Socialist Worker

Hidden history behind Olympic myth

Issue No. 1914

USUALLY WHEN the Olympics are staged by one of the big countries there is an appeal to people to “rally round the flag”, and highlighting the medals the home team could win.

This is an aspect in Greece, but it isn’t so important as Greece is not a major sporting power.

Instead the establishment have used the argument that “the Olympics are returning to the country they were born in. The Greeks must be proud. It’s important to the traditions and the culture of the country.”

The Olympics in ancient Greece have been idealised as some sort of peace event.

But they were a war event, an occasion for the rich and powerful to make their alliances, and display their wealth and power.

For instance, the leader of Athens used the Olympics to launch a war campaign against Sicily.

In the races with horses and chariots the winner was the person who owned the horses and chariots. The credit didn’t go to the driver, who was usually a slave.

The history of the Olympics has always been more about money and politics than sport.

The French nationalist Baron de Coubertin revived the Olympics in 1894. He broke with the Olympics in 1928 when women were allowed to compete.

The games were used to promote nationalism. After the First World War the International Olympic Committee banned the defeated nations and awarded the games to “plucky little Belgium”.

The 1936 Olympics were awarded to Nazi Germany. Hitler opened the games in a stadium bedecked with swastikas. The toilets had notices saying “No dogs or Jews”.

The Nazis instituted the lighting of the Olympic flame as part of a “Nordic ceremony” stressing the supposed superiority of whites.

But black US athletes won more gold medals than the whole of the German team, with Jesse Owens taking four.

South Africa was allowed to take part in the Olympics for 22 years after the introduction of apartheid.

A succession of repressive regimes have been selected to host the games. In 1968, ten days before the opening of the Mexico Olympics, the police killed up to 300 demonstrators who marched for democracy.

The South Korean dictatorship evicted 100,000 slum dwellers to make way for the 1988 games and crushed demonstrations demanding democracy.

The Chinese regime is renowned for human rights abuses, yet the country will host the 2008 games.

The Olympics have also seen acts of resistance. The high point was when US black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, 200-metre medallists, raised their fists in the Black Power salute during the 1968 games.


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Features
Sat 14 Aug 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1914
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