August 20, 2016
This is the kind of goal that totalitarian regimes set for their citizens (or perhaps they should be called prisoners). The Marquis de Custine observed a long time ago, in his great book Russia in 1839, that tyrannies demand immense efforts of their populations to bring forth trifles, and there can be no trifle more trifling than an Olympic record, or even a victory without a record. To be the best in the world at something is no achievement unless what you are best at is in itself worthwhile. A man who throws the javelin farther than anyone else (I don’t even know whether the activity exists anymore) is not to be admired but pitied, at least if he has devoted many hours to it, which presumably he must have done to be the best at it in this world of fools.
A thing is not worth doing unless it is worth doing well, but a thing that is done well that is not worth doing is something very bad indeed—far worse, in fact, than a thing worth doing that is done badly. Among other things, it bespeaks a waste of ability, which would be an offense against God if abilities were God-given.
“To be the best in the world at something is no achievement unless what you are best at is in itself worthwhile.”I first thought about the matter many years ago when my brother insisted on taking me to the cinema to see one of those technically sophisticated but in all other respects childish films that are often commercially very successful.
“What did you think of it?” asked my brother as we emerged from the cinema.
“I thought it was rubbish.”
“But it was very well made.”
“Well-made rubbish is still rubbish,” I said. “The fact that it is well made makes it worse, not better.”
This was a little harsh, no doubt. Men, even film directors, must live, and we, all of us, for various reasons, often do less than the best we can. Nevertheless, the deliberate production of intellectual, moral, and artistic dross—what Orwell called prolefeed in Nineteen Eighty-Four—is a peculiarly malign form of cynicism.
But to return to the Olympics. It goes almost without saying that if I had been a poor Brazilian in the favelas of São Paulo who had to struggle to and from work for two hours every day because of bad roads and insufficient public transport, and who had witnessed the expenditure of billions on infrastructure that was so soon to crumble to worthlessness and liability, all for the sake of a couple weeks’ gormless global entertainment, I should have been furious and ready for revolt. Only someone with brains of tinsel (such as Mr. Blair, the former British prime minister who brought the games to London) could have thought it worthwhile; not as bad, perhaps, as the endless mass parades in Pyongyang, but of a similar genre.
Now, if the games were genuinely amateur, if the competitors were schoolteachers or dustmen who, after work, went down to some dingy sports field to practice their putting-the-shot or other fatuous activity, I would be in favor of rather than against them. Of course, the standard of performance would be incomparably lower, but the level of humanity of the competitors would be correspondingly higher.
I regret to say that my own country, Great Britain, to its eternal disgrace, has done extremely well in the latest games. Per capita it has far outperformed the United States. Though, by the same token, New Zealand, to its great and everlasting shame, has outperformed even it by as great a margin.
There was an article recently in The Guardian, the Izvestia of British liberals (liberals in the American sense, that is, not in the European economic sense), praising the glories of central planning, in witness whereof was the success—not to say, total world dominance—of the British cycling team. This was attributed to the government’s “investment,” in my view a criminal malversation of funds, in facilities for racing cyclists.
Let us admit for a moment what yet has to be proved, that the British success in this sphere was not the consequence of superior pharmacology: We may reasonably ask what kind of person would rejoice in such a victory for his country. Surely only a moron, though it must be admitted that such imbecility is pretty evenly spread around the globe, with the exception of India.
Truly, India is the last best hope of humanity. Long may it continue, to its eternal glory, to win no medals.