The Olympics: playing political games

The sporting festival has long been viewed through the political mood of the moment, from the age of empire to the politics of fear today.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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As the ‘proper’ Olympics kick off in the athletics stadium, the mood among British observers is, as they say, mixed. Alongside the overexcited reporting of any shadow of British success – ‘Don’t be disappointed with Britain’s double bronze in Sha Tin!’ begged the BBC’s golly-gosh equestrian correspondent, like we knew what she was on about – there is a lot of cynicism and bah-humbugging about Beijing.

Where recent Olympic Games in the USA have been attacked as too commercialised, these in China are criticised as too politicised. The Beijing regime stands accused of exploiting the Olympics to improve its global image and distract from its record on human rights or the environment. There has been outrage at allegations that the Chinese manipulated the opening ceremony with CGI images and phoney little girl singers.

These complaints have added to a widespread feeling of alienation from these Olympics. No sooner had the spectacular opening ceremony begun than some media commentators were calling the Games a boring waste of money and urging Britain not only to turn Beijing off but to abandon plans for blowing billions on the London Olympics in 2012. The many stories about drug abuse in sport have become a focus of disillusionment. Expect any failed drug tests in the athletics competitions to be the cue for another chorus about the death of the Olympic ideal.

No doubt there are all sorts of problems with the Chinese Games. But the fog of double standards clouding this discussion hangs heavier than the infamous Beijing smog. It is hard not to laugh at British TV companies appearing amazed that somebody else should fool the public – at least the Chinese didn’t charge viewers for premium rate phone calls in a fixed poll to choose which little girl should appear. The moral outrage about press freedom and civil liberties also rings slightly hollow given the illiberal drift of things over here. The ridiculous ITN reporter who made a dark film about the intrusive CCTV cameras all over Beijing and the ‘curfew’ that means bars close at 2am might take a look at life in British cities some time.

The grim discussion about the problem of pollution in Beijing, too, displays double standards and historical amnesia about the far filthier conditions that prevailed during the era of industrialisation in the West. As recently as the 1984 Olympics, I recall the British equestrian team threatened to put masks on their horses to protect against the Los Angeles smog. Asked whether he was worried about the polluted air in LA, Britain’s world champion middle-distance runner Steve Cram replied: ‘I come from Sunderland, it’s very nice here!’

The modern Olympic Games have always been a political event as well as a sporting one. And the way the Olympics are seen at any time is always partly shaped by the political mood of the times. Today, the way we view these Olympics reflects not just the events in Beijing but the confused, doom-laden, cynical and fearful political mood of the age in Britain and the West.

A glance at the history of the Games shows that there has never been a non-political Olympics. The modern Games began in Athens in 1896, at the peak of the age of empire when the world map was being redrawn by great power rivalries. The founder of the modern Olympics, French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, is remembered for evoking the Olympic spirit through declaring that: ‘The important thing in life is not the victory but the contest; the essential thing is not to have won but to have fought well.’ Yet de Coubertin was no woolly philanthropist. His underlying motivation, inspired by France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1, was to use the Olympic movement to instill a more martial spirit in the French officer class, of the sort he had admired on the playing fields of Eton.

The 1908 London Games were the first to involve national teams, and became a mixture of shambolic British amateurism and imperial pride. The Brits managed to accumulate a record total of 50-odd gold medals – including several in sports that few other nations played, and one awarded to a British boxer by a referee-judge who was his father. The Games were marked by the US team refusing to dip their flag to the royal box, widely seen as a political protest against British imperialism in Ireland (see spiked‘s Top 10 Olympic moments, by Rob Lyons).

The use of the Games as a platform for imperial propaganda and national pride culminated in Hitler’s infamous Berlin Games of 1936. They are now seen as a Nazi crime against the Olympic ideal, and protesters have wildly equated Beijing with Berlin as ‘Genocide Games’. Yet in some ways the Berlin Olympics created a model for the (swastika-free) political use of the Olympics ever since.

The first postwar Olympics, in London in 1948, became known as the ‘austerity Games’, a sort of running and jumping display of the Blitz spirit designed to show that plucky Britain could still stand up for itself and for right amid the regime of rationing. Imperial politics were still in evidence in the exclusion of Germany and Japan, the defeated wartime powers. In a sign of things to come, Stalin’s Soviet Union refused to send a team.

That set the tone for the Olympics to become a mock battlefield between East and West through the Cold War, with the Americans and the Soviets doing whatever it took to win more gold medals. Sometimes it turned into a real war, as in the famous fight between the Hungarian and Soviet water-polo teams in Melbourne, 1956, the year when Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian revolution. That same year, Mao’s China withdrew from the Games in protest at the participation of Taiwan, the island outpost of the Chinese Nationalists whom the Communists had defeated. China would not take part again until 1984. By then, Ronald Reagan’s New Cold War had been marked by the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and the Soviet boycott of LA in 1984.

Through those years, there was never such a thing as a ‘pure’ Olympics. Inevitably, in the real world of global politics host governments and participants were often involved in dirty business away from the sporting arenas. Whether this has become a cause of protests in the West rather depends on who is doing it. There does not seem to have been any attempt to disown the 1948 London Olympics on the ground that Britain was fighting a dirty colonial war in Malaya at the time. Shortly before the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, the pro-US authoritarian government there shot dead hundreds of unarmed civilians to suppress student protests. The Games went ahead as planned. In 1976, African governments demanded that New Zealand be excluded from the Montreal Olympics for breaking the sporting boycott by playing rugby in apartheid South Africa. When the Olympic Committee refused, 31 African nations withdrew their teams. And so it goes on.

Today the debate about the Olympics is still shaped by the wider political mood, but in a different way. In place of the grand strategic politics of empires or the Cold War, the discussion reflects the more confused, small-minded and incoherent political themes of the times. And rather than encouraging us to be uplifted and inspired by the athletes’ achievements, many voices now seek to diminish the Games.

See, for example, how the negative discussion about Beijing has been framed by the contemporary politics of fear in the West that has often been analysed on spiked. China has been turned into an all-purpose symbol of everything we are supposed to be afraid of, from industrial pollution and carbon emissions to overpopulation and militarism and greed. In this view, the Beijing Olympics become a parade of all that is wrong with the world in a way that bears little relation to the actual sporting events.

It also seems that the widespread cynicism about the Games today is shaped by the contemporary politics of low expectations, risk-aversion and the loss of faith in humanity. The new mood of disowning the Olympics altogether as a waste of money and energy, or of criticising the Chinese for pushing their athletes too hard to win, reflects these trends. For some observers today it seems that nothing can be justified unless it helps to meet some banal economic target. Meanwhile, notions of aspiring to sporting excellence are sneered at as elitist and dangerous to the health. The intense cynicism about the athletics being tainted by drugs could also be seen as a sign of how uncomfortable many in the West are today with ideas of doing whatever you can to win, and of taking risks in order to excel – which, as Brendan O’Neill has pointed out on spiked, have long been key Olympian values (see There is only one Olympic value: win, win, win).

Let us hope that the clouds of cynicism and depression over the Beijing Games will be blown away by some amazing performances in track and field, as they have been before. Yet we can already see the beginnings of a concerted effort to talk down the London Olympics in 2012, to make them fit into the miserabilist mindset of the British politicians behind the bid.

It may well be a pipedream to imagine that you could ever get politics out of Olympic sport. The depressing thing, however, is that our view of these inspiring events is being clouded by the wrong sort of politics. But the solution to that problem does not lie in Beijing.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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