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Bread and Circuses

Iain Sinclair said two things that particularly stuck in my mind, when speaking on Channel 4 News on the eve of the Olympics: that we were about to enter into a ‘wonderful national hallucination‘, and that the Olympic village was ‘a theme park without a theme’. Now that it’s all over, I’m left wondering whether the games had any purpose higher than ‘diversion, distraction and the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace’.

I was walking from the London Buddhist Centre to Victoria Park last Sunday evening with a friend. We were on our way to watch the men’s 100 metres final at one of the live screens in the park, and talking about how we were finding the games. He reminded me of the phrase ‘bread and circuses’ (or bread and games), which Wikipedia tells me comes from Roman satirist and poet Juvenal and is ‘a metaphor for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the creation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion, distraction, and/or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace.’

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed what I saw of the games. I particularly appreciated the road races, whether on foot or by bike, partly because they were more egalitarian and inclusive for spectators. I was impressed with the friendliness of my city and of the games-maker volunteers in particular. And who can deny that high emotion was generated at the lofty sporting attainments of many competitors?

But what was behind it all? What was it all for? What precisely were we cheering when we applauded the success of ‘Team GB’, or other team of allegiance? What values or ideals were we cherishing, what higher purpose? Or was success, in the games, an end in itself, at the relatively superficial sporting level, a momentary distraction from our current travails? What, ultimately, will be the nature of the phoenix emerging from the flames of the Olympic cauldron?

3 Responses to “Bread and Circuses”

  1. Stephen H I don't consider myself patriotic eppell says:

    Hello!
    I really enjoyed the Olympics- partly because I’m very impressionable and get easily swept along by things! I don’t consider myself patriotic in the jingoistic sense, but I quite like living here and our culture, and feel like when someone in Team GB did well I was happy because it shows someone from our culture can do well and achieve a high level at something. Competition in a healthy sense can bring out the best in us, and sport can symbolise this. I felt like the type of patriotism on show was not too inward looking and triumphalist and was in a good spirit. The opening ceremony seemed like it tried to connect the different strands in our culture. I have a friend who’s parents are Vietnamese and grew up in Ireland, who was moved to tears by it.

    Maybe when the dust settles it will all seem a bit hollow and ephemeral, but for now I’m enjoying the rare positive emotion in London!

    Maybe it is is all a hallucination- but hallucinations can be very powerful!

  2. Tim Segaller says:

    A fine piece, Manjusiha…and some of those same questions went through my mind during the enjoyable spectacle of the Olympics. I agree with much of what you say, though I do feel there really are some higher values that inspired people involved in the games (whether they knew it or not). More of that in a second.

    First though, where I agree with you: it is indeed unclear what values we’re espousing when supporting our ‘country’. At best it’s ‘harmless fun’ to get over-excited about supporting any national team…and at worst, it can spill over into jingoism. And it’s true that this could indeed have been one big distraction from deeper problems we’re facing economically, culturally or even spiritually in this country/the West/the World.

    However, I think what is genuinely inspiring and of real value in the Olympic movement (at its best) is that it’s open to anyone (in theory) to take part in, and that anyone (give or take some innate talent, of course!) – when they are dedicated to their training – is capable of reaching great heights of sporting achievement.

    Personally, I felt deeply moved watching all the athletes taking part, when I brought to mind the extraordinary level of commitment they’d made in their lives, the sacrifices, the extreme training regime day in and day out.

    I think there is a powerful message in this to all of us: that our lives are own responsibilities and that we can take action to change the course of things. More than anything else, it’s about the possibility of each and every one of us reaching our individual potential.

    Anyway, that’s my take on this…

  3. mary says:

    I didn’t watch the Olympics because I don’t own a television. I don’t think there’s a higher purpose to sports, but I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with some diversion. Life can be really horrible. There’s nothing wrong with pleasure that has no higher purpose, as long as it’s not what we builds our lives around.

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