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.