Anti-Olympics protesters in Vancouver, February 2010. Photo: Jon Wick

Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics
Jules Boykoff
Verso, $19.95 (paper)

The Games: A Global History of the Olympics
David Goldblatt
W. W. Norton, $29.95 (cloth)

We are used to the Olympics being sold as boons to economic prosperity. But they never seem to make good on that promise, not least because local communities can’t benefit from structural improvements if they are never completed. As Vanessa Barbara recently reported from Rio de Janeiro, “Bricks and pipes are piled everywhere; a few workers lazily push wheelbarrows as if the Games were scheduled for 2017. Nobody knows what the construction sites will become, not even the people working on them.” Rife with commercial and political corruption, the games in Rio are only the latest example of a now-familiar trend. But once the spectacle begins the cameras will capture sixteen days of drama, our eyes will delight in moments of heart-stopping beauty, and the leaders of the XXXI Olympiad will echo their claim that anything done in the name of sport is above and beyond public scrutiny or political protest.

This is a far cry from the way the Greeks would have seen it. According to historian Nigel Spivey, the games of antiquity never ignored or hid from their political significance, serving as an unabashed display of military power. Far from an apolitical exercise, stadiums were

decked with the spoils of armed conflict. Altars were attended by specialists in sacrosanct military intelligence; events were contested to the point of serious injury and fatality; and the entire program of athletic ‘games’ could be rationalized as a set of drills for cavalry and infantry fighting.

In other words, “all games were war games.” If the spectacular events we now watch in high definition do not portray themselves this way, it is largely due to the father of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who worked hard to obscure the political nature of sport.

Like most political aspirations, the Olympics have both a noble and a troublesome inheritance.

This is clearly and persuasively illustrated in two new books about the history of our iconic athletic festival. Jules Boykoff’s Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics is a smart, sharp, and critically balanced outline of the modern Olympic revival. David Goldblatt’s The Games: A Global History of the Olympics covers similar terrain but is considerably longer and unfolds with more historic and narrative depth, putting Goldblatt’s delightful prose on full display. Both books provide sports fans, as well as casual observers, well-researched accounts of an idea that goes back to antiquity, which has now evolved into a uniquely modern (or postmodern) spectacle. Both also conclusively dismantle the Baron’s claim that athletics are apolitical.

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As Boykoff demonstrates, Coubertin saw the modern Olympics, revived in the late nineteenth century, as a “philosophico-religious doctrine.” Politics was not to interfere with the “sacred enclosure,” where “the consecrated, purified athlete only” would be seen as “an officiating priest in the religion of the muscles.” A French aristocrat and romantic idealist, Coubertin developed a theology of athletics that would transform the world of sport, much like the Reformation revolutionized Western civilization. In a speech from 1892, he said, “It is clear that the telegraph, railways, the telephone, the passionate research in science, congresses and exhibitions have done more for peace than any treaty or diplomatic convention.” His audacious hope was that “athletics will do even more.” Determined to realize that vision, Coubertin worked to revive the ancient games, which he planned to host in Paris, in 1900. But as Boykoff points out, it was Coubertin’s handpicked delegates who voted to bring the first modern Olympics back to their original home of Athens in 1896. With an opening ceremony that “was said to be the largest assemblage of people [50,000] for peaceful purposes since antiquity,” one could argue that the Baron accomplished part of his goal on the first swing.

To understand the full measure of Coubertin’s titanic ambition, we should turn to Goldblatt, who explores the man who helped build a “global bureaucracy that stages a secular commercialized celebration of a universal humanity.” Educated in a Jesuit academy that was steeped in Greek, Latin, and rhetoric, Coubertin and his fellow students were encouraged to view their studies as competitive exercises, “stimulating rivalries by publishing and comparing results; offering prizes to the best and, in conscious emulation of the classical balance of mind and body, encouraging fencing, riding, boxing and rowing.” Coubertin was enthralled, but not to the point of following the path his parents would have chosen. Spurning the priesthood and a suitable place in the aristocratic hierarchy, he went on to the Ecole Libre to study social science and public administration.

As Goldblatt recognizes, the convergence of Coubertin’s religious background, philosophical study, and the appeal of modern cosmopolitan professionalism produced a man in pursuit of a mission unique to his historical moment. In 1883 he traveled to England, where that mission began to take shape, observing headmasters at the Rugby School who thought that “games were by far the most effective mechanism for controlling their charges and molding their moral outlook and behavior.” An institutional model of the muscular Christianity movement of the late nineteenth century, the Rugby School insisted that “team sports, above all, offered an arena for the cultivation of a manly physique and gentlemanly disposition.” There was no thought as to what athletics could offer women, and little attention was given to the barbaric dispositions sport might encourage. As is often the case, utopian ideals and half-truths lead to confusion and disappointment, which has animated the modern Olympics since their inception. But the romance of it all was infectious. In light of Coubertin’s burgeoning passion for “internationalism,” Goldblatt sees a perfect storm taking shape: “The Catholic aristocrat, searching for glory and heroes, marooned in an increasingly demotic and secular world, had found his vocation, his gods and a stage on which to venerate them.”

Not surprisingly, that stage initially had no place for women, and it was either dismissive or resistant to non-European ethnicities. In 1896 the Olympic delegation from the United States—the largest and most successful—was accused by Greece of a suspicious joining of “the inherited athletic training of the Anglo-Saxon to the wild impetuosity of the redskin.” Even after women were allowed to compete, Boykoff points to a 1953 op-ed from the New York Times that argued for their removal: “There’s just nothing feminine or enchanting about a girl with beads of perspiration on her alabaster brow, the result of grotesque contortions in events totally unsuited to female architecture.” Arthur Daley went on to say, “Women are wonderful. But when those delightful creatures begin to toss the discus or put the shot—well, it does something to a guy. And it’ ain’t love, Buster.” The ground was paved for this sort of caricature by Coubertin’s suggestion that women in athletics were “unseemly” and their athletic glory should only be measured by “the number and quality of the children she produced,” and that they should “encourage her sons to excel rather than to seek records for herself.” Perhaps he never considered that if athletic virtues were timeless, and for the common good, surely women would benefit from sport just as much as men do.

The athlete was to be an “officiating priest in the religion of the muscles.”

In fact, what men like Coubertin discovered was that harnessing the aesthetic appeal of athletics to a handful virtuous platitudes was a good way to gather enough power to do whatever they wanted. Coubertin’s expressed aims—forging international peace, celebrating the human spirit, cultural difference, and maintaining a boundary between sport and commercial influence—sounded good, but the utopian vision seldom acknowledged the realities of discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and class, or the willing gift of the games to despotic regimes. When pressed on the moral inconsistencies and ethical hypocrisies of the games—by boycotts from various nations, say, or the fist-in-the-air salute of John Carlos and Tommie Smith in 1968—Coubertin and many of his successors would simply echo their Olympic trump card: sport cannot be bothered with politics.

Of course this didn’t stop the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Avery Brundage, from proclaiming that “sport is a great democratic institution.” This was a view he held right up until internal forces sought to democratize the IOC itself; then he took to defending the organization’s “anti-democratic process of anointing new members, claiming it safeguarded the movement from politics.” Moreover, when nations threatened an Olympic protest or boycott Brundage swiftly reinforced the message that the IOC must “actively combat the introduction of politics into the Olympic movement and are adamant against the use of the Olympic Games as a tool or as a weapon of any organization.” What Brundage glossed over, to his own benefit, was that the games themselves are political.

The most shameful example of Brundage’s apolitical hypocrisy took place prior to his presidency of the IOC when he traveled to Germany, as the chair of the American Olympic Committee, in advance of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The American Athletic Union (AAU) had demanded a boycott of the games due to the anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia of the Nazis. As Goldblatt details, Brundage “sent himself on a fact finding mission,” where he was “entertained and ensconced by the Nazi elite and allowed to interview Gestapo-chaperoned representatives of the Jewish community.” He bragged to German acquaintances that his athletic club in Chicago didn’t admit Jews. Unsurprisingly, Brundage reported that there was no need for a boycott and that Germany was in fine order to host the most prestigious sporting event on the planet. With athletics as his talisman, Brundage avoided the political, ethnic, and religious bigotry visibly at hand, leaving Europe’s Jews to suffer the most unspeakable horror of the twentieth century without a word of warning from America’s sporting ambassador.

From Coubertin to Brundage, the IOC’s posture reminds us that the eschewal of politics is one of the oldest and slyest tactics of political power. As we’ve recently seen in Rio, Sochi, London, Beijing, Athens, and Atlanta, that political strategy is always deployed at the expense of local residents. Surely sport is capable of doing great things, as Coubertin envisioned; it may “quell geopolitical tensions,” bringing “people together to contemplate each other’s histories, creating meaningful understanding, and surmount social and cultural barriers.”But if it can heal tensions, it can also inflame them, and negotiating geopolitical differences requires political skill. The games of recent years may echo the idealistic language of their founder, but their increased commercial and political power tell a very different story.

Some call for the dissolution of the games. But that is just another way of denying politics.

In Godblatt’s estimation, the legacy of the Olympics—no different than that of the World Cup—is, increasingly, one of overt corruption, waste, infrastructural quagmires, unmanageable economic burdens, and broken promises. Though some have praised the IOC and FIFA for hosting events in the burgeoning powers of the Global South and Middle East (South Africa, Brazil, Qatar), there is a darker logic to these decisions than global harmony and inclusion. The fact is, “after a decade or two of breakneck industrialization and booming commodity prices, many parts of the global south are able to afford mega-events,” and “the lure of new and opening sports markets has made sponsors and governing bodies keen to send their brands and events there.” Because we have granted governing bodies of sport apolitical status, “the predominantly authoritarian governments of the region have found it much easer to work the established networks of corruption in the allocation of hosting rights by many sporting federations, while facing little or no criticism at home.” For Nike, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Visa, Samsung, and GE, demagogues and dictators need to buy stuff too, so the games must go on regardless of human rights violations or the long-term economic damage suffered by host cities and nations.

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Like most political aspirations, the Olympics have both a noble and a troublesome inheritance. At their best, they still stand for achievement, an uplifting of the mind, body, and spirit. They have given us Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, Cathy Freeman, and a Miracle on Ice. They offer a shared public experience that celebrates human excellence, at a time when shared public experience feels more tenuous than ever. But at their worst, they destabilize or destroy local communities and empower the already powerful. They can no longer hide these misdeeds as comfortably as they once did. Fewer cities are eager to host the games, more and more athletes rely on—or have been exposed as relying on—chemical enhancement, and many pundits are now calling for the dissolution of the games entirely. In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, for example, Charles Lane voiced this cynical conclusion:

If the Olympics have not, and cannot, achieve their lofty aims, then exactly what special purpose does this quadrennial exercise in corporate and governmental gigantism serve—other than to enrich well-connected businesses and aggrandize states? . . . . A world without the Olympic Games might be a little less exciting every two years—and considerably more honest all the time.

Lane thinks that the appropriate response to governmental gigantism is to give up on institutional reform, but this is not so far from Coubertin’s own negation of politics. On this point it is worth noting that in the 1880s, eager to remake French physical education on the model of England rather than Germany, Coubertin said, “It is not militarism that our education needs, but freedom.” Seven decades later, after the horrors of two world wars, Hannah Arendt would write that “the meaning of politics is freedom.” Together, these statements suggest an alternative to doing away with the Olympics, or giving in to their failures. As we watch the games this month in Brazil, we must take care to discern, amid all the spectacle, the true nature—and frailty—of our freedom.