Aug 22, 2016
The Olympic Games in Brazil are the 31st modern Olympic Games, according to the tradition that was reinvented at the end of the 19th century. If today they supposedly promote peace, equality between people, and between men and women, they are rooted in a history of racism, sexism, nationalism and cheating.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin instigated the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. He wanted to exalt aristocratic ideals, which were exclusively male and white. Coubertin didn’t hide his sexism. In 1912, he was already opposed to the participation of women: “The only true Olympic hero is the male individual. Female Olympics are unthinkable. They would be uninteresting, unathletic and incorrect. In the Olympic Games, their role must above all be, as in the ancient tournaments, to crown the victors.”
The first Olympic Games were reserved for whites. Coubertin, “a fanatical colonialist,” according to his own words, was a racist and open anti-Semite. “All other races must show allegiance to the superior white race.” Women, black people, and colonial peoples couldn’t participate in the Olympic Games. This ban faced important opposition over the years. But in 1960, the Vatican still prohibited the Catholic clergy from looking at women’s sporting events. More recently, sexism has taken other forms, such as the humiliating tests of femininity for certain athletes, for example, the South African runner Caster Samanya.
If the Games have evolved a lot, they haven’t ceased to extol the most jingoistic nationalism. It’s in their very structure: every athlete competes under a national flag, and the victors are rewarded with their national anthems. Between World War I and World War II, the organizations of the workers’ movement were opposed to this nationalist dimension, and sought to establish alternative models. In opposition to the racism and elitism of the Olympic Games, the Red International of Sport, which began in 1921 inside the Communist International, organized “Spartacist” events, while the Sports International of Lucern, tied to the Social Democratic International, established the international workers’ Olympics. These sometimes brought together several tens of thousands of athletes, and as many, if not more, spectators as the Olympic Games.
The Olympic Games of Pierre de Coubertin were imposed because they had the support of nation-states, which used them to exalt bourgeois ideals, nationalism, and even Nazism. In 1936, the Berlin Games were a golden opportunity for the Nazi regime to make a spectacle. They enjoyed the admiring support of the Baron de Coubertin, whom Hitler nominated in vain for the Nobel Peace Prize. Opponents of Nazism organized an international boycott campaign particularly in the United States, since many already knew about the oppression carried out by the Nazi regime against political opponents, Jews, Gypsies and even the handicapped.
But Avery Brundage, a construction mogul and the future president of the International Olympic Committee between 1952 and 1972, successfully fought against this U.S. boycott. Once there, the only two Jewish athletes of the U.S. delegation were opportunely kicked out of the relay race they were supposed to run. This sinister episode is related in a recent film, Race, dedicated to the black runner Jesse Owens, the winner of four gold medals in Berlin. Not only did Hitler not salute him, but President Roosevelt refused to receive him, going along with the deep racism current in the United States as well as Germany.
Thanks to the media, the Olympic Games have become a gigantic commercial business. In the period between World War I and World War II, huge private firms made their entry, beginning with Coca Cola in Amsterdam in 1928. Today, the main sporting event of the planet is a gigantic money machine. Most of the expenses are paid for by the national governments and the sponsor cities: the construction of sports arenas, an Olympic Village, the transportation infrastructure, etc. In 2004, the Olympic Games in Athens, which cost six billion dollars, contributed to the country’s colossal indebtedness. The Rio Games are estimated to cost 12 billion dollars, but the final bill promises to be bigger.
There are many beneficiaries, but the biggest are handpicked: the big sponsors, the media which broadcasts the most popular events, the big construction companies that build infrastructure, etc. In other words, the Olympic Games are a gigantic operation for the transfer of public funds to private businesses. This is why the population is often opposed to their city being a sponsor.
As for doping, it’s not new in the Games. But, with such gigantic stakes, it’s become generalized. If it isn’t systematic, it’s organized or tolerated by some governments and sports federations, as the recent scandal of Russian doping shows. In a more general fashion, the cheating is encouraged by the competitive character of the games, where after years of effort an athlete can win recognition, or disgrace, in just minutes or seconds. The history of the Olympics is packed with athletes honored or ostracized as a result of their performance.
The Olympic Games are no better or worse than capitalist society. They reflect it.