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The Road to Olympism

ISSUE:  Spring 1993
The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games. By Allen Guttmann. Illinois. $24.95.

Some were saddened because at the 1992 Olympics the American Dream Team of professional basketball players displaced teams of college amateurs. They should read Guttmann’s history of the Olympic movement. Guttmann reveals that, some years ago, British Olympians objected to American collegians on athletic scholarships, for such scholarships paid athletes to train; thus, American scholarship athletes were professionals who should be barred from the Olympics. Just what is a professional athlete? An amateaur?

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has provided varying definitions over the decades for the word “amateur.” In 1912 the American Indian James Thorpe won both the pentathlon and decathlon at the Stockholm Olympics, only to be stripped of his medals by the IOC, which judged him a professional because he had been paid to play baseball as a student. Guttmann notes, “Thorpe’s punishment indicated that prejudice about social class, not racism, was then and long remained a stumbling block on the road to Olympism.”

Elsewhere, Guttmann has written provocative, original books on sports spectators and the development of sports. This book is not meant to be provocative; it is a simple well-written account of the growth of the modern Olympic movement, from the 1896 Games for 300 male athletes, to the Seoul Games of 1988 for 7, 000 men and 2, 500 women. His is not an almanac of each winner in each sport, but Guttmann does mention memorable contests from each Olympics.

Guttmann is good at tracing decades of debate over Olympic amateurism. He is adequate in describing the growth of women’s participation in the Olympics. (He is the author of a separate book devoted to women’s sports.) But Guttmann is surprisingly weak in crediting the man most responsible for reviving the modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, for being a man beyond his time.

W. E. B. Du Bois opened his classic, Souls of Black Folk, in 1903 by proclamining “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Du Bois made a most understandable observation. At that time, in America blacks were being disfranchised by the millions and lynched by the hundreds; an American President declared that we should rule the Philippines in order to Christianize them (even though most Filipinos were Roman Catholic!). German Kaiser Wilhelm warned of the “yellow peril,” as his imperial troops sought to exterminate the black Hereros in Africa. Belgium’s King Leopold ordered that the people of the Congo pay a tax he had decreed, or have their hands severed. The Russian Tsar’s secret police forged the Protocols of the Elders of Zion while inciting pogroms against the Jews. Even in France the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus was framed for treason. Racism was strong and expanding. Racial, ethnic, and religious differences were excuses for oppression, conquest, and murder.

This is why Baron de Coubertin must be seen as a visionary. He resisted the racism of his times. He took the world in the other direction when he revived the Olympics in 1896. Guttmann should have spent more time discussing what the baron revived, and what he did not revive, with the Olympics. The ancient Olympics had lasted 1, 000 years, providing a cultural, athletic, and religious center to the divided world of ancient Greece. The ancient games were pagan, all male, with athletes competing in the nude before spectators who may have been exclusively male (though some contend unmarried women could also observe). Winners received garlands at the games, and more material and spiritual rewards upon return to their home cities, from poems and statues in their honor to free meals and money. They were not amateurs. Moreover, only Greeks could participate in the ancient Olympics, until the Romans conquered Greece.

As the modern games began in 1896, only men could partake, but women could watch. Athletes were clothed. Yet, rather than being limited to only Greeks, or Europeans, or whites, the Baron, a Frenchman, encouraged participation from all countries. Both the narrowness of ancient Greece, and the racism so prevalent among turn-of-the-century leaders, and scientists were rejected by de Coubertin in favor of an international Olympic movement. This was a pivotal decision. As early as 1904 Milwaukee’s George Poage became the first African-American to win a medal at the Olympics, to be followed by many more.

A less fortunate decision made in 1896 by the Baron and his colleagues would haunt the Olympics for almost a century—their requirement that the Olympians be amateurs. This decision was based upon the gentlemanly disdain toward those who earned money through sport (or anything else!). Participation in sport should be motivated by love of sport, not love of money. But how many poor athletes could train enough to be world-class contenders without receiving payment in some manner? Consequently, many of those involved in the early Olympics were well-off or in the military (and even there, as late as 1949, the IOC judged a sergeant to be a professional, whereas an officer was an amateur!).

Because of the class bias of the Olympics, two counter movements rose in the 1920’s and 30’s: one workers’ sports movement was sponsored by various socialist parties; the other created by the Communists. The radicals also appealed to the ancient world and, though Guttmann fails to mention it, the Communists named some of their sports competitions after Spartacus, the Roman slave and gladiator who led a rebellion that nearly toppled the empire.

Following the successful Olympics in Stockholm in 1912, the IOC assigned the next games to Berlin. But World War I forced cancellation of the 1916 Berlin Games, and the Germans were so unpopular, they were not even invited to the 1920 Antwerp or 1924 Paris Games. Germany returned to the 1928 Amsterdam Games, and in 1931 the IOC voted to hold the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. However, in 1933 Hitler became German dictator. Would he permit the Olympics to occur in Berlin—with Jewish, black, and other non-Aryan athletes participating? Traditional German sport had been organized in Turner unions, and the largest, most nationalistic of these groups had denounced the Olympics as international, Jewish sport. Despite their opposition, Hitler endorsed, encouraged, and subsidized the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Guttman devotes a full chapter to the controversial Berlin Games. Ironically, the Communists prepared an anti-Nazi Olimpiada set for 1936 in Barcelona, but, the day before Spain’s first Olympic fest, Gen. Francisco Franco opened the Fascist rebellion against the Spanish Republic. Consequently, the left-wing Olimpiada never opened in Barcelona, but a smaller, anti-Nazi athletic fest did occur in New York City. The 1936 Berlin Games also took place. They were the first Olympics televised, and immortalized in Leni Riefenstahl’s glowing film, Olympia. Although German Jews were generally denied a chance to partake on the German team, the black American Jesse Owens was probably the athlete most cheered by the crowds. Owens was not “snubbed” by Hitler, but Owens did prove to a world audience that non-Aryans possessed gold-medal-winning athletic prowess.

Guttmann informs us that the IOC awarded the 1940 Games to Tokyo! Because of its various wars, Imperial Japan withdrew the offer, and World War II cancelled both the 1940 and 1944 Olympics.

Guttmann fails to relate that after WWII the Soviets created a new, potential competitor to the Olympics, the World Youth Festivals (which grew until the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960’s). However, the IOC accepted the Communist bloc into Olympic sports, and the Soviets pretended that their athletes were “amateurs.”

The Soviets first entered the Olympics in 1952 at Helsinki, and by the 1976 Games at Montreal both the Soviets and the East Germans were winning more medals than the United States. Guttmann tells of boycotts—by many African nations in 1976; by the U. S. and many Western nations, and by many Arab countries, in 1980; by many Communist nations in 1984. Guttmann also describes the terrorist attack upon the Israeli athletes in Olympic Village in Munich in 1972.

Guttman raises the issue of drugs, of steroids, first noticed when syringes were found in the Olympic Village in 1952. He, like others, makes East Germany the scapegoat. But some former East German athletes maintain that what they did was little different from what occurs in the West. At any rate, in 1992 in Barcelona, even though both the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Repulic (East Germany) have ceased to exist, the problem of drugs persisted in Olympic sport.

Guttmann’s last page is sprinkled with politically correct pronouncements condemning the Olympics as cultural imperialism. Instead, he should be praising the Olympics for spreading joy across the globe.

Guttmann mistakenly places Baden-Baden behind the Iron Curtain, and his two tables, if condensed into one, would have been more convenient. Furthermore, Guttmann should have mentioned John Hoberman’s Sport and Political Ideology in the bibliographical essay. He might have noted that baby expert Dr. Benjamin Spock won a medal in rowing at the 1924 Olympics, but a short volume covering a large subject must be selective. Generally, however, Guttmann’s book is error-free.

The ancient Greeks thought that one should be educated in mind, spirit, and body. A few years ago Allan Bloom wrote a best-selling critique of American universities, stressing the development of the mind and spirit. But not once did Bloom mention physical education! The Olympics is not the spelling bee, not the SAT, but the doctoral exam of the body. In the Olympics, we see the best the human body can do—faster, higher, stronger. Guttmann shows how these tournaments of the body, open to all nations, races, religions, and to both sexes, in which each compete equally, grew into one of the most popular spectaculars in the world.


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