As the Olympics roll out in Rio, it’s tough not to feel part of a big event. Television and online ads for major corporations feature smiling, branded Olympic athletes, while mainstream media from ABC to BBC to CBC and all the rest of the acronyms set aside their mantle of investigative journalism to embrace wholeheartedly the role of cheerleader for the Games, with websites framed by Olympic medal counts and newscasts preceded by Olympic updates. A series of deadly bombings in Thailand plays second fiddle to a new gold medal in freestyle swimming.
The only hint of something other than global celebration going on peeks around the edges of sanitised Olympic coverage. A jeep of officers from Brazil’s national security force took a wrong turn off the heavily protected international airport highway, wandered into a local low-income neighbourhood, and a security officer (one of the 85,000 security officers at the games; twice the number of those deployed at the 2012 London Olympics) tragically died “in a hail of bullets.” (National Post article by Nick Faris, 11 August 2016)
The tragic event reveals how much is masked by Olympic hype. But a growing number of activists and scholars are working to expose the dark side of the Games. That dark side is not confined only to the most recent decades of the modern iteration of the Games. Since the establishment of the Games in 1896 by a handful of white colonial elites obsessed with the decline of white civilization and the conviction that manly white bodies competing with each other on the field of athletics could somehow rehabilitate white Christian society, the Games have been avid partners with society’s reactionaries: patriarchal men, white colonial elites, fascist politicians, and now neoliberal corporations.
Shaping the Narrative
Jules Boykoff, a US-based professor of politics, produced a masterful summation of the Games’ problematic heritage earlier this year. His book, Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, offers an excellent starting point for those seeking some critical analysis of the Games. It reveals that even purportedly progressive moments of the Games’ history reflect the shaping of public memory in favour of the Games’ regressive history and politics. The treatment of black Americans is a case in point. US track athlete Jesse Owens, and his triumphs at the 1936 Olympics hosted by Nazi Germany and presided over by Adolf Hitler, are often cast as an in-your-face victory against the racist notions of the Games’ Nazi hosts.
Yet the reality is more complicated. Owens’ fourth gold medal, as part of the 400-metre relay squad, came about as the result of a last-minute removal of two star Jewish athletes from the relay squad; they later charged that they’d been removed from the event for which they had trained because the US was under pressure not to allow Jewish athletes to appear on the medal stand in front of the Nazis.
Another well-known moment in Olympic history is the courageous symbolic stand of American black athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith, commemorated in the iconic photo of the two on the medal stand, fists raised. As Carlos later wrote “We decided that we would wear black gloves to represent strength and unity. We would have beads hanging from our neck, which would represent the history of lynching. We wouldn’t wear shoes to symbolize the poverty that still plagued so much of black America. On the medal stand, all we would wear on our feet would be black socks.” Smith said that “The totality of our effort was the regaining of our black dignity.” In an interview with Boykoff, Carlos elaborated that their action was intended “to set a standard. To have a society show its best face. To bring attention to the consciousness of those who had let their conscience go dormant. And to encourage people to stand for what’s right as opposed to standing for nothing.”
The cost of their action was high: they were both suspended from the US Olympic team and sent home. Attacks on them by the mainstream white press led to death threats and unemployment. Their marriages collapsed. The white Australian athlete, Peter Norman, who had joined their gesture in solidarity on the medal stand was also vilified and barred from future Olympic competition by his country.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) went so far as to demand that footage of Carlos and Smith be removed from official films of the Olympics, on the basis that it injected politics into the Games. Yet as Boykoff notes, the IOC had made no similar critique of the blatant promotion of Nazi and fascist imagery and propaganda in the films and commemoration of those earlier Games. Athletes who gave fascist salutes on stage had been cheered, by media and IOC alike.
The targeting of black American athletes didn’t end there. Four years later at the 1972 Munich Olympics two other black American track athletes, Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett (who had been teammates with Smith and Carlos the previous Olympics), were on the stand for gold and silver medals. As Boykoff explains, “Mindful that conditions for African Americans hadn’t much improved since the last Games, Matthews and Collett lounged as the national anthem played, swirling their medals around their fingers and stroking their chins. The New York Times described the athletes’ “indifference and disrespect” as provoking “spectators’ wrath” in Munich.”
The press and IOC were ready to pounce on anything the black American athletes did. As Matthews later said, “We came up with no protest in mind, but the crowd had protest in mind when we left.”
The “nonchalant” attitude of Matthews and Collett during the award ceremony was nothing compared to Carlos and Smith’s action during the previous Olympics, but the price these two would pay was even higher. They weren’t sent home, because the IOC was afraid this would make heroes out of them like it did with Smith and Carlos, but instead had a lifetime ban quietly imposed on them, a punishment even Smith and Carlos hadn’t incurred.
The suite of incidents, however, demonstrates the heightened scrutiny with which black athletes were monitored and punished by the IOC, the US Olympic Committee, and the mainstream press alike. As Boykoff observes, it demonstrates “what sociologist Ben Carrington calls ‘the fear of the black athlete’ as rooted in ‘the projection of white masculinist fantasies of domination [and] control.’ The powerful were squirming.”
Black US athletes weren’t the only ones to engage in protest in the recent history of the Games. Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska competed mere months after the Soviet Union had invaded her homeland and crushed the ‘Prague Spring’ protests in a brutal and bloody crackdown (Caslavska herself, having signed petitions for democratic rights, had to train in hiding during the Soviet crackdown). Having won four gold medals and two silver at the Olympics, she restricted her protest at the slaughter of her fellow Czechs to a simple hanging of her head while the Russian national anthem played. In retaliation, she was barred from future competition in gymnastics.
Other struggles mark the Olympic history, and Boykoff examines many of them in his book. The struggle of black South African athletes and their allies for the exclusion of white apartheid South Africa marks a rare success in political organizing around the Olympics.
But things have changed. Carlos, quoted by Boykoff, argues that athletes at the time were driven with a greater sense of “fire”, and that their spirit was more “alive”. “All of us were such strong personalities, and that scared people. It scared government and business, everybody. It still scares them.”
For a period, it seemed the IOC had quashed political dissent on the part of athletes. And then the Winter 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia happened. An aggressively anti-LGBTQ law passed by Russia the previous year sparked calls for boycotts (which didn’t happen), but it also generated numerous instances of athletes flagrantly disregarding the anti-political agenda of the Games to make a variety of types of protest against the Russian law. As Boykoff notes, this pried open an important space for athletes to reappropriate the right to political expression. Whether Olympic athletes and organizers will continue to push that door open, remains to be seen.
The Games Must Go On
In choosing to attend the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, many athletes argued their public protests would serve the cause better than boycotts. The IOC was certainly adamant that the games should go on. Throughout the past century, organizers of the Games have demonstrated a marked indifference to the controversies their presence inevitably gives rise to, even ignoring tragic and bloody consequences of the Games. When 11 Israeli athletes and coaches (and one German police officer) were murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Games, the IOC declared a day of mourning but that the Games would go on. While the world remembers the 1968 Olympics for Carlos and Smith’s courageous statement on the medal stand, a mere ten days before the Games began Mexican troops massacred hundreds of people in Tlatelolco Square, Mexico City, for protesting against the use of public funds on the Games instead of on social programs. The IOC politely ignored the massacre and proceeded with the Games.
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