Next week, the XXXI Olympiad will kick off in Rio. By the time the 10,500 athletes from a record 206 countries file into the Maracanã stadium, in front of a global TV audience of nearly one billion, the Olympics will have cost the Brazilian government almost $12 billion—$2 billion of it on security alone. Whole sections of the city have been reconfigured, new transport systems built, and tens of thousands of people uprooted.
This gargantuan spectacle is light years way from the original vision ofBaron Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat who founded the modern Olympics, says David Goldblatt, author of The Games: A Global History Of The Olympics. Talking from his home in Bristol, England, he explains how the very scale and cost of today’s Olympics may spell their doom; why women were not allowed to compete in track events beyond 200 meters until 1968; and why Usain Bolt’s bid to be the fastest man on earth for the third time will be one of the greatest moments in Olympic history.
Kickbacks, corruption, disdain for the people they are meant to serve, political skullduggery. I am talking about FIFA, soccer’s governing body, here. But is this also a good description of the International Olympics Committee (IOC)?
Yes, that is a pretty good description of the IOC. To be fair to the institution, its last great meltdown occurred in the late 1990s to early 2000s, when theSalt Lake City scandal erupted. It emerged that Salt Lake City, which won the 2002 Winter Games, had made an extraordinary array of payments to IOC members—from treatment for somebody’s bad knee to house-flipping—to ensure their votes. There was a certain cleaning out of the stables and reform. At the level of sheer untainted corruption—like the taking of bribes to allocate television or hosting rights, which has been going on at FIFA—the IOC is broadly clear of those problems. The problems of the IOC are the Olympics themselves. The sheer scale and cost of the games and the terrible costs that are invariably born by the poorest people living in the host cities are the soft underbelly of the IOC at the moment.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Introduce us to the spiritual godfather of the games, Baron de Coubertin, and map out his vision for the Olympics.
Baron de Coubertin was a French aristocrat born to a strict Catholic Jesuit family, who grew up in the world of the French Third Republic, when the purpose of an aristocrat was no longer clear. He was a man searching for a mission. In the emerging sport cultures of North America and Britain, he comes across the contribution of sport to the transformation of nations and humanity. Above all, what he finds there is the idea of the “gentleman sporting amateur aristocrat.” When he came up with the idea of reinventing the ancient games of Olympia in a modern guise, his vision was to create a display of manly virtue—an incredible phrase, but that’s how he described it [Laughs]—in which the moral, athletic, and physical brilliance of amateur sporting gentlemen would provide not only theesprit de corps and energy they required to go on and rule their various empires, but an elevating example to the rest of us.
How much do we know about the original Olympics in ancient Greece?
We know a lot about the ancient games. Not as much as we’d like and probably quite a lot more than de Coubertin would have had available to him. The Olympic games of the ancient world happened every four years in the sanctuary of Olympia. Five percent of the freeborn men of the Hellenic world would trek their way there. Most of them would stay in the original Olympic village, which rather than the plush surroundings of today, was a sort of tent village beset by the terrible dusty heat of August in Greece. We know from writings at the time that there were also infestations of insects. [Laughs]
Above all, it was a religious event. The Temple of Zeus was the center of attention, and offerings to Zeus formed an integral part of the games. But the idea of amateurism, which de Coubertin made so much of, did not exist. Many of the people who competed at the ancient games were, in fact, professional athletes. You would come home from the games with your laurel and prizes, plus status, public office, and a whole variety of gifts in kind. The idea that this was the home of gentlemanly amateurism 2,500 years ago is, I’m afraid to say, a myth.
The Olympics are a useful lens through which to view questions of ethnicity and race. Tell us about the bizarre “tribal games” in St Louis in 1904.
The disgraceful anthropology games, or anthropology days as they were called, were the creation of what was the then department of anthropology at the St. Louis World’s Fair, for which the Olympics was just the athletic side show. There was a debate within the athletic and anthropological community at the time as to whether people of color from colonized countries were natural athletes. So they thought they’d do some experiments to prove the veracity of this racist anthropology. They gathered together people from different ethnic backgrounds and got them to perform Olympic sports, then tested their times and performances against white, collegiate American athletes.
It was a farce. Two days before the events took place they were still planning swimming events for a group of people who didn’t know how to swim. [Laughs] Pygmies from Central Africa were asked to throw the 56 pound weight. They simply refused, saying that it was too silly to even contemplate.
The Berlin games of 1936 became famous for Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Olympia. Explain its importance.
It’s important to remember how extraordinary it was to have a visual record that tried to capture something of the grandeur and drama of the event in a way TV does now. It’s one of the main reasons that the Olympics are so huge. If they weren’t on TV, they’d be getting a fraction of the interest they do. Film was the technology of that moment and Leni Riefenstahl brings a level of technical expertise and aesthetic vision that none of the news reels comes close to. For all its problematic political position, its closeness to and support of Nazi ideology, the film is technically an extraordinary aesthetic triumph. . . . .