Barton Silverman/The New York Times
LONDON — The Olympics were invented as preparation for war. For the young men of Ancient Greece, the quadrennial sporting tribute to the god Zeus was also rehearsal for armed conflict. The games equipped young men with a spirit of self-sacrifice and the stamina which underpinned the Greeks’ supremacy in battle.
So argues the Cambridge University classicist Nigel Spivey, whose book“The Ancient Olympics” how explains athletics was a way of instilling a martial discipline among competitors. In London this summer, that heritage feels all too close. The army has deployed 13,500 soldiers to secure the capital — more than are currently in Afghanistan — after private security companies failed to recruit enough civilians. Unmanned drones will patrol the skies above the Olympic venues.
The larger significance of the Games depends, ultimately, on your perspective. For the industrialized world, the most striking phenomenon is surely commercial: London’s Olympic sites, bejeweled with corporate logos, is a spectacle of sponsors’ ingenuity. In many poorer countries, however, the mythic force of the Olympics has inspired an entire culture of athleticism.
Consider Ethiopia. An almost implausible proportion of its current Olympians — including Kenenisa Bekele, the men’s triple gold medalist in distance running, and Tirunesh Didaba, the gold medalist in the women’s 5,000- and 10,000-meter races in Beijing — are from the same rural highland town of Bekoji. Remarkably, almost all have been trained at some point by the same man.
That coach, Sentayehu Eshetu, is a former physical education teacher who instructs about 250 aspiring runners every day on the hills and tracks around Bekoji. His first protégé was Derartu Tulu, who at the Barcelona Games in 1992 became the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Her victory in the 10,000-meter event example electrified Bekoji.
“It was not a culture before that,” Mr. Eshetu says in a recent documentary about Bekoji. (A video of the coach’s first trip to London is here. It’s raining when he arrives, and on the ride from the airport into the city he notes that the rain is “good for the farmers.”)
The film, “Town of Runners”, explores the factors that explain Bekoji’s success. The filmmaker Jerry Rothwell cites altitude, diet and the influence of the coach as crucial ingredients. Rural isolation plays a part, too.
“The kids in our town wake up early in the morning and run,” Mr. Eshetu says in the film. “If you go to a different town, they would say that everyone has gone mad.”
Teenagers with a talent for running in Ethiopia have, at best, the choices of pursuing an education to enter a profession, marriage or the hope of an athletic career. With opportunity scarce, children in Bekoji run. Many run barefoot.
The best can earn a small salary by signing on with the residential “Projects” that are administered by state running clubs: Young athletes leave their families for a regimen reminiscent of elite training schools in the former Soviet Union —but with more sunshine. And compared to the Olympic culture of corporate glitz and sponsorships, Ethiopia has developed something of an alternative method of creating professional athletes.
In wealthier nations, when national teams and television cameras meet, private money becomes the prime mover in the professionalization of sport. Since the Los Angeles Games in 1984, when commercial sponsorships were openly introduced and welcomed, the Olympics have been lavishly branded with an eclectic variety of corporate logos.
In the three decades since Los Angeles, myriad theories of trickle-down development have sought to justify corporate involvement in the hosting of an Olympics. Recent precedents indicate the Games have been, for the most part, a dismally ineffective way of bringing long-term benefits to the wider public. In that sense they have been a failure, although the business model is not inherently flawed.
A useful legacy from the Olympics — in facilities, inspiration and know-how — should be feasible. After all, companies that make burgers, fizzy drinks, sweets and alcohol have underwritten a spectacle of athletic prowess that inspires people in parts of the globe where even the biggest global brands are virtually unknown.
Hundreds of these athletes will compete this summer in London, where, should any of them fancy a traditional supper of fish and chips, they will find that McDonald’s, the official restaurant sponsor, has a monopoly on fries.