The Olympics transfix us. Six in every ten people in the world – including both you, dear reader, and me – watched the London 2012 Olympics. Use of the word Olympics increased in relative frequency 3,300% between 1924 and 1984. But what are the Olympics to us, how are we to read them socially and politically?
The Olympic Games are a theatre — sometimes farce, sometimes tragedy, theatre of the absurd, opera buffa, reality TV, morality play or soap opera — where geopolitical, social and technological dramas are played out.
The Olympic village (which first appeared in the 1932 Los Angeles Games) is itself a microworld, where all nationalities, creeds and colours come together and everyday dramas of sex, politics, human achievement and human weakness are played out.
Olympic competition is itself a media-constructed reality.
The Olympics as cinema
There’s always been an easy spillover between the Olympics and the mass media. Athletes have slipped seamlessly into media celebrity. Olympic weightlifter Harold Sakata won a silver medal in the 1948 London Olympics, but became better known as Oddjob in the James Bond film Goldfinger.
Less known is British freestyle wrestler Ken Richmond, the bloke who bangs the huge bronze gong at the start of J. Arthur Rank films. Appropriately, he won a bronze medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
But cinematic links with the Olympics go much further back. Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie (gold medallist in three successive Olympics from 1928) became one of the highest-paid actors in the world.
Buster Crabbe (US gold medallist swimmer 1932) appeared in over 100 movies. Like Crabbe, shot-putter Herman Brix (silver medal, Amsterdam 1928), swimmer Johnny Weissmuller (five gold medals 1924-1928) and decathlete champion Glenn Morris (1936) all appeared as Tarzan, the last alongside US Olympic swimmer Eleanor Holm (1928 and 1932).
Weissmuller, fondly remembered by children of my generation as Jungle Jim, featured in Tarzan’s celebrated nude swim, ostensibly with Maureen O’Sullivan, but actually with stand-in Olympic and world champion swimmer Josephine McKim.
The Olympics have also been the subject of film. Glenn “Tarzan” Morris also appeared in Leni Riefenstahl’s superb documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Olympia (1938), considered one of the best films ever made.
The classic Chariots of Fire (1981) was a morality play looking at the clash of spiritual and worldly values, when the evangelical Scottish athlete Eric Liddell refused to run on Sunday and sacrificed his chance of winning the 100-metre sprint. Liddell later returned to his birthplace in China as a missionary, only to die in a Japanese internment camp weeks before the liberation.
Spielberg’s dark Munich (2005) explored the massacre of Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Games, and more recently Cool Runnings (1993) and Eddie the Eagle (2016) have recounted some of the farcical aspects of the Games – the equally improbable efforts of a Jamaican bobsleigh team and an English ski-jumper.
Even Olympic venues are like film sets, scattered across the world’s most exotic destinations from Paris to Rio. Just like film sets, they’re often improvised and dismantled soon after the Games have finished.
Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, improvised the 1936 Olympic stadium using 152 anti-aircraft searchlights pointed straight upwards. The Lichtdom, said British ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson, was “like being inside a cathedral of ice”.
Hermann Göring, never a fan of high art (“Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my revolver”), was unimpressed; Speer had commandeered all the anti-aircraft searchlights in Berlin, leaving the city unprotected.
The Berlin Olympic Village was converted to military barracks soon after the Games; perhaps the Allies should have read the signs.
… as political drama
In the ancient Olympics, warring states agreed to lay down their arms and establish an Olympic peace — Pax Olympica. In the modern era, the Games become a stylised working out of geopolitical tensions.
George Orwell famously described sport as “war without the bullets”:
If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Jugoslavs, each match to be watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators.
The Olympic nations represent a kind of global geopolitics in miniature, shifting, coalescing and dividing as global politics change. The old Soviet Union is now represented by 15 national Olympic committees, the former Yugoslavia by seven, and the two Germanies by one.
There are, in fact, more Olympic “nations” – 206 – than there are countries in the United Nations – 193.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) crystallises and provides the imprimatur for new geopolitical realities: accepting Japan back into the fold of civilised nations in 1952, and Germany in 1956; rehabilitating South Korea after the 10.26 assassination of president Park Chung-Hee by awarding it the 1988 Games; acknowledging the Soviet Union and Communist China in 1952; and refusing recognition of the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo in 1936.
While the IOC Charter strictly forbids direct political interference in national Olympic committees, there is a wide gap between theory and practice. After the Soviet soccer team lost to heterodox Yugoslavia at the Helsinki Games in 1952 (a 5-5 draw; then 1-3 in the replay), Stalin disbanded the team, who were provided with new homes “inside the Arctic Circle”.
He had a historical precedent: in 1912, Tsar Nicholas dissolved the Russian soccer team after their 16-0 loss to Germany in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. Clearly, Stalin set the bar a bit higher than the tsar.
The Games have also been the stage for celebrated political set pieces. I was 10 months old when there was blood in the water during the waterpolo clash between the Soviet Union and Hungary in the 1956 Melbourne Games.
The Hungarians, on their long sea voyage to the Antipodes, were unaware of the Soviet invasion of their homeland. The clash was a bloody affair, with the Hungarians ultimately winning 4-0 and going on to win the gold medal.
In 1968, the Mexican military killed at least 49 students protesting against the Games in the Tlatelolco Massacre. Mexico also saw the Olympic podium used to stage the celebrated black power salute by John Carlos and Tommie Smith, with the Australian silver medallist Peter Norman stood by.
In 1972, militants from the Palestinian Black September movement murdered 11 Israeli athletes in the Munich Games village.
… as feminist realism
Women first appeared in the 1900 Olympics. The 22 women among the 997 athletes were limited to ladylike sports: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf. Over the years, the number of sports open to women has gradually increased, bringing, in 2016, the unthinkable — women’s rugby.
Today, women constitute about 40% to 45% of Olympic competitors.
There is one unisex sport (equestrian), although at various times both sailing and rifle shooting have been unisex. And there is one sport where, thankfully, men have not been allowed to compete: synchronised swimming.
In others sports, there are odd historical hangovers of sex differences: there is no 1,500-metre swim for women; women compete in the heptathlon rather than the decathlon; and men’s and women’s gymnastics are radically different.
One can only say that there’s been a long march towards gender equality, but we wouldn’t want to take things too far too fast, given that the Australian Matildas, one of the best women’s soccer teams in the world, were recently beaten 7-0 by an under-15 boys’ team.
Gender issues have been played out in the Olympic theatre in other ways. Indeed, the Olympics have more than anything brought into question the whole notion of binary gender and what it means to be a man or a woman.
This issue poses a particular quandary for the Olympics. On the one hand, as the Matildas well know, it’s just not fair to have men competing against women in most sports. On the other hand, it’s not the place of the IOC to be telling people what sex they are.
Sex testing was first requested by IOC executive member, and later president, Avery Brundage in 1936, over concerns about British javelin and discus champion Mary Louise Edith Weston. In 1936, Mary had a sex change to become Mark. It ran in the family; a year later, Mark’s elder sister Hilda also had gender re-assignment treatment.
The most famous transgender athlete — until Caitlyn Jenner — was Stanislawa Walasiewickz, a Polish sprinter who won the gold medal in the 100-metre dash in the 1932 Olympics, and silver in Berlin. Later, living as an American under the name Stella Walsh, she was found upon her death (she was shot during an armed robbery in 1981) to have male genitalia.
At the same Games, German Dora Ratjen competed in the high jump, finishing fourth, but was later found to be intersex.
Sex testing initially consisted of a physical examination, literally a “nude parade” of women. Chromosomal testing was introduced in 1968, and in 2012 hormonal testing for abnormal levels of testosterone began.
The official IOC position is that rather than sex testing, this is a test to determine if certain athletes are “unfairly advantaged” by an accident of birth. One can only say that this is a tricky position to maintain: just about every athlete is unfairly advantaged by an accident of birth, certainly relative to you and me, at least. That’s why they’re elite athletes.
In 2009, after South African runner Caster Semenya won gold in the women’s 800-metre run, the International Amateur Athletics Federation began receiving emails from people who had doubts about Semenya’s gender because of her masculine appearance. Some unkind commentators even pointed out that her name was an anagram of “Yes, a secret man”.
The results of chromosomal tests were never released, but Semenya was cleared to run again. After winning the silver medal in London, Semenya will be among the favourites in Rio. Watch this space.
… as romcom
The Olympic stage is a theatre of sex in another way: it is a festival of youth where the athletes compete, celebrate and fornicate. And fornicate they do, by all accounts.
The London Games provided 150,000 condoms — 15 per athlete — for the 17-day event. That’s enough for 30 couplings per pair, or 1.7 couplings per day.
But Olympic love has flourished even in condom-less environments, and in those more innocent days when men’s and women’s living quarters were separated, as they still are for Muslim athletes.
In 1956, US gold medal hammer thrower Hal Connolly met and fell in love with Czech discus champion Olga Fikotová, a cross-Iron Curtain romance that blossomed into a marriage.
The scenario was repeated 48 years later in Athens when gold medallist rifleman Matt Emmons (US) fell for Czech riflewoman Katerina Kurková. Perhaps it was a shotgun wedding.
There are, in fact, dozens of Olympic lovers, most famously legendary Czech distance runner Emil Zatokpek and his wife Dana, a gold-medal-winning javelin thrower, who were witnesses to the Connolly wedding.
… as morality play
The founder of the Games, Pierre de Coubertin, envisaged them as a competition between gentleman amateurs, playing fairly and competing on a level playing field, figuratively and literally.
Native American athlete Jim Thorpe was relieved of his two gold medals from the 1912 Stockholm Games when it turned out he had accepted money for playing baseball.
But the myth of professionalism, freighted with classist assumptions, was a lost cause from the start. Gradually, begrudgingly, the Games were opened up to full professionals.
Fairness also proved to be an elusive ideal.
Over 50 Olympic athletes have been stripped of their medals, mainly for doping. Most famously, they included US swimmer Rick DeMont at the Montreal Games, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson at Seoul, US sprinter Marion Jones, who lost her five medals from Atlanta and Sydney, and US cyclists Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton in Sydney and Athens.
The vexed question of artificial performance enhancement has plagued the Olympics, and raises a basic moral question: what does “natural” mean? What is the difference, one might ask, between taking the blood-booster EPO and training in altitude tents, which has the same effect, or for that matter having a natural genetic variant?
Although we think of cheating mainly as a pharmacological indiscretion, there have also been interesting cases of “technology doping”.
Boris Onishchenko, a Russian pentathlete, rigged his electrofoil at the 1976 Olympics to mark a score before he actually hit anyone, eliciting a protest from the British. He was known thereafter as “Boris Disonishchenko”. Soviet President Brezhnev was not happy, and Onishchenko was last seen working as a taxi driver in Kiev.
The issue of technological performance enhancement was raised again when the “blade runner” Oscar Pistorius became the first disabled track and field athlete to compete at the able-bodied games. Several sports scientists argued that his blades provided him with an unfair advantage, allowing a greater return of elastic energy.
After the theatre
By September, the stage will be dismantled, and our revels will be ended. Our athletes will melt into air, into thin air. The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces shall dissolve and, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind.
All that will remain will be the cold wind whistling through the empty stadiums and the athletes’ Potemkin villages. Until, that is, we switch on our televisions for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.