The modern Olympic Games have always been about far more than athletic competition. As a result, it often seems as if the Olympics have been too often politicized and subject to commercial excess. Terrorists have attempted to sabotage the Games for political purposes, such as in Atlanta in 1996 and Munich in 1972. Politicians and locals bemoan the fact that hosting the Games becomes more and more expensive and burdensome each cycle. Yet, if one listens to Olympic athletes themselves, a different perspective emerges. The Olympics continue to be a valuable means of promoting international understanding and cooperation. Through athletic competition, both athletes and nations, participants and hosts, share and exchange culture and values. In a world of increasing international tension, the Olympics mean more than their political or financial showcases; the Games serve as a respite from a focus on differences, in favor of similarities. Despite increasing politicization and commercialization, the modern Olympics—no less than those in Ancient Greek—continue to bridge gaps between countries and promote cultural understanding and global unity.

Understanding the ideals of the ancient Greek Olympics sets the framework for evaluating the modern Olympics. Ancient Greeks staged highly competitive community-orientated games for peaceful multicultural competition. As early as 776 BC, warring states set aside conflict to briefly congregate in the spirit of peaceful athletic competition. Indeed, a New York Times article published prior to the Athens 2004 Olympics referred to cities ceasing fighting in a “sacred truce” to participate in the games. Persia even paused from burning Athens for the 480 BC Olympics at Olympia. The Greeks took the competitions quite seriously, not only in terms of athletic contest, but also for maintaining tradition, peace, and cooperation, however short-lived. The Greeks also began the tradition of using the Olympic competitions to promote national cultural values. Wherever they conquered, they brought sporting games. Competitions were connected with the religious calendar, so events were tied into the greater culture. In this way, the Olympics served as religious festivals as well, broadcasting Greek culture and ideals to competitors from near and far.

Modern Olympics’ Politics, Expense, and Competition

In modern times, however, the ancient concept of setting aside cultural differences and conflict for the Olympics seems foreign. Modern Olympics often have been more about political agendas rather than cooperation and cultural exchange. According to the Olympic Charter, “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites.” Examples of 20th century Olympic Games, however, show that rule has been ignored as hosts placed politics at the forefront. The 1936 Summer Olympics were held in Berlin as the international community recognized Germany’s post-WWI reentry into international acceptance. While Hitler used the Olympics as a display of dominance and political authority, behind the scenes he had begun systematic exclusion, permitting only “Aryans” to compete, tearing down Jewish signs around the city, and removing and detaining Berlin gypsies. Later, Munich’s 1972 Summer Olympics served as the backdrop for a politicized massacre. Far from representing international peace and cooperation, the Games set the stage for an international terrorist attack as Israeli athletes were taken hostage and killed by Palestinian terrorists backed by German extremists. The Olympics have also seen boycotts, employed as proxies for larger global confrontations. More than sixty countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the USSR staged a boycott for fourteen socialist nations at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. In these situations, host and participants used the Olympics to compete for political clout and international influence—in opposition to the ancient ideal of a peaceful ceasefire for athletic competition.

In addition, the modern-day Olympics have become hugely expensive and burdensome spectacles. Recent Olympics have been inordinately expensive, as countries have had to construct new stadiums, hotels, and transportation systems. Beijing’s 2008 Games cost a staggering $40 billion USD, the most expensive up to that point, only to be passed by Sochi’s 2014 $50 billion USD spectacle, according to The Economist. Must the Olympics really be that expensive? Indeed, the rising costs of hosting the Olympics have proven to be an important consideration for potential hosts. Recently, Boston decided to withdraw its bid to be the 2024 Summer Olympics host. According to Mayor Martin Walsh, “no benefit is so great that it is worth handing over the financial future of our City, and our citizens were rightly hesitant to be supportive as a result.” Rio de Janeiro, the host for the 2016 Summer Games, has been struggling to accommodate Olympics spending amidst a financial crisis. Rio plans to spend less public money on all of the Olympics than London spent on its main stadium. However, Rio’s cost-conscious paradigm is far from the norm when it comes to modern Olympic planning.

The Olympics have also served as a way for participating countries to compete in a new way—in the Olympic medal count. After each Olympic Games, the world watches eagerly to see which countries will “win” the medal count. The Olympics are about far more than competition between individual athletes; indeed the outcomes affect international prestige and standing. The competition thus extends beyond individual athletes competing in individual events to greater international honor and success.

International Exchange, Understanding, and Unity

Despite all these disillusioning developments—the politicization and the excesses of modern-day Olympics—the Games remain a forum for the promotion of the ancient spirit of international cooperation and understanding, at least according to Olympic athletes themselves. Indeed, while athletes recognized the political motives and complex international relations at play, they also saw the Olympics as more importantly fostering a spirit of friendly competition and cultural understanding and exchange. A spokesperson for the US Team’s Road to Rio Tour acknowledged that the Olympics “represent the entire world” and “bring everyone together in a spirit of competition,” where political concerns can be pushed aside in favor of friendly competition. US Olympic Rower Esther Lofgren, a gold medalist in the women’s eight rowing in London, remarked that the Olympics are far more about athletics and cultural exchange than politics or international tensions: “sometimes, athletes want to take a political stance, but we’re really just part of a larger entertainment spectacle.” Lofgren also noted that athletes are so focused on competing in their own sports that they “don’t fathom boycotts” or international tensions. Both Lofgren and US Olympic Rower Dan Walsh, who won bronze in the men’s eight rowing in Beijing, commented on the dominance of cultural understanding over political divisions, at least among athletes. In meeting and congratulating other athletes, Lofgren recalled that no one was “thinking about what countries think of each other and tensions,” but rather of “global happiness.” Walsh also focused on the uniting factor of Olympics—regardless of individual countries’ global positions, “a common denominator is sport and play, whether in the most advanced or the poorest country,” and the Olympics bring the world together to celebrate that. In this way, the Olympics emphasize commonality rather than difference, and a focus on sports rather than international tensions.

Athletes highlighted the Olympic Village experience and specific cultural exchanges as some of their most memorable Olympic moments. Lofgren remembered “the most amazing experience of the Olympics was staying in the Olympic Village and enjoying a community with amazing athletes.” The Olympics are all about “representing your country, seeing people from all over the world and interacting with them, and sharing experiences together.” She loved the dining hall, which boasted food from nearly every country, including rice soup for breakfast and African bean paste for lunch. Walsh re-called the experience of bonding with fellow athletes in the Olympic Village by writing letters to each other using a translating service to “breach the communication barrier.” According to the Road to Rio spokesperson, the Olympic Village fosters a spirit of cooperation and friendship, and many athletes remain great friends with competitors for years to come. Lofgren emphasized the Olympics as a place for cultural exchange. At the end of a rowing race, participants would gather to exchange gear; she fondly recalled a time when an Indonesian athlete was incredibly excited to trade with her. In addition, the Olympics are a unique experience in cultural interaction on a deeper level. Lofgren mentioned noticing Egyptian rowers who wore head scarves and full covering while rowing in one hundred degree heat, and how American athletes are trained to handle “the press, different cultures, competing in different countries, and being guests” in new cultural settings. On a person-to-person level, cross-cultural understandings can serve as the impetus for international political change. When individual citizens begin communicating with others globally on the bases of mutual trust and respect, rather than following the lines of political relations, a space is opened for new dialogue.

On a person-to-person level, cross-cultural understandings can serve as the impetus for international political change.

Additionally, modern Olympics help promote global cultural exchange and a transmission of culture, both by the host country and by participating teams. On the host side, for example, the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics allowed China to open up to the world, emphasizing its unique history, culture, and development. Walsh described China’s reasons for hosting: China saw the Olympics as an opportunity to present itself as “a world power on the rise that wanted to join the world and participate, so it welcomed the world in for the Olympics.” The opening and closing ceremonies, and everything in between, were filled with promotions of national culture through entertainment spectacles. The same goes for the London 2012 Summer Olympics and Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Both hosts and participating countries used the opening and closing ceremonies to share cultural aspects and national pride with the rest of the world. Lofgren recalled the London closing ceremonies, when athletes all traded national pins while wearing national clothing and boasting “huge grins on their faces.” Walsh mentioned the US Team’s recent suit-style Ralph Lauren clothing line that reflected back the outfits of American athletes in the 1930s and 40s. Walsh also recalled British athletes at the 2008 games “shed their outer layers to show bright jackets with the new 2012 logo, which showed their culture through a wardrobe change.” Lofgren similarly saw the Olympic Games and particularly opening and closing ceremonies as a way for hosts to “share cultural aspects, history, and their hopes for the future” in “an interesting showcase of culture.” For viewers at home as well, the Olympics share a host’s culture with the greater global community and promote a sense of cultural exchange. Olympic Games tend to receive high viewer ratings – for example, the London Games were reported to be the “most watched event in TV history”—as watchers tune in to experience global culture and international relations on a cooperative, not confrontational basis.

On an even broader level, the Olympics serve to unite the world and bridge gaps. Walsh saw the purpose of the Olympics as “bringing the world together” by “showcasing every country.” Every country comes to the Olympics to compete and to enjoy the experience of “seeing the world’s cultures.” Lofgren recalled a specific anecdote that illustrated the larger role of the Olympics. She remembers watching an African rower who had come to the Olympics with the goal of “expanding rowing to Africa” (beyond South Africa and Egypt, rowing is not very common in Africa). He couldn’t row for very long without flipping over, an extremely low standard compared to his world-class counterparts, but he was there with a larger purpose. “He wanted rowing to go to Africa and to show others the experience you can have through sports.” Lofgren understood his participating as illustrating “the power of sports—the power to bridge gaps and develop countries.” The Olympics are more than sports competitions, and far more than international political events—as viewed by athletes, they promote cultural exchange and unite the world.

In recent years, the Olympics have become more political, commercial, and expensive—seemingly less about international cooperation and more about a host’s international political purposes or global competition. Recently, the Olympics have even become inordinately expensive to host. These trends may lead observers to ask: what has happened to the ancient intended spirit of cooperation, of combining cultural exchange, sports, and entertainment? Yet the Olympics remain worth the costs. At the Games, athletes and viewers experience cultural exchange and cooperation, mindsets crucial to the future of international relations and engagement. Looking beyond tensions embedded in the Olympics, they serve as a greater promotion of global unity. Indeed, at least in the minds of participating athletes, despite modern Olympics’ expenditure, commercialism, and competition among nations on and off the field, the true spirit of the Olympics remains.