The ambitions of the founding father of the modern Olympic Games, the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin — that they should be ‘the free trade of the future’ and provide ‘the cause of peace’ with a ‘new and mighty stay’ — were at once wildly optimistic and strangely prescient. Considering that they were first conceived of as a festival of sporting excellence in a spirit of internationalism, the Olympics have had an enduring habit of stirring up displays of humanity at its worst. To anyone who believes that the excesses of the Games over the past 50 years or so have betrayed a purer original legacy, these two books by Jules Boykoff and David Goldblatt provide bracing correctives.
The Games may have grown with each successive Olympiad, but almost all their present-day horrors are rehearsals of performances given during their earliest reincarnations, from Coubertin’s first revival in Athens in 1896 up to and beyond Hitler’s racist jamboree in Berlin in 1936. And yet here they come again, unstoppable by recession, depression or scandal, and embracing a version of ‘free trade’ that the Baron could never have imagined.
The first modern Games were, like nearly all those that succeeded them, arranged as a result of horse-trading on committees by men (exclusively men until many decades later) who were answerable only to themselves. ‘We are not elected. We are self-recruiting, and our terms of office are unlimited. Is there anything that could irritate the public more?’, was Coubertin’s reaction to criticism, quoted by Boykoff.
Coubertin’s Games were imposed on a city whose actual governors had no intention of putting them on. The Greek prime minister, Charilaos Tricoupis, hoped they would go away, and ‘would have preferred that the question of the Olympic Games had never arisen’. But, in a way that would become familiar to opponents and sceptics of subsequent Games, up to and including London 2012, the prospect of embarrassment in front of a global audience and the willingness of other powerful interests to step in, combined to arrange a spectacle that somehow captured the imagination not only of those who attended, including vast crowds who watched from the hills surrounding the stadium, but also a wider public.
But there were always serpents in the Baron’s Eden. The tradition of lying about the tremendous cost of the Games began early, with Coubertin’s estimate of a budget of 200,000 drachmas for the whole event turning out to cover only a third of the costs of refurbishing the main stadium, let alone any other outgoings. The twinning of Olympism with amateurism was always divisive. At first, the International Olympic Committee stuck to the most extreme interpretation of the concept, inherited from the likes of Britain’s Amateur Athletic Club, for whom amateurs could by definition not include anyone who is ‘by trade or employment a mechanic, artisan, or labourer’.
From the beginning, that level of exclusion proved difficult to police, but even so, the International Olympic Committee was perfectly willing to strip Jim Thorpe, the hero of the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, of his gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon, for having been paid to play baseball. They continued to refuse to reinstate them until 70 years later and still, ‘in an act of breathtaking meanness’, as Goldblatt puts it, ‘left their records unaltered’, as if Thorpe had never taken part in the Games, let alone been greeted as ‘the greatest athlete in the world’ by the King of Sweden (to which Thorpe is meant to have replied, ‘Thanks, King’). The IOC clung to amateurism long after the state-run programmes of the Soviet bloc had made a complete mockery of the term. Barcelona, in 1992, was officially the first Games at which amateurism was no longer imposed.
Drugs, the signature neurosis of the modern Olympics, were part of the proceedings from very early on, too. During the marathon in London, 1908, the competitors were boosted by a peculiarly British cocktail, Goldblatt writes, of ‘hot and cold Oxo, rice pudding and raisins, eau de cologne, brandy and strychnine’. The results were that the majority of runners dropped out, and the leader who entered the stadium, the Italian Dorando Pietri, handkerchief on head like an office worker braving the lunchtime sun, turned the wrong way, was coaxed and then helped back to his feet when he collapsed, and finished the race only to be disqualified for the assistance given to him.
Later uses of performance-enhancing drugs were rather more effective. Gold-blatt reminds us that at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, East Germany, ‘a nation of just 17 million people’, was second in the medals table, with an astonishing 40 golds — and that their authorities were ‘untroubled by an effective test for anabolic steroids and other commonly government-administered pharmaceuticals’. In this, as in so much else, Putin’s athletic programme has taken inspiration from the Cold War past.
If reading Goldblatt often forces confrontation with the ugly reality behind sporting fantasies, his encyclopaedic approach — similar to the method employed so successfully in his global history of football, The Ball is Round — still retains space for the extraordinary and inspirational in the arena. Boykoff’s book, by contrast, despite being the work of an American academic who once competed at the Games (as a ‘soccer’ player), almost exclusively accentuates the negative. This is not a criticism, at least not of the book on the terms Boykoff sets himself, as a ‘political history’. The Olympics, despite the protestations of Coubertin and his successors, such as the egregious Avery Brundage and the self-aggrandising Juan Antonio Samaranch, were always political.
And the politics they indulged in, from the racism of the ‘anthropology days’ at St Louis in 1904 (when indigenous ‘savages’ from various territories were inveigled into competing in western sports in which they had no experience and little interest, to ‘prove’ their inferiority to western athletes) to the cosying up to authoritarian governments of varying stripes from Berlin to Beijing, have rarely been edifying. In modern times, the profit-making of Los Angeles, 1984, held out a false hope to other ‘neo-liberal’ approaches to the Games, and the extraordinary compromises that have led to vast public debts but substantial private profits have been repeated in Atlanta, London and Rio de Janeiro. Boykoff, whose touch is rather heavier than Goldblatt’s, concludes that ‘the Olympics have become a five-ring fiasco’.
Boykoff has some suggestions for improving things (including the admirable idea of replacing some of the least inclusive of sports, like dressage, with an old Olympics favourite, the tug of war), but the tale he tells elsewhere gives one little encouragement that the effort is worth making. For that, you have to turn to Goldblatt, who can do politics, but also gives us the aesthetics, and the poetics, of the Olympics. Of course, the Games are circuses, and have become so bloated, commercialised and self-important that the distraction they offer is mostly from their own unsavoury self-fashioning. But those distractions, if not perhaps ‘worth it’, are still worth recalling.
Goldblatt gives an admirably un-British account of the sporting achievements of the Games, though it is a surprise to see that of the three Britons who have won the Olympics’ premier event, the 100 metres sprint, two — Allan Wells and Linford Christie —are not mentioned (only Harold Abrahams is included). Some of the most memorable are those that transcended the sport itself, like the Canadian yachtsman Lawrence Lemieux who, at Seoul, forewent his chance of a gold to pick up two fellow competitors who had been thrown overboard.
Goldblatt understands, too, the increasing importance of the opening ceremony – and how absurd it can be. He describes the ‘Pioneer Spirit’ section of the Los Angeles 1984 ceremony as ‘a rose-tinted hoote-nanny of country dancing and westward expansion, minus the genocide’. He points out that at Athens in 1996, when it came to lighting the Olympic flame, ‘the Greeks — Europe’s most enthusiastic smokers — seemed to ignite the dipping head of a huge, luminous cigarette lighter’. At London, ‘the industrial revolution was rendered in tones of Oliver! the musical.’
Despite everything, reading The Games makes me look forward to the opening of Rio 2016, if with equal amounts of trepidation and excitement.