The Rio Olympic games are engulfing us, at least on television, as previous Olympics have engulfed us every four years for the last 80 years (with the exception, of course, of the years when World Wars I and II engulfed even the Olympics). The modern Olympics began in 1894, after about a 2,000-year lapse, and the idea was to promote brotherhood and reduce the temptation for nations to wage war through amateur sports. But in 1916, 1940, and 1944, war trumped brotherhood (excuse my sophomoric political pun).
Ironically, the Olympics themselves became politicised about 80 years ago, and became a method of political expression that, in one case at least, substituted for and foreshadowed true war. Even the selection of the Olympic site became, and still is, politicised and corrupted, influenced not only by the competing countries’ desire to use the games to enhance their political standing in the world, but by the enormous amounts of money that those who stand to profit from the games, those who will get the contracts to build the new infrastructure that seems to be a requirement of the modern games. This began in earnest with the Olympic Games of 1936.
They are called the modern Olympics, as we all know, because the concept of athletic competition to bring people together began with the ancient Greeks about 2,800 years ago. In some ways, the ancient was similar to the modern: On the good side, they brought people together from the Hellenistic world so they got to know each other better (than they could in the perpetual warfare among the city states), and they helped to spread Greek culture around the region; on the bad side, they were constantly used by the city states for political reasons, importantly to bolster or counter efforts at political dominance.
The Sochi Winter games were perhaps a warning. The Russians seemed to view the Sochi games they hosted and perhaps the summer games in Rio as a way to assert they are again a superpower. It is reported that they poured over $50 billion into making Sochi an impressive success
The idea of a modern Olympics began in the 19th century, inspired in part by Greek intellectuals as Greece achieved its independence. An idealistic French aristocrat, the Baron de Courbitan, brought the International Olympic movement into being in 1894.
The first modern Olympics took place in 1896 in Athens, where 280 amateur athletes from 13 nations took part and competed in 43 events. Amateurism was the watchword of those first Olympic Games, and politics was eschewed over the following five Olympic meetings.
Public interest and athlete participation grew; in the 1912 games, 28 nations and 2,408 athletes, including 48 women, participated in 102 events. The innocence of its intent as exemplified by amateur requirement remained strong through the games of 1912.
Wars complicate everything it seems, and they produce hard feelings on the part of both the losers and the winners. When the Olympics resumed in 1920 in Antwerp, after World War I, politics, and the growing nationalism of the time, began to infect the games. All the losers of the war, having been blamed for starting the war by the winners at the Paris Peace Conference (perhaps misnamed) were banned from competing, and Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire held their own games.
Even without these countries competing, the Olympics continued to grow in the 1920s. By 1928, 3,278 participants from 46 countries competed in 109 events. Nationalist feelings and politics remained suppressed, but broke through occasionally. This was perhaps best recorded in the serious fights among spectators after a ragtag US team made up of primarily Stanford students upset the French national team to win the gold in rugby in 1924.
In 1932, what I would term the orphan Summer Olympics, held in Los Angeles, ended the era when politics was still believed to be subsumed to sport. In the midst of the catastrophic world depression, no country and no city wanted the Olympics, as the last several had lost money for the host city, so Los Angeles got it by default. Less than half of the participants and countries showed up, as many countries did not see the games as important enough to use their much-reduced resources to send teams.
The death of innocence came in 1936. The Olympic Committee, in 1931, two years before Hitler was elected, had chosen Berlin for the 1936 games. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, there was a weak movement to move the games to another site, arguing that the Nazi regime would not allow Jews to participate (which would have contravened Olympic rules), but the Olympic Committee couldn’t make up its mind.
This ambivalence was probably due to some sympathy on the part of some of the committee for the Nazi regime. The Nazi plan to use the Olympics as political statement had included the little known fact that the athletes had been supported by the state since 1934 while their training focused on winning the athletic competition to prove their superiority.
To Hitler, winning was the only thing, but to his consternation, the show was stolen when Jesse Owens, Ralph Metcalf, Mack Robinson, and John Woodruff ran rings around the German runners, and an eight-man rowing crew from the University of Washington, with Hitler watching closely, took the gold from the best of the German rowing squads.
The important fact is that the use of the Olympics to consecrate a country’s place in the political firmament began with Hitler. Subsequent Olympics have not been used as overtly as Hitler did, and there is not always a political message other than “it is my turn.” The 1964 Olympics in Tokyo were to welcome the Japanese to the Western camp and to finalise their becoming a peaceful power.
The 1972 games did the same for Germany, though they were badly marred by the killings of members of the Israeli team. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing were China’s way of saying to the world it is a great power now.
A final sober thought, however: The Sochi Winter games were perhaps a warning. The Russians seemed to view the Sochi games they hosted and perhaps the summer games in Rio as a way to assert they are again a superpower. It is reported that they poured over $50 billion into making Sochi an impressive success, and an untold amount into making sure they won most of the medals.
Now there are very credible reports of a state-supported doping regime for Russian athletes going to Rio. The World Doping Agency called for a complete ban on Russian athletes at Rio. The International Olympic Committee temporised again (shades of 1936) and allowed 271 to participate while turning down 118. It is not a good omen for the Rio games.
Rio was chosen to host the games seven years ago as a token of its emergence to a new level of development. It was the “B” in the BRIC group of nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). But it has fallen back in the last two years. Now we wonder not about what political message the Rio games are transmitting; we only hope it will not be a message of failure.