Readers write: the myth of the Olympics

The following is a fantastic diatribe by Simon Shaw. Simon’s not a big fan of the Olympics.

Readers who don’t like politics on a football message board are advised to not read on.

The Myth of the Olympics/the Great Olympic Swindle.

We are continually peddled a myth that professional sport exists in a rarefied atmosphere above politics. From the time that most modern sports were codified in the late nineteenth century, the refrain has gone out that politics must not be allowed to sully the hallowed turf, or most recently the Formula One racing circuit.

However, sport reflects all the worst aspects of capitalism, above all, the class inequality in society. Of the English cricket team that toured Pakistan in 1987/1988 only one was privately educated, this has risen to two thirds of the current team, 50% of rugby union players today are public schooled, even though just 7% of the total school population go to fee paying schools. Sport like so much under capitalism has nothing to do with meritocracy all to do with ‘fortunocracy’. In the 2004 Olympics, 45% of GB medallists were public schooled, this increased to 85% at Beijing,  the increasing elitism of sport reflects the narrow range of those at the top in government, the civil service,  the media and industry.

The organisation of sport is hierarchical and dominated by the male, stale and largely pale. Sport has been much slower to accept minorities and the marginalised than many other institutions, for example only in 1948 did  the Stoke Mandeville Games open at the same time as the London Games, this later became the Paralympics.

There are currently no gay footballers, mainly due to the fear factor,  sport and masculinity is a commercially sound formula, nothing is allowed to undermine this. So while being ‘out’ is acceptable in many areas of society, sport again lags behind.

In the same way that capitalism ruins our bodies,  sport ruins the bodies of sports men and women,  professional cyclists often die young and  many of today’s footballers will end their careers rich,  but disabled. The financial imperatives to play and win, means that competitors do not allow their bodies to repair properly after injury, and will always take performance enhancing drugs whatever the controls, as winning and promoting the brand, not taking part, is all that matters.

Sport reflects the racism in society, and again lags behind the rest of society when it comes to addressing the issue, golf clubs in the USA were still banning Jews and Blacks long after the US armed forces had been integrated. Arthur Ashe, one of the few successful black tennis players, only ‘made it’ as his dad was a park keeper and he had access to facilities.

Sport, like religion, is founded on myths, the main ones main being that it is a unifier, Nelson Mandela has said;  ‘Sport has the power to change the world, the power to inspire, to power to unite, in a way that little else can’.  To an extent this is true, but to a greater extent sport acts in the same way that bread and circuses were used in ancient Rome. It is surely part of Gramsci’s, ‘Ideological State Apparatus’, a method of control that acts to deaden the pain of capitalism. The history of modern sport runs in parallel to that of the development of industrial capitalism. Many of our most successful football clubs were established by ex-public schoolboys in working class areas inspired by the ideas of muscular Christianity; to instil a team spirit and godliness in the hearts of young workers. The first four Olympic Games were designed specifically to boost international trade and were held in conjunction with trade fairs.

Cricket, according to C.L.R James was purposely exported to the Empire in order to instil the requirements of capitalism, above all that of white supremacy, it was not until the 1950s that the West Indies were allowed to tour without a white captain – but also the idea of time keeping, the myth of fair play (‘its not cricket’), working under one captain and observing rules. The ethos of cricket was designed to be transferred to the factory and the plantation.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) proclaims that its role is to help build a peaceful and better world. Sepp Blatter has said that FIFA (world footballs governing body) is one of the world’s leading development agencies. Nike claims that: sports have the power to cross boundaries and inspire and foster social cohesion. Interestingly FIFA has more members than the UN,   201 vs. 191. In reality sport usually responds to demands to purge itself of homophobia, racism, sexism and animal cruelty far more slowly than other institutions in society. For example, it was only fear of an African boycott that led the I.O.C. to ban South Africa in 1964. Similarly Rhodesia was only barred after a threatened black African boycott in 1972,   the then I.O.C. president Avery Brundage equated the ban with the death of Israeli athletes at the 1974 Games in Munich: ‘Two savage attacks’.

What George Orwell said about sport in December 1945, ‘ is war minus the bullets’,  is well known, but it is telling to quote him in full: ‘Sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all the rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. International sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred.’

This was most obvious example  being the so called ‘soccer war’ between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969 which obviously had other causes, but the catalyst was a football match, which lead to 6000 deaths.

The Flanders football match of 1914 has gone down in mythology as an act of sanity in the midst of carnage, but the slaughter in the trenches had its roots on the playing fields of Eton. At the turn of the century sport was used by the public schools to create an officer class, in conjunction with the ideas of muscular Christianity. Life on the front was presented of an extension of life at school with  the need to create leaders and to play the game fairly. On the first day of the Somme a football was kicked towards the enemy lines and a prize was offered for the first member of the East Surreys to dribble a ball to the German trenches. All the footballing soldiers were mown down.  Black Adder was perhaps closer to reality than satire. Public schoolboys suffered a higher attrition rate than most, by the end of the war in five Old Etonians were dead.

Women have either a decorative or a secondary role in sport. Women at Wimbledon have only received the same prize money since 2007. Female competition is rarely given as much air time as men. Women are more usually seen pecking tour de France winners on the checks at the end of each stage (the women’s Tour receives almost no coverage), or cheer leading in US sports. Well into this century, Fulham’s, ‘Cravenettes’  and West Ham’s ‘Hammmettes’,  provided the half time entertainment. I once heard a fan at Craven Cottage remark to his friend, about one bikini clad dancer on the pitch, attempting to bring some glamour to a mid-winter Saturday afternoon, ‘Look at that one, she’s got stretch marks’.

The gap between the myth and the reality of sport is epitomised by the 1936 Olympics. Germany had been excluded from the two previous games. The Nazis sole aim was to use the Berlin games to revive their image. The New York Times reported that the games put Germany  ‘back in the fold of nations’.

Goebbles had ordered that generosity be shown towards black athletes. Jesse Owens was impressed that for the first time when he got to Berlin he was allowed to travel on the same buses as his white teammates, and even stay in the same hotels.

German Jews were excluded from competition. Only one half Jew was allowed to compete as a sop to the west. The Jewish Architect of the Olympic village, Wolfgang Furstner, was soon sacked and promptly after took his own life.

Two Jewish members of the US team boycotted the games in protest against Nazism, and two remaining Jewish members of the 4 x 100 meters squad were dropped. Historian Guy Walters argues that the success of the 1936 Berlin games gave Hitler the confidence to move 30 000 troops into the Rhineland. The only IOC official ever to be expelled in its 117-year history was an American delegate who attempted to organise a boycott of the 1936 games.

So pictures of Hitler hopping in fury as Jesse Owens exploded the myth of Aryan superiority was just a small set back

As for Jesse Owens he said:  ‘When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of a bus. I had to go to the back door; I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president either’.  Owens had to resort to making a living, by getting involved in stunts such as running against race horses. The US team also used him in 1968 in an attempt to persuade athletes not to mount a protest.

It was much harder for the IOC to put a gloss on the 1968 Games in Mexico City, above all because they took place during the ferment that was gripping the world that year. In Mexico the president had suspended free trade unions, had spent a fortune on the games ($7.5million in todays money), and was facing a serious opposition from the CNH; ‘The National Strike Council’.

On 2 October 1968 the CNH knew, with the games due to open in ten days time, the world would be watching. Ten thousand university and high school students gathered in the Plazza de las Tres Culturas; among their chants were: ‘We don’t want the Olympics we want revolution’. Their more long-term aims were five demands; including the release of political prisoners and the dismissal of police units responsible for previous repression.

The protestor’s claim that flares fired from two helicopters were the signal for the shooting to start. The Olympic Battalion (specially formed by the government for the games)  then entered the square to arrest CNH leaders.

The killing went on through the night,  the government put the death toll at twenty eight. Not until the ruling PRI party lost power in 2001 was the massacre ever properly investigated and the truth told about the  ‘La Noche Triste’, no one has ever been prosecuted.

In 2003 George Washington University revealed that the Pentagon had sent radios, weapons and riot control training equipment to the Mexican government as a result of their concerns about Olympic security. At a recent ‘Occupy’ meeting in the US John Carlos said that they were fully aware of what had happened in the city days before they made their famous protest, he puts the death toll at 2200.

It was Carlos along with Tommie Smith who provided probably the most iconic Olympic image. Their black power salute as the mounted the podium in Mexico City had been widely anticipated and both knew what the consequences would be. In his autobiography
‘The John Carlos Story’ he explains how there first was silence when they raised their fists and then the crowd erupted into a chorus of boos and racist abuse: ‘We can’t believe this is how you treat us after we let you run in our games’. However, Carlos explains that in the moments before  ‘the ceremony’ began his mind churned over how his father had explained to him why he could not use the local segregated swimming pool in his native Harlem as a child.

Both athletes were immediately suspended from the US team, and vilified in the mainstream media. To Carlos their aim was clear to make a statement that: ‘.. The United States is not like you may think it is for black and other people of colour. Just because we have USA on our chests it does not mean everything is peachy keen and we are living large’.

More recent Olympics have maintained their ability to sustain what even the right leaning commentator Simon Jenkins has called the ‘IOC’s, ‘increasingly fantasist self image’  . Much like Nazi Germany, China claimed their Olympics were:  ‘..another milestone in China’s rising international status and a historical event in the great renaissance of the Chinese nation’. They even employed the son of Albert Speer to design the architectural master plan.

Ten years ago Blair’s Labour government published a strategy document ‘Game Plan’, this stated that: ‘hosting events is not an effective value-for-money method of achieving a sustained increased in mass participation’.  More succinctly ordinary mortals watch elite athletes and rightly surmise, ‘I can’t do that’, as they slump into their armchairs and reach for the remote and the ring pull.

This despite the fact that a centre piece of  ‘our’  bid was the promise to create a  ‘step change’,  in sporting participation in the UK. To date the only tangible initiative launched has been free swimming for the over 60s, at a cost of £140million, as against over £11billion which has been committed to the two weeks of Olympics and then Paralympics. Currently only 22% of British adults take part in some sort of sporting activity, the figure for Finland is 55%. When adjusted for social class the figures are much worse, local councils have no statutory responsibility to provide sport or leisure facilities, so clearly in poorer areas, especially in times of budget cuts less is provided publicly. The rich of course continue to get a membership at Fitness First as part of their recruitment packages.

The decision of the host borough, Newham, to close the nearest sports centre to the games on the dawn of the Olympic year, highlights the hypocrisy of all the rhetoric about the games being good for all. In the year before closure the Atherton was visited by 240 000 people in one of the poorest and unhealthiest parts of the nation. A spirited campaign kept the centre partially open, but the borough said it was not able to afford the £250, 000 to maintain the centre. At the end of the year the centre will fully close.

The truth is that despite the hype, the Olympics are not that popular. If small bore shooting and watching minor members of the royal family mess about on horses were popular they would be on the 10:30 pm Saturday night spot on BBC1. After the Sydney Games the tourist board slogan was: ‘Where the bloody hells were you?’, as tourist rates go down and revenue is actually lost as a result of Olympic Games. Real enthusiasts for each sport prefer the world championships for their particular event. Ordinary tourists are put off by the prospects of crowds.

There are of course times when entertainment and culture and indeed sport can show a glimpse of a better world. Paul Mason in his recent book (‘Why it is kicking off everywhere  – the new global revolutions’), tells of how the ‘ultra’ football supporters of Zamalek Sporting Club were initially used by the Egyptian regime in January last year, they were invited to Tahrir Square to smash demonstrations- Mason quotes Mahmoud: ‘ But when we got there, to Tahrir, we formed our own opinion; we bonded with the protestors and became part of them’.  Sometimes regimes cannot control the reality that thousands of working class supporters represent, thus Barcelona Football Club was always something of a no-go area for Franco,  chanting in Catalan was an act of mass defiance against Fascism.

What then would replace sport and competition in a socialist society? As competition, racism, sexism and homophobia are at the centre of both capitalism and sport, we will not have achieved our aim if they survive in a better world. Surely, the new world of work will allow us more leisure,  to enjoy more natural or healthy leisure pursuits; a walk in the park rather than a half hour manic workout on a tread mill. Marx famously said that:  ‘In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic’. Today he might have said: beach volley player, synchronized swimmer or track cyclist.

3 thoughts on “Readers write: the myth of the Olympics

  1. Hi,
    As someone that lives and works (public sector demon, give me all your money for my gold plated pension) in Weymouth, I have to say that without the money spent here on infrastructure (new roads and traffic lights mostly) this town would be in a sorry state. I hope that some kind of lasting economic benefit may result for Weymouth and Portland, by that I mean real jobs with real wages. Without it the social decline already in progress will accelerate and the nasty poisonous disposition of an increasingly bitter local population will get worse. I fear that the far right already here, feeding on the nationalistic mood of the media will be the only winners here.

  2. good piece — ive always hated the Olympics!

    one nit to pick though: the ideological state apparatus was a term coined by Althusser. Gramsci first wrote about the panopticon.

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