters so powerful that they nearly unseated the emperor Justinian. That’s obviously an extreme case, but public entertainment and sporting competition served as a locus of political power, whether to demonstrate it or to sieze it. I have to admit that I feel a bit of a resonance here with Boris Johnson, who used the immediate aftermath of the Olympics both to put the boot into the Coalition government’s handling of the economic situation and to fuel speculation about his intentions after he finishes his current term as mayor. (He is probably the only person able to take advantage of the political capital offered by the Games, given that Jeremy Hunt is well beyond redemption by now despite his reshuffling.)

But the nice thing about being an academic is that you can think about things in more than one way, and because Helen Finch told me to, I went and reread Susan Sontag’s excellent essay Fascinating Fascism. Sontag explores the implications of Leni Riefenstahl’s rehabilitation, and teases out the aesthetic similarities between her late career book The Last of the Nuba and the infamous Triumph of the Will, the film of the Nuremberg Rally. Along the way, she brings in Riefenstahl’s Olympia, a documentary about the 1936 Olympics. Sontag points out that all of Riefenstahl’s works celebrate the body created through extravagant effort, submission and self-control, encouraging both egomania and servitude to the ultimate goal of physical perfection. The Romans certainly had this in terms of celebrating perfect bodies and destructo-testing them up to and beyond death; there would also be some interesting implications to unpick about the slave status of most gladiators given the tension Sontag highlights between slavery to the goal and total self-belief. We’ve seen this too at the Olympics – Mary Beard has already commented on the problems of holding up Olympic-level athletes as the new ideal role models. There’s a twist to this at the Paralympics, with the spectacle of non-typical bodies doing amazing things; I will admit that I found watching the opening ceremony slightly uncomfortable given the potential for the experience to slide into spectacle rather than ceremonial, particularly during the parade of nations, given our national form on the display of othered colonialised bodies (the Hottentot Venus and her comrades, anyone?). Interestingly, that’s not been my experience of watching the actual competitions themselves – elite sport has been allowed to transcend these problems, regardless of the competitors. (Other people have written far better than I ever could about the problems with assuming the achievements of the Paralympics mean all disabled people can perform similar feats if they could only set their minds to it given that we don’t expect all able-bodied people to be Olympians, so go read some Paralympians’ thoughts on why they still need Disability Living Allowance instead of reading my comments on the matter.)

I think my take-away from all of this is that there’s always a benefit for looking for other theoretical perspectives in understanding – well, everything. Both our academic disciplines and the way that things pan out in daily life. No one theory explains every aspect of an event – neither of the examples I’ve given above, for instance, have addressed the gender aspects of the games or ancient spectacle (I am currently pondering the relationship between queering and theatricality and gladiators, but that’s another story, and you should all read the piece on why Wenlock and Mandeville are genderqueer icons if you haven’t already). Theory helps us understand how things work, but it’s not an exclusive way of understanding the world. Accessing intersecting interpretations gives us a far stronger and fuller picture, not to mention one that is richer and acknowledges the complexity of real life.



  1. Thanks for those links to the articles about disability – I love the Olympics and Paralympics but it’s been bothering me over these last couple of weeks that it’s going to make a problem that already exists worse – things like people bumping into the back of Mum’s wheelchair and not realising that they’re causing her immense pain in doing so, or not understanding the concept of good days and bad days. It was nice to see Stephen Hawking at the Opening Ceremony – he’s the only person I can think of off the top of my head whose achievements with a very different type of disability are celebrated.

    Comment by Juliette — September 7, 2012 @ 11:16 am | Reply

    • I wanted to flag up the fallacy that disabled people are either scroungers or heroes, with no middle ground, particularly given some of the rhetoric used by politicians during the opening of the Paralympics; his comments about changing people’s minds about what they can do miss the reality of disability for the majority. It will be interesting to see if the push-back against this sort of rhetoric and the anti-ATOS campaign make an equally large impact.

      Comment by lizgloyn — September 7, 2012 @ 4:32 pm | Reply

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