The Political Olympics

‘The Olympics shouldn’t be about politics, it should be about sport,” moaned John Furlong to the Globe and Mail. Furlong is the president of the Vancouver Organizing Committee of the 2010 Winter Games and he was shocked by the sight of protesters interfering with the Olympic torch relay this week. “I was sick to my stomach. Honestly, I was. I can’t sugarcoat it. I was overcome with this really sick feeling and I literally had to turn the television off, because I couldn’t stand to look at the pictures any more.”

One wonders what pictures of Chinese torture and murder would do to a man of such exquisite sensitivity. But of greater concern for this column is Furlong’s claim that the Olympics is above politics and shouldn’t be dragged into the muck. We hear it everywhere these days. It’s practically the motto of the International Olympic Committee.

And that is the nub of the problem.

The Olympics are not above politics. The Olympics have never been above politics. They could be above politics. But to get to that happy future, Olympic officials would first have to stop lying to themselves and others about the past and present.

Pierre de Coubertin’s vision for the modern Olympics was deeply humane. Athletes from all over the world, athletes of all races and creeds, would come together to compete fairly and honorably. It would be a gathering like no other.

The Games would even promote peace, de Coubertin believed, or at the very least diminish the savagery of war. “An army of sportsmen will be humane and fair during wartime and calm and collected thereafter,” he wrote in 1913.

A year later, the most savage war in history erupted.

The problem with de Coubterin’s thinking was not only that it was Utopian. It also contained a profound contradiction.

Athletes would compete, not nations, de Coubertin insisted. But nations would enter teams of athletes. And the whole Olympic structure would be organized along national lines.

Even today, this contradiction lies at the heart of the Olympic movement.

“The Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries,” reads the Olympic Charter. Nations do not compete. Olympic officials are even forbidden from compiling national rankings.

And yet, individual athletes are not permitted to enter the Olympics as individuals. They must be entered by National Olympic Committees and they must be nationals of the country that enters them. The Olympic Charter even refers to athletes as “representing” nations — a relationship underscored by the endless flag-waving and anthem-playing.

Nations are inherently political. By making nations the foundation of the Olympics, de Coubertin made the Olympics inherently political.

That was obvious even at the original 1896 Games in Athens. Hungarians refused to be part of the Austro-Hungarian team. Irish athletes refused to march under the Union Jack. The Turks saw the Games as a Greek propaganda tool and refused to attend at all — which was fine with the Greeks, who didn’t invite the Turks anyway.

At the running of the first Olympic marathon, when a Greek named Spiridon Louis entered the stadium and crossed the finish line, the Greek audience went mad. “I see your internationalism does not kill national spirit,” an astute companion told de Coubertin. “It strengthens it.”

At the Paris Games of 1900, French efforts to make the Germans feel unwelcome went as far as depositing a pile of excrement on the bed of the German captain. At the London Games of 1908, the Finns refused to enter the opening ceremonies with the Russians and pointedly carried no flag, while the American refusal to dip Old Glory as a gesture of respect to the royal family — as all other countries did — prompted chest-thumping on both sides.

Benito Mussolini poured resources into athletics and won a propaganda victory when Italy scored an impressive medal total at the 1932 Los Angeles Games. Then came the fascist frenzy of the 1936 Berlin Games. The IOC long refused to recognize the Soviet Union but in 1952 the Soviets finally competed, cleaned up, and ushered in the long competition for Olympic gold with the United States.

By a curious coincidence, one of the most blatant examples of the Olympics being used for political purposes involves China.

Shortly before the 1932 Los Angeles Games, Japan occupied Manchuria and set up a puppet government. Seeking legitimacy for the new order, Japan pushed for a Manchurian team to compete at Los Angeles. The IOC refused. But China was so outraged by the Japanese move it sent a team to the Olympics for the first time — a team that consisted of a sprinter who had loudly refused to race for Manchuria.

On and on the story of Olympic politics goes. The expulsion of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa. The “Black Power” salutes in 1968. The Munich massacre. The Montreal, Moscow and Los Angeles boycotts. Pierre de Coubertin’s decision to make nations the foundation of the games ensured that everything about the Olympics — from the choice of venues to the closing ceremonies — has always been steeped in politics.

But the IOC has steadfastly refused to admit what is obviously true. “One of the basic principles of the Olympic Games,” claimed Avery Brundage, then chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee and later president of the IOC, “is that politics plays no part whatsoever in them.” Brundage said that in 1936. At the time, Joseph Goebbels was busily turning the Berlin Games into a festival of fascism — while claiming, loudly and repeatedly, that the Games had absolutely nothing to do with politics.

The obvious and only solution to the periodic fiascoes like the one unfolding in Beijing is to correct de Coubertin’s mistake: Remove nations from the Olympics.

No flags. No anthems. Let athletes represent no one but themselves.

And rather then auctioning the rights to host the games to governments with ambitions and agendas, give them a permanent home in Greece. Not even the Turks would object to that.

Of course, if national pride and political advantage were removed from the Olympics, the Games would not arouse tribal passions, governments would not pour vast sums into athletics, and corporations would not pay enormous sums to be associated with the Games.

The Games would be much closer to de Coubertin’s humane spirit. But they would also be smaller. And much less lucrative.

Which is why the Olympics will continue to be about politics — and Olympic officials will continue to deny what is obviously true.