Social Science blog

10 February 2012

The Power of Attraction

simone Bacchini writes:

Once again, it’s all about Greece. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about an episode in the story of Ulysses, told by Homer in the Odyssey (Book XII). It relates the hero’s encounter with the Sirens, sea nymphs who lured sailors to their death with their beguiling song. Ulysses wanted to hear the song but he knew well that if he did so he would jump into the sea and perish. The song just couldn’t be resisted. So he ordered his men to put wax into their ears and tie him to the ship’s mast. 

Fast forward a few thousand years, and the Sirens are still around. Two of them, to be precise; one is called Euro, her sister Olympics. And to be sure, Greece is still very much in the picture. 

I’m not going to say much about the common currency. This is not an economics blog and even if it were, my understanding of the topic is patchy at best. It is intriguing to observe, however, that in spite of all the troubles that countries in Europe are facing also because of the Euro, the gravitational pull of the common currency is still powerful. Not only are nations reluctant to leave it—even when it’s obviously part of their problems, as in the case of Greece is caused by it—but some are still queuing up to join. It’s the power of an idea, I believe. 

More pertinent to the topic of this blog is the power of the other Sire: the Olympic Games. Two sets of beliefs about hosting the Games seem to be at work, both exercising the Sirens’ bewitching power. The first has to do with De Coubertin’s vision of what this revived tradition represents: fair-play, the uniting power of sport, and international harmony, among other things. The second is a separate but related belief; a modernised, commodified version of it. It’s the conviction that hosting the Games is the solution to a country’s current problems. The economy is lagging? Host the Games. Unemployment is rising? Host the Games. People are overweight and not exercising enough? Host the games and they’ll become athletes and shed the extra pounds. 

Recently, the debate on whether or not to bid to host the Summer Olympics in 2020 has been raging in Italy, a country that faces problems similar to Greece’s. Pietro Mennea, a former Olympian whose achievements are revered in the Country, spoke out against it. In an interview with the Corriere della Sera daily, he said that—in spite of his continued support for the “Olympic ideal”—“Italy is a country that’s been bled dry, devastated by a scary economic crisis. How can one, today, suggest such a thing [i.e. hosting the Games in 2020]?” Yet, it wasn’t long before another former Olympian—gymnast Juri Chechi—came up with a riposte. In a letter to the same newspaper, he said that Roma 2020 would “represent an enormous opportunity not only for Rome but for the […] Country and for the whole Olympic movement. […] Rome could finally give birth to a sustainable Games, without cathedrals in the desert and on more ‘human’ scale.” A number of active athletes followed suite and addressed an open letter to Mario Monti—the Prime Minister—asking him to support the bid. 

I don’t think I’m truly qualified to evaluate all the arguments for and against hosting the Games. I’m quite sure they’re complex and there’s truth in both. What strikes me, however, is the power of the ‘Olympic myth’, as embedded in much of the discourse around the entire event, from the bidding to the actual hosting. Perhaps the Games are not a Siren but a real beacon, a lighthouse. But its power to attract is certainly impressive. 



Olympic Games Impact Study: Final Report. Great Britain. Dept. for Culture, Media and Sport.

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Hayes, G. and Karamichas, J. (eds.) (2012) Olympic Games, Mega-events and Civil Societies: Globalization, Environment, Resistance. Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan.

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Preuss, H. (2006) The Economics of Staging the Olympics: A comparison of the Games 1972-2008. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

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