And so we soon begin another Olympic Games with all of the pomp and ceremony – marching athletes, flag waving, lighting the cauldron, speeches, huzzahs. Hyper-nationalism on display for all to see.
It is probably not what Pierre de Fredy, Baron de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee had in mind. The Baron, whose nobility went back to King Louis XI, was an idealist of first order.
He believed that the early ancient Olympics encouraged competition among amateur rather than professional athletes and saw value in that. The ancient practice of a sacred truce in association with the Games might have modern implications, giving the Olympics a role in promoting peace. This role was reinforced in Coubertin’s mind by the tendency of athletic competition to promote understanding across cultures, thereby lessening, in his mind, the dangers of war. In addition, he saw the Games as important in advocating his philosophical ideal for athletic competition: that the competition itself, the struggle to overcome one’s opponent, was more important than winning. It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.
Coubertin expressed this ideal thus: “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
Unfortunately the I.O.C has a rather sordid and controversial history of living up to ideals.
Avery Brundage, head of the IOC from just after the Helsinki Games in 1952 through to Mexico City in 1968 was a virulent racist and misogynist. He had won a seat on the IOC from Ernst Jahncke, an out spoken opponent of allowing Adolph Hitler and the Nazis to host the games in Berlin. Brundage, an apologist for Hitler, called the reports of Nazi atrocities a product of the “Jewish-Communist Cabal”.
Jahncke was sacked for calling for a boycott of the games while Brundage traveled to Berlin, met personally with Hitler and Goebbels and returned claiming all was fine in Germany. No one at the IOC ever apologized to Ernst Jahncke or even acknowledged he had been wronged.
No Jews participated on the German team of 1936 although 11 had been Olympians in previous years. Brundage ensured that Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, two prominent Jewish Americans sprinters were replaced just before the 4 X 100 relays – wouldn’t want any Jews on the medal stand to offend Hitler. Further, he stripped Jesse Owens of his amateur status after the games to ensure that Owens never raced again.
When it came tine for Germany to build a new embassy in the United States, guess whose company won the contract? Avery Brundage’s company.
Brundage himself had participated in the 1912 Olympics in the decathalon. He was buried and quit after eight of the ten events by the greatest American athlete of the first half of the twentieth century – Jim Thorpe. Brundage had his revenge.
He claimed to be the defender of the Olympic principle of amateurism to the point of being persecutor-in-chief of Thorpe. The greatest athlete of the pre-world-war generation went to his grave cheated of his dues by a virulent racist who ignored the rules he claimed to hold dear. The IOC continues to excuse Brundage’s ignorance even though Thorpe’s medals were returned to his family thirty years after his death. After Brundage died in 1975 it emerged that it was he who had informed the IOC that Thorpe had been paid to play baseball in the Carolina minor leagues in 1909 and 1910 and Brundage who pushed hard behind the scenes to strip Thorpe of his medals.
In the middle of the civil rights struggle in 1968 there were efforts to enlist black athletes in a boycott of the Mexico City games.
“For years we have participated in the Olympic Games, carrying the United States on our backs with our victories, and race relations are now worse than ever, We’re not trying to lose the Olympics for the Americans. What happens to them is immaterial. But it’s time for the black people to stand up as men and women and refuse to be utilized as performing animals for a little extra dog food.” (Harry Edwards, San Jose State, at a meeting to promote a boycott of the Mexico City Games by black athletes.)
The IOC went on the offensive immediately with threats against leaders, athletes, civil rights organizations – “Don’t bring politics to the games” the bumper sticker slogan at the time. The boycott fell apart leaving only the iconic photo of John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising a gloved hand in protest. The IOC sent them home after the medal ceremony and ended their careers. The white athlete on the podium was Australian Peter Norman. “At the time of his death in 2006 he still held the Australian record for the 200 meters race. Yet because he was wearing the same Olympic Project for Human Rights badge as the African American athletes, he was barred from EVER representing Australia again in the Olympics.”
At Munich, after the murder of Israeli athletes, Brundage’s speech before 80,000 at the memorial service outraged many – he barely mentioned the murdered; only the “Olympic Spirit”. Of course he insisted the “Games must go on.” An American marathon runner, Kenny Moore left the games and writing in Sports Illustrated quoted Dutch distance runner Jos Hermens; “When you go to a party and someone is killed you don’t continue to party.”
Samaranch, 4th from right, in 1974 in Barcelona at a Fascist ceremony. At the time he was a Vice President of the I.O.C. The woman is General Franco’s daughter.
Then of course we have Juan Antonio Samaranch; President of the IOC from 1980 until 2001, and a dirty secret. Most IOC members knew the truth but stayed silent because he organized a regal life-style for them
Samaranch was a fascist. A real live fascist. Who cared that he believed the wrong team won World War Two? A card-carrying, right-arm waving, uniform-wearing Nazi-sympathizer for 37 years? Not a problem at the IOC.
Pictures are available on the net these days of Samaranch in full regalia and fascist salute. One only has to look.
Samaranch’s unapologetic support of the fascist dictator Franco and his regime, coupled with his position at the helm of the International Olympic Committee in the 1980s made him particularly offensive.
He was born to a textile bourgeois family, showing early on anti-worker proclivities. Franco’s 1936 coup against the democratically elected Republic with the support of the military, the banks, the church and large landowners caught Samaranch in the Republican controlled area. He duly defected to the fascist side and joined the Falange, the fascist party that harassed Spaniards for decades after World War II.
Samaranch in full regalia and General Franco
He transformed the Olympic Games into a giant franchise pitting city against city resulting in huge debts (Greece 2004), anti labor and anti immigrant labor markets (Barcelona), mass displacement of residents (Beijing 2008), and environmental destruction (Vancouver, 2010). Gone were the days of the Olympic spirit as he welcomed the professionals of sports to the games and sold out entire cities for the benefit of global corporations
References to Samaranch’s fascist past during Franco’s murderous regime have been shamefully absent. Such silence is proof once again of the “pact of silence” under which the transition from fascism to democracy was carried out in Spain. Once again another Fascist died peacefully in his bed.
So this week in Rio we will see the full professional corporate Olympics on display. Billions have been spent on stadiums and facilities by a country with seriously inadequate waste water sewage treatment facilities. The stadiums in Athens are crumbling and empty because Greece cannot afford to maintain them or put them to other use. I’m sure in Brazil it will make a fine soccer stadium. Another one.
So enjoy the opening ceremonies; just be aware of what you are watching.
Olympische Hymne by Richard Wagner
Berlin – 1936