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THE WEN, THE OLIMPICS AND THE BARON

By Binoy Kampmark

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The Montréal Review, July 2012

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But what is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster called, by the silly coxcombs of the press, 'the metropolis of empire'?

--William Cobbett, 'Rural Rides', in Cobbett 's Weekly Register , Jan 5, 1822

Free peoples do not have the right to support the Berlin Olympic Games.

--Heinrich Mann, Internationale Sportrundschau, 1936

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It all seemed incurably stained to begin with, though it began as an experiment made for moulding the human character. When looking at the record of the Olympics, a negative image emerges. The 2004 Olympics, held in Athens, may well have shored up the transport system of a decaying city in part but the expense busted a country's budget, doing no small part in affecting the current state of affairs that is plaguing Greece. The legacy of sheer amoral destructiveness caused by blown out budgets and ruthless governmental policies remains the Olympic legacy.

When the now very deposed 'Red' Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London, spelt out his justifications for the benefits of London 2012, it seemed interplanetary in its belief. Writing in March 2007 for the Guardian as mayor, Livingstone spoke of the unlocking of billions of pounds in transport in vestment, the regeneration of Stratford and assistance to 'the most deprived communities in the country, bringing it with it 40,000 new homes and 50,000 new jobs.' He also launched several aimed salvoes against Simon Jenkins as a silly Cassandra without sense. Jenkins was silly for contesting the idea of an 'Olympic village' to house what he termed 'Persian monarchs'.

Such arguments are ancient, suggesting that the Olympics has very little to do with the competition that takes place on it, and everything with what happens off it. Beijing 2008 saw an extensive use of surveillance technologies employed by the Chinese authorities and oppressive measures of population control.

Most sinister of all, the Olympics offers avenues for politicization that are legitimized by a naïve acceptance that sport somehow or rather remains outside the sphere of politics. 'Believe me', claimed the German author Heinrich Heine in 1936, 'those international sportsmen who go to Berlin are nothing more than gladiators, prisoners and entertainers for the dictator who already considers himself master of the world.'

This is all a far cry from the original games, which took place in Greece 293 times from 776 B.C. to 393 A.D.  The Ancient Greeks, in fact, were good enough to give us a remarkable working definition of truce even as they were slaughtering each other. Marc Golden's Sport in the Ancient World from A to Z provides an explanation. 'Truce (Greek ekecheiria, hieromenia, spondai). A period before and after the Greek festivals during which the territory or the host city was inviolate and competitors, spectators and others had safe passage to and from it.'

Those who are students of the Olympic philosophy should be able to point out the central, problematic figure behind the ideal that came to be called Olympism. In an age when it was popular to wax lyrical about peace even as imperial forces presided over most of the globe, the pedagogue Baron Pierre de Courbetin took an interest in internationalizing education policies through sport. In 1892, he chewed over reviving the Olympic tournament, which was duly staged in Athens four years later.

A surface reading of the Baron's words behind this nostalgic revival are innocuous. Wars are the product of chronic misunderstandings between nations. Prejudices between races had to be ameliorated for peace to be attained. 'To attain this end, what better means than to bring the youth of all countries periodically together for amicable trials of muscular strength and agility?' His Ode to Sport similarly links sport to peace, speaking of forging 'happy bonds between the peoples by drawing them together in reverence for strength which is controlled, organized and self-disciplined.'

A closer inspection of Coubertin's idealistic aspirations, the heady stuff that speaks of peace, ethics and elite sports, suggest that the state of play is less relevant to the games than its strictly controlled belligerence. This is ceremonial war at work and triumph of the strong over the weak, a weeding out of the meek in favour of the fittest. Playfulness is something to be damned, and states and Olympians have done so since 1896 with conspicuous perseverance.

The historical uses of the Olympics have not detracted from this ideal. The Hitler regime in 1936 made the most naked use of the principle, foiled only by the fact that strength was not always on the side of the politicized Caucasian figure of muscle. Just because one was a member of the Aryan race was no absolute guarantee that one could race to begin with. 

Even more interesting in this regard was Coubertin's stance to the Nazi regime. The German President of the Organizing Committee of the Berlin Olympics Theodor Lewald would write of Coubertin at the end of his introduction to Olympische Erinnerungen (1938), that the French pedagogue 'understood and enthusiastically saluted the development of the new Germany under her Great Führer.' 

In a broadcasted speech at the closing of the Berlin games, Coubertin, in praising German efforts, spoke of those 'difficulties' the Führer had met, and the confronting of 'the disloyal and perfidious attacks' (read boycotts) that had been directed at the games. The line between olympism and celebratory fascism is a blurred one.

The Olympics have provided settings for racial exhibitionism, matters of zoological fascination rather than racial understanding. Individuals of supposed Olympic worth such as Avery Brundage do not fare well on closer inspection given his persistent obsession with the idea that 'the games must go on'. Whether it's Hitler on the one hand or the murder of Israeli athletes on the other (in 1972), sport must continue is curious amoral course.

With all of this insidious baggage, it's a wonder that more have not been calling for the abolition of the games, banishing this cyst from humanity's less glorious endeavors. Instead, it has become indispensable, its ideals praises as systematically as they are violated. London, however, offers its own curious flavour when it comes to the politics of staging the Olympics.

London itself is no stranger to Olympic perversions. The Olympics of 1908 was meant to be something of a high point, the extravagant pinnacle of empire. Londoners were meant to know better than anybody else as to how to run such an event - the Brit pedigree for putting on a corking show still retains its sense of false allure. Former BBC producer Graeme Kent's Olympic Follies provides readers with a warning of sorts. In the final analysis, the only reason it was given to London lay in a dispute between Milan and Rome. Flags for all the nations were not provided. The Americans were furious at the British team in the tug of war contest that they retained their working boots.

But if the Olympics does nothing else to London, it will offer a degree of comedy value, a bubbling chaotic mirth that will baffle, confuse and enchant those willing to part with their pounds. That, at least, is the hope of Marina Hyde (Guardian, May 18). 'It's expensive mirth, certainly. But having paid for it, and with it heading unstoppably down the slipway towards you, its time to take whatever pleasure out of it you can.'

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College , Cambridge .  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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