The rotten history of the Olympics
Katie Wood wrote this for Socialist Alternative 8 years ago. Despite being a little dated it stands up well in its general analysis.
The nationalist chest thumping that always accompanies the lead-up to the Olympic Games hit a snag in Australia – in the form of drug scandals. The “natural” sporting prowess of Australians may actually be synthetic.
Both nationalism and cheating are an integral part of the modern Olympic Games, as are commercialism and the repressive measures used by host governments to “clean up” their cities. The cheating and repression that characterise the Games are a logical conclusion of sport under capitalism.
An otherwise healthy and enjoyable aspect of human activity becomes the domain of corporations, scientists and a bunch of corrupt, unelected and wealthy scumbags known as the IOC (International Olympic Committee).
The huge contracts and national hero status that come with winning medals ignore the efforts of thousands of athletes who have not won. It places winning and sponsors ahead of participation, despite the rhetoric of the official pledge. It is hardly surprising that athletes feel under pressure to use performance-enhancing drugs that are often dangerous to their health. Or that massive industries have sprung up to both provide and detect these drugs.
This latest scandal is nothing new to the Games. Olympic connections to fascists, aristocrats, dictators and big corporations have ensured a somewhat colourful history.
A Band of Happy Brothers
The IOC was set up in 1894 by the French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin and consisted of various bankers, international financiers and military generals. The Baron had grown up in the aftermath of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.
After studying the British, German and US education systems he concluded that physical exercise was a good way to boost the morale of French youth.
He also believed that an international sporting event would help to develop ties between the international ruling classes. The early Games were often held in conjunction with trade fairs in the host city.
The make-up of the IOC has barely changed since it was created. New members are chosen by existing members, based mainly on internal politics, and until recently have held their positions for life.
Reluctant reform was forced on the Committee following the bribery scandals surrounding the Salt Lake City bid. The other response of the IOC was to hire the PR firm Hill and Knowlton, an upstanding company whose previous cases include helping the tobacco industry to counteract scientific evidence linking smoking to cancer. Hill and Knowlton also created the “incubator babies” lie for the Kuwaiti government in an effort to swing Congress opinion to support the 1991 Gulf War.
Recent IOC members have included Coke’s African division director, a director of VISA and an executive of NBC, which for some inexplicable reason managed to win the television rights. But it’s the presidents who have been in a league of their own.
Avery Brundage, president from 1952 to 1972, was a white supremacist who presided over the controversial 1968 Mexico Games during which up to 400 people were massacred and two African-American athletes stripped of their medals for making the Black Power salute during the medal ceremony (see above picture). This is hardly astonishing; Brundage was co-owner of the Monticeto country club in California that excluded Jews and blacks.
Juan Antonio Samaranch was president from 1980 to 2001. Born into a Barcelona textile manufacturing family, Samaranch joined the fascist youth movement in his teens. Later he fought for Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War and was made governor of the rebellious Catalonia district after World War II, during which time workers were beaten, imprisoned and tortured for going on strike or protesting.
After the fall of the Franco regime, Samaranch found his new niche in the highly conservative, cliquish IOC. Among his more distinguished achievements was awarding the Olympic Order (the most prestigious order the IOC can give) to such luminaries as Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu and Uganda’s Idi Amin.
The 1936 Berlin Games epitomised the foulest aspects of the “Olympic Movement” and the IOC. The Berlin Games were used by the Nazi regime as international propaganda for fascism and to reinforce extreme nationalism within Germany. The torch relay was created for this reason, and as the torch was carried through Europe, crowds of fascists welcomed it with cries of support for Hitler. The torch holders were made by Krupp, Hitler’s arms manufacturer.
Despite pleas of ignorance, it has now become clear that the IOC knew about the Nazis’ attacks on Jews, Communists and other groups. In fact, the IOC was full of the industrialists and aristocrats who until the war started had been cheer squads for Hitler’s crushing of the German workers’ movement.
Swedish IOC Vice-President Sigfrid Edstroem evaluated the situation in Germany: “Many of these Jews come from Poland or Russia and think completely differently from people in the West. A change in the situation was absolutely necessary in order for Germany to remain a ‘white’ nation.”
In July 1936 Hitler began the construction of the first concentration camp, in which 1,000 people were incarcerated, including many Romany people (also known as “Gypsies”). This was done to “clean up” Germany in time for the Games.
The policy of forcibly removing the most “undesirable” elements of a city before hosting the Olympics continues today. Before the Atlanta Games in 1996, the government there used capsicum spray and closed down soup kitchens, public areas and squats to rid themselves of the city’s homeless population.
The Games are seen as revenue raisers for the host cities, not to be put in jeopardy by such things as real social problems – which are often exacerbated by the fact that so much public money is used to turn the cities into playgrounds for the corporations for two weeks.
During the Sydney Games, 10,000 police, 30,000 security guards and 4,000 military personnel were mobilised to ensure law and order. The Games also became an excuse to train new anti-terrorism units. One can only imagine what they are up to now, since the Games went off without a hitch.
For the Athens Games this year, NATO’s entire Mediterranean fleet has been mobilised.
In Mexico in 1968, fury at the government spending for the upcoming Games provoked massive protests against the unpopular, brutal regime of president Diaz Ordaz. By July, half a million people had taken to the streets. Brundage warned Ordaz that the Olympics would be cancelled if he allowed any protests to take place at the site of the Games.
Ordaz took his cue. A month before the Games were to start, soldiers stormed the National University and arrested students, teachers and parents. A week later riot police fired thousands of rounds of bullets at another college.
In protest, students called a demonstration for October 2 in the Plaza of the Three Cultures. Ten thousand people turned up, calling for the overthrow of Diaz. As they began to leave soldiers suddenly opened fire. Up to 400 people were killed, roughly 1,200 wounded.
Brundage responded with satisfaction, “We have conferred with the Mexican authorities and have been assured that nothing will interfere with the peaceful movement of the Olympic flame into the stadium nor with the competitors that follow.” The priorities of those who run the Olympics were clear. The IOC considers all applications from prospective host cities without regard to human rights. Indeed, as the examples of Berlin, Seoul and Mexico show, the Games are often used by host governments to present a respectable face to the world.
During the Mexican Games, tanks stood opposite the stadium under a banner reading Todos es Posible con la Paz (“Everything is possible with peace”)!
Inside the stadium another protest was being organised. The Olympic Project for Human Rights had formed to expose the way black athletes were being used by the US to present a false image, both at home and to the world, of racial harmony. They also expressed solidarity with the Mexican protesters.
Black American runners Tommy Smith and John Carlos, who had won the gold and the bronze, refused to accept their medals from the racist Brundage. Then, during the national anthem each donned one of a pair of black leather gloves, bowed their heads and raised their fists in the Black Power salute. The arc created symbolised the strength and unity of the black community in the US.
When the Australian silver medal winner realised what Smith and Carlos were planning to do, he ran to fetch an OPHR badge from the crowd and wore it in solidarity. I’m sure that was the one time in Olympic history when Australian commentators were not chanting “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi” at the sight of an Australian on a podium.
Smith and Carlos were immediately thrown out of the Olympic Village and stripped of their medals. President Brundage once again offered his views on the situation: “They violated one of the most basic principles of the Olympic Games: that politics play no part whatsoever in them.”
Brundage would have relished the hypocrisy of the fact that when competitors at earlier Games had worn uniforms or given fascist salutes on the podium, none had ever been punished.
Screwing the Poor
Brundage, like all the others before and after him, maintain that sport and the Olympics are not political precisely because they are political. Nationalism is an ideology that divides ordinary people along arbitrary borders, making it harder for workers to see their common interest with workers in other countries. During the Olympics, the flags, uniforms and anthems are meant to make us feel proud of somebody we do not know because they happen to live in the same country as us.
We are meant to feel some sort of unity and sense of pride, not only with the athlete, but with John Howard or Hugh Morgan who are cheering on “the same team” as us. Perhaps the most obscene example of this was the nationalist fervour surrounding Alan Bond winning the America’s Cup. Workers on low wages and lousy conditions were meant to feel glad that some (crooked) fat cat had spent millions of dollars of his employees’ wages paying sailors to beat his friends and rivals from the rich lists of other countries.
The Sydney Olympics were not much better. While the opening and closing ceremonies paid a token tribute to Aboriginal history, the State government was doing everything in its power to prevent a protest by Aboriginal people and their supporters against their continuing dispossession and appalling living standards.
Cathy Freeman became “Our Cathy” and was proclaimed the symbol of reconciliation – while the vast majority of Aborigines continued to suffer lower life expectancy, education and health funding levels.
It was estimated that every gold medal won by Australia at the Sydney Games cost $40 million of public money funnelled into elite athlete programs. All up the State and Federal governments gave around $6 billion to the Games.
This money came, of course, out of funding for health, education and welfare. It also meant less funding for public sports facilities, on which most of us depend if we want to pursue healthy and enjoyable sporting activities. The drive for profit by the corporations running the Games, and the increased profile and revenue for the government thus means less participation in sport.
Even for spectators there is a double standard between those who can afford to fly halfway around the world or afford one of the numerous corporate seats and those who watch it on television.
With the scandal over the number of corporate-only tickets sold before the Sydney Games, it’s no wonder SOCOG’s head of ticketing described himself as “the ugly face of capitalism”.
Since the introduction of corporate advertising during the 1936 Berlin Games, the Olympics have descended, through waves of stuffed native animals and little plastic flags, into outright money-spinners for those corporations lucky enough to have bribed their way into sponsorship deals.
Roone Arledge, former head of the American Broadcasting Association admitted, “I don’t think the Games has very much to do with the heroic words that we use to describe them. It’s basically a commercial enterprise that tries every four years to make as much money as possible.”
So why do people engage in, and in fact enjoy this spectacle of rabid patriotism and expensive commercialism?
For many people the sense of unity is exciting. To feel that you are part of a group (even if it does include John Howard) is to feel part of something larger than our often isolated and atomised lives. Descriptions of the celebrations in Sydney read like a huge party where people felt connected. There were hardly any fights and strangers were open and friendly, unless of course you were a protester.
It is the same mood that people often feel on demonstrations; people’s inhibitions are dropped and they are willing for example to discuss politics with strangers. It is again a feeling of being part of something larger and much more powerful than simply themselves as individuals.
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky noticed this in the pro-war demonstrations on the outbreak of World War I: “The alarm of mobilisation breaks into their lives like a promise … those who are oppressed and deceived by life consequently feel that they are on equal footing with the rich and powerful.” He notes the similarities he saw in those demonstrations with the revolutionary struggles that erupted just three years later.
The difference between the two was that during the pro-war demonstrations, workers were uniting to advance a cause that they had no interest in. In the following years millions of them would be sent to fight and die in a war for the profits of capitalists who would never go near the front lines.
The wave of revolutions that followed World War I had repercussions in the sporting arena as well.
In 1925 German workers briefly set up the Workers’ Olympics in opposition to the nationalist Olympics of their bosses and rulers. It rejected the “striving for records and competitiveness between nations” that was the key feature of the other. Instead it encouraged cultural understanding and creating links between workers of other countries.
Now that would be an Olympics worth cheering about.