The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Olympic Games:
The Flame of … Reactionary Ideas

Jun 3, 2024

This article is translated from the May 15 issue, #2911 of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the paper of the Trotskyist group of that name active in France.

How many times have we heard about the Olympic flame, which left Olympia in Greece before sailing to Marseille aboard the Belem? Everyone’s supposed to be excited.

Contrary to what the Games’ advocates keep repeating, the idea for this course did not originate in ancient Greece ... but in the Berlin Olympics organized by the Nazis in 1936. A flame had appeared at the 1928 Games, but the relay was invented by the Nazis, for whom it was a question of capturing the heritage of Antiquity, even if it meant revisiting history in their own way. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was not opposed to this propaganda.

The ancient Games were resurrected at the initiative of Baron Pierre de Coubertin in Athens in 1896. In the mind of this reactionary aristocrat, sport was intended to help shape the healthy bodies of the elite. “By chiseling his body through exercise, the ancient athlete honored the gods,” he explained. “The modern athlete does the same: he exalts his race, his homeland and his flag.” An athlete could only take part in the Olympic Games under the banner of a nation. The ceremonies put in place over the decades were deliberately nationalistic, from the opening of the Games with a parade of national delegations, to the presentation of medals to the sound of national anthems.

Like many aristocrats and bourgeois of his time, Coubertin was racist and anti-Semitic, explaining at the time of the Dreyfus Affair: “Israelite high finance has taken on an influence in Paris that is far too strong not to be dangerous, and it has brought about, through the absence of scruples that characterizes it, a lowering of the moral sense and a spread of corrupt practices.” The baron was also a convinced misogynist, hostile to “uninteresting, unsightly and incorrect female Olympiads. He only allowed women to attend, “as in the old tournaments, to crown the winners. And women were to remain on the sidelines of the Games for a long time to come.

Forty years later, in 1936, even if the Olympic Games were still contested by workers’ organizations with their own sporting events (Workers’ Olympics, Spartakiades), they had gained in influence and marketability. Coubertin’s heirs, the Belgian aristocrat Henri de Baillet-Latour, who chaired the IOC, and the industrialist Avery Brundage of the U.S. Olympic Committee, were fierce anti-communists. When the Nazis came to power and an intense campaign was waged against the Berlin Games, the Olympic Committees mobilized against any boycott. The Nazi regime was able to use the Games as a propaganda operation, with Coubertin’s congratulations.

Today, the Coca-Cola logo has replaced the swastika. But the reactionary nature of such a demonstration remains. The route of the Olympic flame may be ridiculous, but in its own way it contributes to the decorum of the bourgeois social order.