August 2016, Learning from the Olympics

Dear friends,

This week I had an epiphany where I actually saw the real possibility of Messianic times. A time when everyone has got enough to live in peace and serenity, when ‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’

In a world of ever-increasing hatred and violence, one may conceivably wonder if the above is simply some hippie delusion. With human capacity for devastation and the individual’s capability for so much carnage at hitherto unimaginable heights, it is fair to wonder whether we’ve made any progress at all toward this idyllic vision.

But I had a revelation. In it, without spending a single dollar more than we are currently spending, by simply choosing to do so, within a few years we could eliminate most of the misery on our planet by providing food, shelter, security, education, and health, to every last human being. And this lightning bolt came to me from the most unlikely of sources, the Olympics.

Like everyone else I was mesmerised by the incredible feats displayed at the Rio Olympics in the last two weeks. The awesomeness of Mobot’s double-double, madness of Usain Bolt’s triple-triple, impressiveness of Michael Phelps’ 28 Olympic medal tally, were indeed unbelievable to watch and digest. The unfolding reality of a first female Iranian medallist, Fiji’s first medal ever, and the heart-warming Refugee Team who won no medals but captured the world’s attention, undoubtedly gave me good vibrations.

But I have always had an ambivalence toward the Olympics which was magnified in the lead up to Rio. For one, the huge expenditure of the host country which somehow never translates into any benefit to those who need it most, is always a big issue for me. But with the Rio games this went even further. Those who had a slum, lost that too.

Second, the winners of the Olympics seem to overwhelmingly come from either the richest Western countries, or Totalitarian regimes of elsewhere.

Third, the national pride it apparently evokes seems to me utterly void. Why should I back an athlete simply because they come from this privileged country? Sure, Cathy Freeman was a true sensation. But for me that was because she was a heroic Aboriginal woman who beat all the odds.

Fourth, the corruption lurking behind so many corners never fails to amaze. This year’s revelation of the Russian doping policy headed up by the state itself using the KGB as in some Bond movie, was just one more illustration of what happens when winning becomes the sole focus.

And there are plenty more annoying things about the Olympics. But the greatest criticism only dawned on me very recently and though so obvious in hindsight, came to me by total accident. I was reading an article about the disappointing performance of the Australians fetching far fewer medals than anticipated. The author was questioning the model of funding in Australian Olympic sports whereby the sports with the most probable chances of success are the ones most funded. To make matters worse, this ‘Winning Edge’ strategy was implemented after the disappointment of the London Olympics and failed to deliver its promise of a higher medal tally.

You would not be surprised to know that I didn’t shed a tear. But my heart did skip a few beats when I read the figures that we as a country spend on funding these sports. Apparently we spent $800 million in order to have the privilege of watching some athletes in green and gold do all sorts of stuff. For those who get dizzy from many repetitive zeros, that’s eight hundred milliondollars in the last 4 years! Australia is of course not at all unique in this. The Americans spent double that, the Brits somewhere in between, Russia and China have failed to disclose. Safe to say, the average spent by the large economies is a billion dollars. For what? Is it really worth that much to see a human being potentially run one hundredth of a second faster hat previously recorded? No wonder Bolt was so angry at his performance. Billions of dollars of unrealised expectation due to a pair of his lazy legs.

I fully acknowledge that not having realised this before shows an extreme lack of serious cynicism on my part. Nevertheless, I now asked myself, to what end are we all spending this amount of money?

In trying to come up with any explanation but to no avail, the fantasy took hold of me. I imagined the selection process of the IOC involving a decision of the worst off nation in the world that the international community feels will gain most from 4 years of investment and nurture. Then, rather than getting that country to spend money they don’t have on unnecessary infrastructure, each country uses their current Olympic budget to invest in bettering the lives of those in that wretched country.

Think of the entertainment value! We just love fairy tales, where the underdog despite all odds comes out winning. Well, this will be one massive fairy tale. Here you have a person who was about to starve to death but the fastest human alive makes it just in time to deliver salvation in a morsel of food. Elsewhere, many people are desperately stuck under the rubble caused by an earthquake so we dispatch the international team of weightlifters. Further afield, off the beaten track some 40 km away, there is a village that can be reached by foot only in dire need of medicine. To them we unleash the marathon runners.

All of a sudden the Olympics actually mean something. It is no longer a place where the most talented sportspeople compete in meaningless acts artificially constructed. Rather, they are literally engaged in creating a better world for humanity. We will no longer have to wait for competing athletes to show some humanity when they help each other after falling and tenderly embracing at the end of the race, to feel good about ourselves. Instead, the whole Olympics will be one great act of humanity.

If you think I am a dreamer I will say it is my job. But beyond that, it is what I believe any religion should be about. Judaism in particular is often rightly described as the religion which brought Ethical Monotheism to the world. Fancy words which simply mean that Judaism at its most basic is the idea that morality = God.

So, whether it is my job or my religion, I do dream about actualising at least this opportunity we have in making the world a vastly better place without spending a single dollar more than we are currently. And if morality doesn’t float your boat, just remember the sheer magnitude of the latent entertainment potential yet to be revealed.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shneur