Is the Olympic Spirit dead?
Julius Evola categorically affirmed that modern sport contributes to the barbarization of society, not only in the case of those who passionately observe it as a spectacle for the masses (“panem et circenses”), but also in the case of those who practice it. Although Evola spent very little time explaining these affirmations specifically in regard to modern sport, in several writings he links this phenomenon to the “bastardization” of action that is promoted in the context of modern society, linking it to the total absence in the modern mindset of a very specific mode of action: the ascetic action.
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To put it as briefly as possible, an ascetic action implies any action that is performed for its own sake, without expecting anything in return. For many minds this is simply absurd… These minds shall immediately yell: “But how can you do an activity for nothing??... Don´t you have some sense of worth and dignity??... Nobody works for free!!”… However, it’s key to recall that only a very tiny minority of individuals are capable of ascetic action, mostly because the long path that leads towards the first experiences of such type of action is the “hard path”, this is, the path of higher resistance. But why would anyone choose the path of higher resistance in a society where comforts and pleasures not only are praised by mainstream culture, but are more at one´s reach than ever before?... The choice of the hard path can only take place if the individual has boldly granted time and space to the real substance of life. And what´s such substance?... It´s life conceived as an adventure and not as a “plan”; it´s the spontaneous immersion into all experiences that are mysterious, dangerous and unexplainable; experiences where both pleasure and pain eventually awaken the senses to the intuitive discovery of a potential meaning of such experiences, to a discovery of potential connections between such experiences and a greater whole. Without this first key realization, without planting this first “seed” of adventure, the ascetic path will never detonate and the Olympic spirit will never flame up.
But today such type of genuine adventure is extremely more difficult to access than what can be imagined, mostly due to the highly virtual character of human experience in general, a virtual character that is so all-encroaching that we can travel several times around the world for three years and still have unsatisfied our urges for real adventure. This virtual and mediated aspect of human experience becomes clearly manifest in the tendency to imitate, during holidays and leisure moments, the roles, stereotypes and lifestyles presented by fashion, celebrities and advertisement industry models, to the point that all spontaneous experience is then out of reach and real adventure is compensated with the “imagery of adventure”, generally in the form of innumerable photos of touristic experiences, amusing moments, etc. that become the main motivation of such travels and are often uploaded to social media.
If the realm of true adventure is successfully accessed, whoever experiences such type of adventure won´t easily adapt to established social roles, since these roles all imply diverse degrees of individual attachment to a specific interpretation of the world (scientific, religious, economic, political, ideological, artistic, etc.). But once the Olympic spirit starts to flame up, it becomes existentially impossible to cool it down and it starts burning all attachments that are on its way, aiming for a synthesis that liberates the mind from the limitations imposed by such conditional attachments. And it’s precisely in this stage that an ascetic practice of physical exercise can serve as a means that, beyond pain and pleasure, verifies the presence of such higher synthesis. In this particular case of ascetics, the body acts as an “instrument” of consciousness, and genuinely “plays” with the selfsame biological functions in a way that constantly surprises the selfsame mind, which is too slow to intellectually cope with the complexity, irrationality and yet perfect coordination of the whole phenomenon. Here, the athlete aims to provide full expression to this higher synthetic principle and this urge is what makes action become free and unconditional. In this particular case one can´t then separate physical exercise from art, and the unconditional aspect that characterizes such activity is then demonstrated in the fact that it is anonymous, not in the sense of not being represented by a given person, but in the sense that such person has no need of any representation.
One of the advantages of physical exercise is that it´s the most immediate way of expressing the symbolic character of action, allowing many other influences to become present, hence conditioning or liberating action itself. For instance, fear is a latent feeling that is often either repressed or tends to flee away from the awareness of the conscious mind, but in moments of responsibility or quick decision it becomes manifest in a “blocked” or “burdened” action. So physical exercise potentially assists the athlete for verifying the actual state of spirit, especially under stress, serving –in the negative cases- as an indicator of character flaws, fear or phobias and -in the positive cases- as an indicator of virtue.
In ancient times and still until recently in some Eastern disciplines, the artistic refinement of physical exercise served to select those individuals where the body had become a full expression of the spirit, that is to say, a body-spirit coherence that by testifying the absence of any neurotic blockage between both domains, also serves as the ideal of integral health that a State ought to embrace and keep as a key reference point for its people. Such is essentially the Olympic ideal.
But today it would be extremely exceptional to encounter this Olympic spirit, mostly because it has been historically downgraded to its most mechanistic expression: sport. In opposition to an ascetic practice of physical exercise, sport constitutes an activity that today is clearly dominated by extreme competitiveness, radical scientific specialization, control, rigid planning, constant focus on technological innovation (performance enhancing drugs, etc.), tempting professional/economic incentives and participation in show business; factors that clearly asphyxiate the emergence of the true Olympic spirit, regardless of all the worldwide attention generated by Olympic Games such as those taking place now in Tokyo. And if today´s professional athletes are forced to surrender to such asphyxiating factors it´s because the athlete -as an archetype of the human condition- has not yet released from its ancient symbolic function and is forced, still today, to represent for society that which society truly values in practice. And what does society at large truly value?... Precisely all those factors: extreme competitiveness, radical scientific specialization, control, rigid planning, constant focus on technological innovation (performance enhancing drugs, etc.), tempting professional/economic incentives and participation in show business.
Apart from recommending activities like alpinism or some Zen modalities, Julius Evola adopted a negative view on modern sport in general, as a factor he criticized as favoring the political subversion of the lower strata of society, which he referred to as the “Fourth Caste”. However, sport –even in its most mechanistic expressions- is as ambivalent as formal education or technology… For instance, depending on the spiritual predisposition of a given individual, in the most positive case the act of reading or having access to culture can substantially enrich the life of such individual, or in the negative case favor the production of a mass of opinion-manufacturing dilettantes who constantly flee from action, exclusively observing the world as spectators and commentators. Similarly, sport –or technology- can either positively serve as a means to distill one´s highest self-expression, or can negatively catalyze the production of individuals who no longer aim to develop any liberating form of action (the Olympic ideal) but rather become obsessively subservient to action in all its contradictory forms (activism).
To conclude: the Olympic flame is always present, but depending on the specific values and techniques that characterize a given age it becomes manifest in radically different ways. So it´s still instructive to capture the symbolic aspects that impregnate some ceremonial elements present in Tokyo´s Olympic Games, keeping in mind that such aspects are always transcendent and timeless, regardless of their particular representation in a given time.