The Olympics and Cultural Hegemony
The Olympic Games are taken seriously by many countries. Aside from the economic sphere, it is another avenue for the West to display its "superiority" over the rest of the world. How is this achieved? Levi Obijiofor and Sohail Inayatullah take us into the hidden meanings of the world’s greatest sporting event By Levi Obijiofor and Sohail Inayatullah.
A wide-eyed TV commentator in Australia remarked at the end of a pulsating Olympic semi-final soccer match between Nigeria and Brazil in which the former triumphed: “This is unbelievable! Nigeria of all countries!”
In similar tones, headline writers in the West’s leading press described the victory over Brazil as an “upset”.
This phrase, especially as it relates to the Olympic Games, is significant.
At the heart of such journalism is the misleading construction of the Olympics as an apolitical event. We are
misled not in the sense of being blind to favoritism—but through propagation of the assumption that the
Olympics represent all of humanity’s triumph, that winning athletes represent the culmination of human
excellence. The deeper meta-level of politics, in which the Olympics are essentially a massive Western exercise
in cultural domination, is avoided.
But this should not be a surprise since “civilization” has come to mean Western civilization. Indeed, the
Olympics are about the ascension of the West. The Olympics flame passing on unextinguished from ancient
Athens to the modern era is about the unproblematic transmission of Hellenic values to global culture.
The flame should not be doused, meaning that the values of the West should not be challenged. Like Mount
Olympus, they should stand tall above all other peoples, values and visions.
The Olympics Are Western
The Olympic Games have for years been dominated or hijacked by sporting events those are basically Western in
origin. When a non-Western athlete or team excels in an Olympic event which is traditionally Western, the feat
is perceived as an upset. Or there are genetic factors that are brought in to account for it. Those
long-distance runners from Kenya, we are told, have many hills to climb as they herd their sheep. Effort,
traditional family structures, traditional training techniques, and cultural importance given to specific
bodily skills are overlooked.
These rationalizations apply mostly to sportsmen and women from the non-West. Contest therefore is not
on the ground of sports but on the ground of political constructions, in terms of valuing certain
sports, histories, and cultures over others. If this is not the case, why do we have to have the Winter
Olympics, arguably designed for the West and the countries “blessed” with winter to have their own games?
No one remembered to design another Olympics for those countries that, by reason of geography, have only
dry and rainy seasons. Can’t we also have a Steaming Olympics, a Dry Olympics, or even a Wet Olympics?
We cannot, since the Olympics, even as they claim universality, are particular. Athens, we should
remember, does not experience the monsoons.
By promoting the image of the Olympics as global and by ensuring that every country participates in the events
determined by Western authorities in the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the West is indirectly
promoting its own values. The tragedy however is that many members within the IOC are from the non-West. Yet
decisions aboutthe summer Olympics still almost always seem to leave the non-West with no viable alternatives.
Of course there are options such as boycotting future Olympic Games if the inclusion of traditional sports from
the non-West is rejected by the IOC.
The dilemma is that non-participation in the Olympic Games means marginalization in the international economic
and political spheres. Avoiding the Olympics relegates a country to the dustbin of nationalistic history. If
one plays and loses badly, as most of the non-West do, a deep-seated cultural inferiority complex arises. All
that is left to do is to join, to be “developmentalized”.
If one plays and wins, beating the West at their own game, speculation is rife about the use of
performance-enhancing substances, as with China’s women’s distance running, or simplistic reference
to genetic advantages.
The West, originators of the Olympics, just can’t take defeat as a fact of life. At stake are not sports but
cosmology, worldview, and most recently nation. Thus, to invest resources in preparation for the Games every
four years is to play “catch-up” with the West. Above all, participation in the Games is participation in
another form of forced marketing of Western values.
Unfortunately, non-Western countries have been “infected” with this ideology under the guise of sports
development. How many non-Western countries spend as much money developing their traditional sports as they
do developing those of the West?
Traditional sports from the non-West are not recognized and have been kept out of the Olympics because the
West has not “blessed” them as genuine sports. Yet some in the non-West, for example, strive to compete in
such Western sporting events as beach volleyball, horseback riding, rhythmic, gymnastics, and synchronized
swimming. With ballroom dancing now an Olympics sport, let us hope that non- Western nations do not begin
to invest in this sport. Yet, if they don’t they will continue to lag in the medal count, which could also
be considered another GNP indicator count.
But what if non-Western nations focus on sports in which they have a comparative advantage? How, for example,
would the IOC react to suggestions to include traditional events like... drum dancing, hand fishing, tree
climbing with bare hands, palm wine tapping and consumption, a 100-metres sprint race pushing discarded car
tyres or rims, running with an egg delicately placed on the head, a sack race, trap shooting with slings or
catapults but no guns (what the West can do with a gun a skilled African marksman can do with the catapult),
wood chopping or kabadi—traditional wrestling—as in Pakistan? What about camel riding in order to
accommodate the Maghrebs of the Sahara region? and so on....
With all these included in a refined Olympics, will the West continue to dominate? As a Somali proverb states,
“What you lose in the fire you must seek in the ashes.” Is such a level playing field possible?
The future option for the non-West in the Olympic Games must be either to build on its own model of
traditional sports or to utilize its numbers in the IOC to force a change. The non-West cannot continue
participation in an Olympic Games where winning on Western terms is its essence. To do so is to promote
inequity and further humiliation.
Winning in Order to Win
More characteristic of the Olympics than winning on Western terms has been the aggrandizement of winning
itself. It is more important than cultural exchange and refinement of the human spirit, contrary to Olympics
propaganda claims. To illustrate the point that winning and losing have become the two key Olympics words,
let us return to the 1992 Barcelona Games.
Asked why his colleagues on the U.S. basketball team (the “Dream Team”) were not staying in the same Olympic
village as other athletes to make friends, one of the players reportedly said, “We are here to win gold, not
to make friends".
The same theme was evident in several advertisements during the Atlanta Games, as recorded by Roy
MacGregor of The Ottawa Citizen. Here are a few: “You don’t win silver, you lose gold”; “If you’re
not here to win, you’re a tourist”; “Second place is the first loser”; and “No one train for
These sentiments run counter to the views of the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, who
said that “the important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part”. By promoting the
importance of winning, Olympics sponsors are propagating the message that winners are superior, that winners
are from the West, and that the non-West are losers and are therefore inferior to the West.
Each culture has its own sports. Some are individualistic, some competitive, some based on ancient myths.
By giving official credence only to the sports of one culture, our sports bio-diversity is lost.
Beyond the Sovereign Nation
The context of sports is domination. Winning is all that matters. Winning boosts a nation’s image, turns
winners into instant millionaires, and unifies long-time domestic enemies. More than that it reinscribes
the nation as the natural and only form of governing sovereignty. West, nation, and winning become natural
and synonymous. Can we imagine an Olympics where there are different sorts of “territoriality”? Perhaps a
line-up of nations, ethnicities, individuals, communities, transnational corporations, and even
civilizations.Can we imagine a situation where there is excellence and challenge but not in the context
of “winning”? The desire to win also encourages men and women to cheat and bypass the most sophisticated
drug testing kits available, ultimately harming their own bodies.
Women and Sports
The Olympics are also primarily about traditional male values. Women’s sports, like the Yugoslav girls’
game of lastis (where girls play with an elastic rope and jump up and down in infinite variations), is
one example. Women, also, as we know from studies on competition, would prefer a negotiated score in
which all parties are happy. For example, if the game is drawn, many women are satisfied with that
conclusion while men would prefer a “sudden death” (with all the metaphorical meanings behind it).
Olympic sports, from a feminist perspective, have either developed from a warrior tradition such as fencing
or from leisure time, that is, when women were taking care of the home economy. Indeed, the origin of the
Olympics lies in preparing men for war. As with the non-West, the inclusion of women has been in the terms
and values of male Western games. Women’s terms and values have been excluded largely in the same sense
non-Western culture has.
Lobbying for Change
Olympics as apolitical, humanity’s struggle for global excellence? We don’t think so. But bringing these
issues up is not easy. As with religion and politics, deconstructing the Olympics can be seen as an
unpatriotic task. It might be argued that there is no Western hegemony, so let non-Western nations lobby
the IOC for their own sports, or don’t give the Olympics so much attention.
The Games are only a matter of individual athletes in friendly competition. But can non-Western nations
lobby for alternative sports? Can they develop a global following even if the sport being played has some
Our argument is that resources are limited and media exposure is even more limited. And the Olympics do
matter. It is a billion-dollar industry. One only need to look at the effort socialist nations gave to
the Olympics to see their value in prestige. Challenging the Olympics is bothersome because most of us
have bought the idea of the Olympics as universal, as the purest of all human expressions. To locate it
in other discourses is to undo primal tribal-national emotions.
Still, there is beauty in seeing athletes run faster, swifter and stronger. Competition and keeping scores
do lead to excellence. A Zen of sports where the process is more important than the outcome is only part of
the story. Outcomes are important. There is a charm in seeing individuals of many cultures mingle together
for two weeks. Even if the flags of nation-states reinforce the ugliness of patriotism, the Olympics do
create internationalism even if they do not create a universal humanism.
Thus, we argue not for the elimination of the Olympics but for its transformation, and generations ahead,
we need redefinition of the Olympics concept. New indicators of performance and achievement instead of
the simplistic medal tally might be useful.
Bruce Wilson, for example, argued that chatter about Australia surpassing its 1956 record in 1998 should
be seen in the context of a 32 million Australian dollar sports investment, nearly a million dollars per
medal won. Perhaps we need a ratio after the medal tally like medal/investment in sports. Burundi or
Namibia might then be the real winner of the Olympic Games. Why not an indicator such as medal/GNP also?
We also need an Olympic Games for the non-West and women where there is neither victor nor vanquished,
where excellence is achieved without domination. Ultimately, that is the solution, an alternative Olympics
where traditional games and the cultural stories behind them are enshrined. Hawaii already has a day for
traditional Hawaiian sports. These are critical because they teach the young ancient ways of knowing, of
relating to the environment.
Sports teach us about each other, about our myths. They create inner and outer discipline. They concentrate
the mind. They are also a way toward intergenerational solidarity, where the old teach the young. Above all,
sports, as originally conceived, should promote a culture of peaceful co-existence and friendliness.
Unfortunately, all these ideals have changed. Today, competitors weep openly when they lose and when they
win, making it difficult to understand the essence and spirit of the occasion. Sportsmen and women also
sometimes trade abuses and punches with one another and with officials. Sometimes limbs are broken and
lives are lost, not through accidents but through deliberate acts of hatred.
Would these alternative Olympics be globally televised against the mystique of Athens? Of course not. At
least not until Asian and African nations begin to control their own mass media. Challenging the Olympics
is ultimately about taking back one’s history and body from nations and giant media firms that own athletes
and monopolize sponsorship of them. It’s also about fighting media imperialism and all forms of imperialism
thrown up by multinational sponsoring organizations. It is about fighting patriarchy and the modern
nation-state system. Finally, it is about creating a new future, a planetary civilization beyond West and
MacGregor, Roy. “Swoosh, only winning matters at these Games,” The Ottawa Citizen, August 3, 1996,
p. 2. Wilson, Bruce. “Is overtaking the Melbourne medal tally such a big deal?” The Courier-Mail,
August 2, 1996, p 47.