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The Olympics as The Hunger Games

Date posted: Friday, July 27, 2012

How the London Games mirror the dystopian novel, and what it means about America.

Image via WinterArtwork

Image via WinterArtwork

It’s a spectacle of grueling physical exertion held years apart, mostly for the amusement of wealthier nations with the spare cash/time/manpower to host/watch/sponsor the wildly expensive event. The games will be hailed as a great moment for human civilization, a moment when states stop bickering/fighting/warring and instead give athletic representatives the honor of battling in an arena. Unsurprisingly, strong states will boast the strongest contestants, and weak states will lose miserably.

Although sometimes an underdog manages, through grit/steel/luck, to win it all.

Sounds something like the 2012 London Summer Olympics is about to kick off, but I’m referring to the Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins’s dystopian trilogy may be fantasy, but its similarities with Olympiad XXX are hardly fantastical, which, as you watch tonight’s opening ceremonies, may become eerie to the point of disturbing.

Origins

The Olympics’ origins lie in Greece, where one legend says that Crete’s King Minos regularly tossed seven young men and seven lovely women into a Minotaur’s labyrinth until one, Theseus, killed the monster with a combination of boxing and wrestling, which became one of the first Olympic events.

Collins has said that the world of The Hunger Games is a futuristic Crete, with her main character, the archer Katniss Everdeen, a futuristic Theseus. She is one of 24 representatives selected (12 districts each send a male and female) to fight to the death in an outdoor arena as penance for a rebellion decades earlier against a totalitarian Capitol.

In the Ancient Greek Olympics, in Rome’s Gladiatorial Games, and in the Hunger Games, youths go through physical hell for the viewers’ pleasure. And it’s the same in the London Olympics, if to a lesser extent—that is, without an explicit demand for death, although this specter still adds excitement to many events, such as luging (R.I.P. Nodar Kumaritashvili, 2010) or cycling (R.I.P. Knud Jensen, 1960).

Contestants

Contestants (or tributes) for the Hunger Games are chosen at random by lottery. It’s a draft, in other words. Collins said she first got the idea for The Hunger Games while switching the channel between Iraq War coverage and reality TV shows. “This is not a fairy tale, it’s a war,” she has told the New York Times. And what kind of people most often volunteer for war or serve out a draft while the elites avoid service during an Oxford education (ahem George W. Bush and Bill Clinton)? The poor, like Collins’s Katniss, and like the majority of the troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Just as Hunger Games tributes and low-level troops come from poor families, most Olympians also battle poverty. According to U.S.A. Track & Field data, more than 50 percent of athletes who rank in the top 10 in the U.S.A. in their event make less than $15,000 annually from the sport. FYI: That’s the poverty line for a family of two.

And if those statistics are for U.S. citizens, consider what it must be like for the athletes coming from poorer nations. Some are probably marveling at the luxury of the London Olympic Village, just as Katniss marvels at the Capitol’s frills:

What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to ride in and die for their entertainment?

Disparity

That division of wealth also plays out between states. A recent Dartmouth study found that a country increases its medal count by 1-2 percent whenever it doubles its GDP. It’s no surprise that the world’s richest nation, the United States, has won more than twice as many Olympic medals (2,549) as any other nation.

One simple way for a nation to increase its GDP is by befriending the right economic powers and gaining favorable trade agreements. For decades, the Olympics were a battle of soft power between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., as each nation’s athletes and each nation’s allies’ athletes battled on the field. The historical medals runner-up is still the U.S.S.R. (1,204 won between 1952 and 1988); East Germany ranks as eighth overall, while Hungary ranks ninth. Neither would be in the top 10 without support from Moscow, their patron, as the bulk of their medals came from 1948 to 1988, while these countries were still Soviet satellites.

Likewise, in The Hunger Games, a district can increase its chances of winning by befriending the right powers. District 1, District 2, and District 4 of Panem are politically close to the Capitol, making them richer and the recipients of more food, leisure time, and training so that they can most ably compete in the Games. It’s an automatic advantage, as is being from an Olympic state allied to the U.S., so that your athletes can benefit from the economic boost of U.S. relations and aid.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics provided a clear example of how China uses soft power to convince its citizens that economic growth justifies political repression of the world’s most populous nation. (It also showcased the city as arena, altering the climate and air quality with “weather manipulation missiles.”) It’s all political, evidenced in Mitt Romney’s gaffe-filled attendance, Israel’s demands for a moment of silence to commemorate the 1972 massacre in Munich, and the International Olympic Committee’s repeated willingness to overlook host nations’ human rights abuses and “allow any totalitarian power to showcase itself, burnishing its image in the best possible light for the world’s media,” says historian Andrew Roberts.

Skills

But wealth isn’t a lock on winning. Poverty breeds desperation. Desperation breeds survival skills. “That the Careers have been better fed growing up is actually to their disadvantage, because they don’t know how to be hungry. Not the way Rue and I do,” says Katniss.

She can deal with hunger because she’s lived hungry her entire life. She can kill with a bow and arrow because she’s spent her life hunting in the forests surrounding District 12 (considered Appalachia). Finnick can swim quickly and wield a deadly Trident because he’s fished all his life in District 4 (the Maritimes). Betee can electrify almost anything because he’s from District 3, which specializes in electronic technologies.

Geography defines ability. Kenyans, many of whom run shoeless to school at high altitude all their lives, are raised to have the stride and lung capacity and fitness to be great marathoners. Hungary has won the most medals in fencing partly because the saber is its national weapon. Norway dominates Nordic combined skiing and Austria dominates alpine skiing for obvious geographic reason.

Promoters

While talent and hard work can hone that ability, you’ll still fall short in the expensive and politicized wide world of sports without a promoter who can squeeze financial support from big-money sponsors. Like Don King to Mike Tyson, Haymitch plays promoter to Katniss. He’s able to create a compelling narrative—Katniss and Peeta as star-crossed lovers—at which sponsors want to throw their money. This allows Haymitch to send Katniss ointment after she’s been burned, and food when she’s starving.

Similarly, in the 65th Hunger Games, a sponsor sends a trident—perhaps the most expensive gift ever given during these games—to the handsome Finnick Odair, allowing him to win, underscoring the need for a wealthy benefactor, and also highlighting how beauty can attract sponsorship. In the 75th Hunger Games, the alliance of Finnick, Katniss, Peeta, Johanna, Wiress, and Beetee receive bread from various districts and a life-saving spile to tap water from trees.

If you doubt an Olympian’s need for sponsorship, just look at the corporate logos plastered all over their bodies. They’re walking billboards.

Entertainment

The Hunger Games open with all the tributes parading into an auditorium by horse-drawn chariot. The contestants are interviewed. Narratives are manipulated. Themes are contrived. Underdogs are chosen. Villains are picked. It is entertainment for everyone who is not actually competing.

To people from the Capitol, to people from America, who have no real stake in the events, who have nothing really to lose, it’s all a game. In the film adaptation, children reenact real deaths with pretend-swords. In real life, Katniss has even inspired kids to take up archery lessons. We market the Olympics, we turn it into a video game, we resell it in the form of plastic toys and expensive shoes. We watch from home, with beer and pizza, as the athletes pummel themselves on the stage for our entertainment, sacrifice their bodies out of some athletic ideal that culture has indoctrinated them to pursue and for us to worship.

Racism

But we are careful about who we worship. It must fit into our narrative. Adolf Hitler hosted the 1936 Olympics to prove his race’s dominance, but instead a black American named Jesse Owens swept all the sprints. In The Hunger Games, the malevolent President Snow hosts the games to demoralize the districts and reinforce his dominance, but instead an underdog named Katniss Everdeen kills all the Capitol-favorites and lights fire to a rebellion.

Interestingly, just as the 1936 Olympics highlighted Hitler’s racism, The Hunger Games have highlighted America’s racism. Book fans reacted angrily when the film casted the characters Rue and Thresh as Black. “I was pumped about the Hunger Games. Until I learned that a black girl was playing Rue,” wrote @JohnnyKnoxIV on Twitter. The Tumblr site Hunger Games Tweets recorded hundreds of similarly racist remarks.

Hitler’s Nazi Olympics may have been an overt symbol of racism, but such tweets remind us that it’s still pervasive. The New Yorker’s Anna Holmes noted that the tweets underscored how “the heroes in our imaginations are white until proven otherwise, a variation on the principle of innocent until proven guilty that, for so many minorities, is routinely upended.”

Rigged

The Hunger Games are rigged. We want a good show. The Gamemaker suddenly permits more than a single victor—in the first novel’s case, two—if they come from the same district, because the audience has fallen for the Katniss-Peeta love story. Then the Gamekeeper reverses the rule once they’re the last tributes standing.

Are the Olympics rigged? Read this and decide. Afterward, you tell me why official timer Omega for months withheld the video that shows Michael Phelps actually lost one of those eight gold medals in 2008.

Rebellion

Sometimes an Olympic athlete realizes, as did Katniss: “I’m more than just a piece in their Games.” The athlete becomes a rebel. Collins has said that the character of Katniss was inspired by the historical figure of Spartacus, a gladiator who broke out of the arena and led a rebellion against an oppressive government. Recall a few real-life Olympic rebels, such as the American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos with their Black Panther Power salute from the podium of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

They were promptly expelled from the Games, Spartacus was killed, and Hunger Games organizers also looked to get rid of Katniss and Peeta. Haymitch tells her: “Listen up. You’re in trouble. Word is the Capitol’s furious about you showing them up in the arena. The one thing they can’t stand is being laughed at and they’re the joke of Panem.”

Memorials

Afterward, Olympic and Hunger Games arenas become monuments. Admittedly, I enjoyed visiting the Berlin stadium where Jesse Owens showed up Hitler. But I was disturbed years ago by the sight of the bombed-out Sarajevo stadium, which was mostly destroyed when Slobodan Milosevic laid siege in the 1990s.

What did Bosnians think when they saw me, an undergraduate college student wandering around Eastern Europe, gawking at that monument to suffering? No doubt it bordered on disgust, just as Katniss feels for people who come lurking around the former Hunger Games arenas.

“The arenas are historic sites, preserved after the Games,” she narrates. “Popular destinations for Capitol residents to visit, to vacation. Go for a month, re-watch the Games, tour the catacombs, visit the sites where the deaths took place. You can even take part in reenactments. They say the food is excellent.”

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Stephen Kurczy is a New York-based journalist for the Financial Times Group. A former desk editor for The Christian Science Monitor, contributor to The Economist, and associate editor for The Cambodia Daily, he has covered elections across three continents, but this is his first U.S. presidential race. He blogs and tweets.

View all posts by Stephen Kurczy →


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