In London, all roads soon lead to Trafalger Square. This summer, it was infested with more tourists than pigeons. (One wonders if the homeless pigeon may too become extinct, or, whether Blair has found one way to tackle the homeless problem.) The English are friendly as always, but what is below the surface? Only 30% or so support Blair's Iraqi policy, and the country is inexorably being pulled towards the EU and the Continent. Perhaps the 70% quietly hope for the return of the pigeons, if only they could drop their guano exclusively on the gringoes? That, however, wouldn't be sporting, and the British above all believe in the Rule of Law, as onetime brilliantly expressed in the Olympics.
The Olympics after all were restarted to demonstrate the power of the Rule of Law. Athletes of nations competed within rules. The Olympics were a showcase of the Victorian Ideal, that principles of civic virtue and good government could be expressed in sport and thereby spread to the rest of the world. The Olympics Movement succeeded beyond the organizers' dreams, with over 200 nations competing at the latest summer games in Athens - many of whom would not exist but for the efforts of Britain (and the United States) to free them. It is thus sad that at the very peak of success the Olympic ideals are breaking down, with achievement trumping the rules. In this developing tragedy is encapsulated the current world dilemma of the United States.
The Olympic movement began to break down in the '70s. In the 1972 Munich games, the Palestinian terrorists broke the principle that harkens back to the orginal Greek games - that during the games, warring groups should put aside their grievances. In the 1976 Montreal games, the East German athletes began widespread use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, changing the competitive balance. At the same time the US began complaining about the 'professional' Soviet Bloc athletes, who were government supported whereas the Western athletes were still primarily 'amateurs' supported by corporate largesse. The 1980 Moscow games and the 1984 Los Angeles games were boycotted by both sides of the Cold War, very un-Olympian in attitude. Performance began to trump competition within rules, and the Western nations began to allow professional athletes to compete at the games just as the Soviet Bloc governments were breaking down and with them the support for their professional athletes. And performance enhancing drugs proliferated, becoming the story of the 2004 Athens games as the two prime Greek athletes never made the games, under suspicion of drug use.
Watching the Olympics as an American in a different country can help answer the question of whither the Olympic movement. While the stars and events are biased towards the homeland heros (badminton, anyone?), nonetheless, in the first week of competition it is unavoidable to see the fleets of American and Australian swimmers kick to glory. (Britannia no longer rules the waves.) Would a political tinge color the commentary? Would the largely Greek spectators hiss their disapproval over the war in Iraq when an American victor took the laurels? (Especially ironic that would be, as the Greeks were under the thumb of the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years; the recent Greek independence is much celebrated, although this whole period seems to have been dropped from the Opening Ceremony which ran through 3000 years of the storied Greek history in 30 minutes.) The American team was coached to act restrained and dignified, so as not to draw ire, and they seem to have done so; at least, no spectator political disgruntlement got through the BBC. Instead, the lead story was on the potential disqualification of Greek athletes for drug use, and their bizarre motorcycle accident which kept them away from testing, and eventually away from competition as well. And so we return to the purpose of the games: competition within rules, or the naked pursuit of victory?
The United States faces the same choice in its multinational dealings. For 50 years the US championed economic competition within rules. China and India - almost half the world's population - voluntarily joined this system without the type of war we had to wage against Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union. This is a singular achievement of the inherent attractiveness of a system of competition within rules. In the past 3 years, with Iraq and the events leading up to it, the US has violated the core principle of this system, that no nation is above the law - and most of all the rulemaker itself. The neoconservatives in the Bush Administration who justify these actions assert American Exceptionalism, that the US is the Shining City on the Hill that shows the path to liberty for those still in the dark below. When more than half the world joins the Americans on this hill, it seems past the time to hold this point of view. These neoconservatives are the same people who naively expected the US to be welcomed as a liberator in Iraq, one of the greatest miscalculations in the past 50 years.
The larger and more consequential miscalculation is walking away from the very multinational institutions we created. If we do not amend our ways quickly, we will set in motion forces coming out of France, Germany and Russia to create a counterweight to American hegemony. The stakes for us are much higher than in Iraq - whomever wins in November can find a way to cut and run or claim Peace with Honor if the situation continues to deteriorate. This we can survive. Based on the people Yelnick talked with in London - Lebanese American, Israeli, Greek and English - it will not be possible for Bush to repair the damage if he wins in November. Hence the resolution of our leadership of the world system may be delayed for a critical four years, until the 2008 games in Beijing, an auspicious location. As with the Olympic Movement, we need to choose a path for the New World Order: competition within rules, or the naked pursuit of supremacy.
Unfortunately, the homing pigeon is extinct. We can hope that the guidance to find our way home is found before too long.