Latin for “Faster. Higher. Stronger.” With full stops after each word. Very inspiring.
But that is not the Olympic motto, as you may suppose. It’s the original motto, indeed, proposed by a French Dominican, Fr. Henri Didon, and adopted by his friend, the reviver of the Games in modern times, Pierre de Coubertin. But on July 20, 2021 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) revised it to become, Citius, Altius, Fortius – Communiter: “Faster, higher, stronger – together.”
The addition weakens. Of course, the excellence sought by the original Olympic competitors was sought “together,” as competitions with oneself are impossible. That was obvious. Then why the change? Because the Olympics have changed, from being about athleticism to being about “solidarity.” The new motto, the IOC tells us, “emphasizes [our] message of solidarity and the belief that the world moves forward only when it moves together.”
Athleticism, it turns out, is a little more difficult to nourish than sentimental feelings of inclusion.
To be sure, the fostering of peace, especially among European nations, was one stated goal of the revived 1896 Games in Athens. This goal was an evident flop by 1914. Another was to halt the encroachment of professional sports, by unifying amateur sportsmen around the world. Another big flop!
But the promotion of genuine athleticism was always the Olympics’ principal goal. Baron de Coubertin applied the point to Greece in his explication of the first modern Olympiad: “It is a well-known fact that the Greeks have lost completely, during their centuries of oppression, the taste for physical sports.” Downplaying their dances and their wrestling, he says “the men of the towns [have] come to know no diversion beyond reading the newspapers, and violently discussing politics about the tables of the cafés. Of the Games, he asks, “who can tell whether, by bringing a notable increase of vigor to the inhabitants of the country,” a new period of political and economic strength for Greek will begin?
The diffusion of a general athleticism was also Fr. Didon’s hope for the Olympics, as is clear from an address he gave, “The Moral Influence of Athletic Sports,” at an international Olympic meeting in 1897. (The address is in French, but use Google translate.)
Fr. Didon had made a name for himself by a successful apostolate with boys around Paris, not unlike St. John Bosco’s, and also by his brave defense of the indissolubility of marriage. (Legal divorce, he argued, undermined the ideals of French democracy, by sacrificing the weak to the strong, and also by allowing individualism to trump the common good.)
Fr. Didon distinguished athleticism from what we would call “organized sports.” The athleticism he cared about involved sports that are organized, managed, and funded by the participants themselves, not imposed top-down by solicitous parents. Parents and school administrators, he advised, should be “benevolent, encouraging, strengthening, and far-sighted” in their patronage, but otherwise students should be given space to organize their sports in freedom.
Fr. Didon warns: “If you form passive beings, who do nothing without being compelled to do so, how will you constitute a serious democracy?”
He saw four main ethical effects of such athleticism:
The first is simply an increase in the level of physical activity in a young person. This is itself an important good. He likens it to the principle that cleanliness is next to godliness: “When you see children who are inert, physically lazy, be sure that they are morally so, and when you see children active to the point of turbulence, be sure that there are germinating virtues in them.”
The second is “the spirit of combativeness and struggle,” which is learned through athleticism. “Just as in the majority of children,” he observes, “one may observe a native laziness which must be overcome at all costs, because this native laziness spreads in all the faculties and puts them to sleep, so one finds in them an original cowardice. The child begins by being afraid: humanity is first of all fearful and timid. It must show courage, and for that it is necessary to develop the spirit of combativeness.” He sums up: “Sports make the spirit of combativeness predominate, that is to say the spirit of original valor and bravery which lies dormant in children.”
The third effect he describes as “strength or endurance,” but he means strength of will, the ability to accept austerity, and a certain toughness. The athletic students he deals with “know how to deprive themselves, even condemn themselves to a harsh regimen for a higher purpose.” He believed that such athleticism drives out addictions to pleasure.
The fourth effect, he says, is a civic one, which is to give reasons for students to unite. He says that he noticed his students hiving off into cliques based on class, likes and dislikes, family relations, and other incidentals. But when they formed together on the same team under the flag of their team or school, they transcended these differences and worked together as one.
Isn’t this the “togetherness” of the new Olympic motto? Has the modern IOC in spite of itself circled back to at least one ideal shared by Fr. Didon? Hardly! The good Dominican is not talking about everyone’s “excelling” together, but competing and winning together. And he has in mind the concrete “togetherness” of the team, not vague sentiments of solidarity with everyone. The modern analog would be members of the U.S. Olympic team putting aside differences of class, race, or religion to unite simply as Americans before the world.
Today two-thirds of the nation that most watches the Olympics is overweight. We are demonstrably passive, addicted to pleasures, and attached to “safety.” Neither our Olympic program, nor the televised games, seem to contribute to the moral purposes that Fr. Didon cared about. One must admit that there is only a limited value in marveling at astounding achievements, while endless moralistic commercials and cloying “personal stories” are destructive.
Today’s Olympics? Why not toss a baseball or shoot hoops instead – together?
*Image: Start of the 100-meter final in 1896 at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens [The Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece]. The race was won by American Thomas Burke (second from the left) in 12 seconds. (The current Olympic record is 9.96, set by Usain Bolt of Jamaica in 2008 in Beijing.)