by Madeline Barnicle
The ancient Olympic games of Greece honored Zeus, caused truces between warring city-states, and became a unit of measuring time. The modern Olympic movement may bill itself as a competition among individuals, rather than pitting nations against each other. But in practice, international conflicts often color or overshadow the games, from world wars preventing competition (the opposite of the ancient truces) to boycotts to terrorist attacks. However, our current geopolitical system is far from the only way to imagine world society. Without the modern nation-state, what does the future of the Olympics look like?
Two science fiction series that touch on this question are Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota and Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle. Both are set in future versions of Earth where governmental systems no longer correspond to geography. In Terra Ignota, there are seven major “Hives” which span the globe. There is not as much balance of power as one might hope, since the Hive leaders tend to be closely related to each other by adoption and familial relationships, but each society is represented throughout the world. In the Centenal books, the planet is subdivided into many small “centenals,” small geographic regions of population about 100,000 each. Each centenal votes for its own “government.” While some governments only contest a few regional seats, many others are world-spanning super-corporations that may serve hundreds of millions of constituents without geographical constraints. If residents don’t like their centenal’s new government, it’s not hard to pack up and start anew elsewhere.
In both cases, the efficiency of transportation is what helps make the world “small.” When routinely travelling among continents is sustainable and affordable to the masses, one’s birthplace tends to have little impact on their culture and preferred system of government.
Though the governments of the Centenal Cycle are not geographically contiguous, they still come different orders of magnitude, which means today’s tensions between small and large countries play out along similar lines. In the third book of the trilogy, two characters use the Olympics as a proxy for conversations about their different home cultures:
“Maryam and Núria are lying in bed, watching a projection of the rock-climbing at the Olympics. ‘Listen to them,’ Maryam says. ‘One athlete from Resilient Tuvalu wins and the announcers can’t stop yammering on about how that proves it’s not all about money, how the games aren’t unfairly tilted towards the big governments. Just because one supremely talented person is able to break through. So hypocritical.’” (State Tectonics, Chapter 18)
Like the present day, the announcers attempt to extrapolate and draw geopolitical meaning from competitions between a few elite individuals. A few pages later, we have: “the Olympic compiler had fallen into a long run on the tragi-triumphant backstories of the two leading climbers, and if there’s one thing Maryam and Núria agree on, it’s that they hate that stuff.” In our world, fans who want to watch competition in the moment may resent attempts at forcing narratives or looking backwards to justify some athlete’s success. In the future of the Centenal Cycle, this is even more striking, because the tendency to perceive order or connection even in unrelated events has been semi-pathologized as “narrative disorder.” Characters with this condition attempt to think twice before jumping to conclusions or trusting their intuition. So while trying to find nuggets in Olympians’ past that retroactively explain their rise to power may be considered frivolous, it may also be a way to satisfy the heuristic-driven, pattern-seeking aspects of the human brain in a setting without major political repercussions. Ultimately, despite many efforts at political and informational reform, “people still care more about their friends, and clothes, and sports, and what to eat for dinner, and whether they can find a better job or where to go on vacation than about any question of governance.” (Chapter 27)
In Terra Ignota, the Olympic movement played an important role in the establishment of the Hive system. Three centuries after “Renunciation Day,” world leaders observe the anniversary by re-enacting the speeches and events that led to a new political order. The Olympic committee was, as of the fictional 2131, one of three organizations with an established worldwide mass transit system; “there were almost a billion subscribers who trusted the Olympic Transportation Union to clear their flights as they jaunted from continent to continent for the World Cup, or the Winter Games or work.” (Too Like the Lightning, Chapter 8) In a world that had been scarred by religious warfare, the Olympic chairman, along with his peers, asked the people of Earth to affiliate with a global organization rather than a nation-state.
The series is set three hundred years later, by which time new Hives have risen, fallen, and merged. For instance, the Mitsubishi corporation has merged with Greenpeace to become by far the largest Hive by land ownership. “The Olympian Hive, which lived for sport, merged with World Stage, which lived for concert and spotlight, to form the ‘Humanists,’ united by the passion to excel, achieve, improve, and constantly surpass the past limits of human perfection.” The Humanist Hive’s system of democracy allows for either concentrated or diffuse systems of power. “Detractors call it a cult of charisma, but the Humanists themselves use aretocracy, rule by excellence.” (Chapter 10) While the early 20th century saw cultural competitions alongside the athletic portion of the Olympic games, Terra Ignota’s Olympians have adapted by fusing themselves with other cultural institutions to remain a global force even when “the Humanist President has more important work on Renunciation Day than assuring a bored audience that there will still be sports teams in this brave new world.” (Chapter 8)
Most inhabitants of the world of 2454 perceive even oblique discussion of sex or gender as taboo, referring to each other as “they” rather than “he” or “she” in dialogue. The narrator bucks this trend, describing another character, “Sniper,” by saying “the delicacy of his build and tightness of his muscles makes it impossible to guess whether this torso is naturally male or an Amazon, a common enough practice among female Humanist athletes who aim at mixed sports early in life, so have the doctors prevent breasts from developing, opting out of their varied inconveniences.” (Chapter 11) Chapter 18 expands on that by mentioning that some women, or developing girls, “aiming early at the Olympic open divisions, chose to grow no breasts.” The existence of “open divisions” suggests that there may be other competitions restricted based on sex. While Olympism may provide a symbolic link to the past, it might also create tension by reminding people of aspects of the past they’d prefer to move past.
The Olympic Games become more of a plot point in the 3rd book of the series, “The Will to Battle.” I have not read that one so I won’t try to summarize it, but Paul Di Filippo’s review in Locus Mag reminds us that the Humanists and all the other Hives were not created from scratch, but were the results of mergers and struggles among many existing organizations. As a society that has lived in peace for centuries prepares for conflict, Sniper’s name indicates his fitness for war as well as for athletic pursuits. And the supernatural arrival of “Achilles” reminds readers how the traditions and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome continue to influence the present and future.
While not sports-related, one other similarity between the Hives and the Centenal governments stood out for me; in both futures, some version of the European Union has survived into the timeframe of the books. In State Tectonics, EuropeanUnion (one word) has “some odd old ideas, but they’re pretty good about protecting the environment, people’s rights…” (Chapter 11) In Too Like the Lightning, “Europe” is one of the seven hives, having been founded with the original Renunciation groups even though it still represented the geographical EU. In the imagined 2060s, the EU “instituted floating citizenship, so children of mixed parents would not be compelled to choose between several equal fatherlands,” and by 2131 had moved onto “offering floating citizenship to any citizen who wants to leave America or any other geographic nation.” Both of these societies look to the multi-national success of the EU as a jumping-off point to imagine the successors of our current states. The EU example reminds us that history is not a one-way march of progress. The convoluted Brexit process has illustrated the power and influence of both supranational, centralizing forces and local, nationalistic ones. Today’s Olympic movement borrows symbolism and ritual from the ancient Games, while trying to balance differences in politics and culture on a scale vastly bigger than the Greek city-states had to deal with. Whatever form sports take in the future, both the Centenal Cycle and Terra Ignota suggest that humans will continue to be captivated by the quest to go faster, higher, and stronger.
Madeline Barnicle holds a PhD in mathematical logic from UCLA, and now lives in Maryland. Find her stories at madeline-barnicle.neocities.org.