My favourite Olympic Games story comes not from Rio in 2016 but from Persepolis in 492 BC.
The setting was the court of King Darius I, who styled himself Darius the Great. His Persian empire was vast, but there were problems: the Greek Ionian states had revolted, and although they had been ruthlessly put down, the root cause remained — Greece itself.
So he sent a trusted general, Mardonius, to finish off the Greek mainland. Mardonius’s troops smashed through Thrace and Thessaly with little serious resistance; but then something strange happened. Suddenly there was no resistance at all.
When this was relayed to Darius the king suspected a trick, and called one of his Greek captives to explain. Well, said the Greek, it was simple: this was the time of the games at Olympia, when every four years the young men of Greece abandoned war to compete in various sporting contests.
Incredulous, Darius asked what could draw them to these games; the winners must surely receive huge fortunes. Well no, actually, replied the Greek; all the winners received was a wreath of olive branches.
The courtiers rocked with mirth and derision: what gullible fools these Greeks must be. But Darius was wiser. If these Greek will do so much for honour alone, he mused, what will they do when their homes and families are threatened? And at the battle of Marathon the Persians found out.
The glory that was Greece faded, and the games were debased; although they were not officially abolished until 393 AD they had become corrupted, especially since the Romans took the country over. Some of the Roman emperors actually sponsored the chariot races, which were invariably fixed and became notorious.
And when in 1896 Baron de Coubertin reinvented the Olympics, the old pattern has sadly recurred: systematic cheating (this time through chemical means) and cronyism and bribery among members of the International Olympic Committee jostling their clients to procure venues. And of course, the Olympics are no longer a time of peace; wars continue unabated and Rio itself has its own share of violence.
It is understandable that many believe honour has long gone from what was once the pre-eminent observance of excellence for its own sake. It is easy to be cynical about the Olympic Games.
And yet .. and yet. Who did not applaud the entry of a team of refugees into the stadium? Who did not share at least a measure of the unfeigned delight of the young men and women (and some older ones too) who were the winners, or just the competitors, during the festival in Rio? Who did not rejoice with Australia’s rugby sevens, the unlikely collection of amateurs who became the Pearls, our new golden girls?
The Olympics may not be what they once were, or what they could and should be, but they are still the planet’s biggest and most inclusive gathering of people assembled every four years, during a time when there is often precious little to feel good about. For a couple of weeks we cannot forget wars and poverty, but we can acknowledge that there are still human achievements to celebrate and even honour. And that is worth doing
Mungo MacCallum was a distinguished Canberra Press Gallery journalist.