The Olympics: a grand tale of hope, scandals, Nazi propaganda, and corporatization

The massive corporate, sport, and media spectacle that is the Olympics is underway. The Games’ charter, in idealistic language, calls for “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” Who doesn’t want that.

Crowds cheer the start of the London Summer Olympics.

I’m a fan of the spirit of international cooperation and competition that are the “ideals” of the Games, but not the dark underbelly that is associated with them and has always been associated with them.

First, the positives. They bring out our best. They can lift you up. I simply loved watching Usain Bolt grab gold in the 100m and 200m sprints in Beijing in 2008, and also the fact that he became an instant positive icon to hundreds of millions of people around the world. (Since then he has become a self-styled global brand.) Or better, I continually marvel at the crop of Kenya’s world-class middle- and long-distance runners, such as Samuel Kamau Wanjiru, who won the marathon in Beijing with style with a blistering 2:06:32 time and then tragically died in mysterious circumstances in 2011.  Kenyans grabbed 14 medals in all in 2008, compared to Jamaica’s 11 – both amazing outcomes for countries that are relatively poor by all measures, and thus less capable of funding national sports programs. To me, these are the Games’ positives.

Kenya’s phenomenal male and female runners, who shine in the Games every four years, especially stand out for me, because most of them are running to escape poverty and build a better life for themselves and their families. A profile of them on the NPR pegged the success of the Kenyan athletes to their training regime at high altitudes in the Rift Valley, discipline, and also the country’s limited economic opportunities, with many of the best runners hoping to win big-money marathons like Chicago’s or Berlin’s.

Of course the dark side of the Olympics is the corporate control of every facet of the Games. As The Nation notes, the Olympics, under the leadership of Juan Antonio Samaranch, a certifiable Spanish fascist, “was transformed from Cold War spectacle into a neoliberal Trojan Horse: an invading corporate sledgehammer of privatization and payoffs.”  The Games have a recent history of corruption (at both the Sydney and Salt Lake City Games). According to the Daily Mail, taxpayers are subsidizing what many critics of the Games say is a giant corporate schmooze event. Taxpayers are underwriting the games by an 8-1 margin compared to private investors. A year before the games began, the Daily Mail noted that “corporate fat cats” got more than half of top games tickets for showpiece events, which are handed out to corporate sponsors, Olympic bigwigs, and their various VIP guests. Only 32,000 out of 80,000 seats in the Olympic stadium – about four in ten – were available to the public for the marquis events.

Transparency International has pointed out the multiple ways corrupt practices taint the Games, through ticket allocations, corporate hospitality, media contracts, match fixing (not proven), construction allocation, old-fashioned cronyism from corrupt states who bring large entourages, and corporate sponsorship itself.  According to Transparency International’s Robert Barrington, “of the 53 official corporate sponsors in London … several have also been subject to investigation under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) or equivalent laws.”

The Olympics in my lifetime have always been mired in problems and issues of the day, and they have reflected conflicts boiling on the international stage and larger cultural and racial currents. Memorable controversies in my lifetime have been the massacre of hundreds of civilians by Mexican government forces just prior to the start of the Mexico City Games in 1968, the brutal killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Games by Palestinian gunmen who also were killed in a botched rescue,  the boycott by 62 nations of the 1980 Moscow games following the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan and retaliatory boycott by 14 nations in response of the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and the terrorist bombing that killed two persons at the 1996 Atlanta Games by a right wing U.S. extremist, murderer, and abortion clinic bomber Eric Robert Rudolph. There are other scandals I could mention, but will not.

Sculptor Karl Abiker’s “Discus Throwers,” Nazi statues embodying the Third Reich’s racial ideology that was showcased at the 1936 summer Olympics, stand guard outside Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.

Perhaps the most abysmal moments in Olympics history were the summer and winter Olympics games in Nazi Germany in 1936. While many claim Nazi ideology of racial superiority was destroyed by Jesse Owens’ four gold medals on the track, the Games largely were a massively successful propaganda operation, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, by the Nazi state as it was marching toward implementing policies that later resulted in genocide against Jews and Gypsies and a war that claimed tens of millions of lives. It is worth watching the documentary of those games by Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. The opening ceremonies show national squads like France’s marching into Berlin’s Olympic Stadium with their arms raised with a “sieg heil” salute to future mass murderer and then-dictator Adolf Hitler (go to 4:47 of the clip on this video — it is truly chilling).

South African Tsuana tribesmen Len Tau (left) and Jan Mashiani (right) both ran the 1904 marathon barefooted.

In the city near where I grew up, St. Louis, the Olympics were hosted in conjunction with and likely in the same spirit as the World’s Fair in 1904 (I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the fair, and know it well). This was a time of imperial expansion, the prevalence of racial eugenics in scientific and political thinking, and entrenched racism and segregation in the United States. The fair was the single largest gathering  of human beings from other cultures ever put on display like a zoo. More than 5,000 persons from different cultures and countries were displayed, the largest group being Filipinos, whose country was taken over by the United States a few years earlier during the Spanish American War. Some of those humans on display, two tribesmen from South Africa, who were part of the “Boer Exhibit,” actually competed in the Olympics marathon and did surprisingly well, placing in ninth and 12th place. They were also the first Africans to compete in the notoriously racially segregated Games at the time.

The 1904 Olympics marathon is notable for many reasons, including a famous scandal and my odd connection to it. I used to live in University City, Mo. (next to St. Louis), and run on a road that was part of the marathon route and see an official marathon mile marker every time I ran, about three times a week. It connected me to the Games in a personal way. That marathon had 32 racers; only 18 finished. The race began at 3 p.m., in 90 fahrenheit (in Midwest humidity!). The winner, Thomas Hicks, doped and nearly died (on strychnine). A false winner , John Lorz, cheated by being driven most of the race. Still another runner nearly died inhaling road dust kicked up by automobiles on dirt roads that were used for the race.

Mile Marker along the route of the 1904 Olympics marathon, a route I partially ran three times a week while in high school — my personal connection to the Games.

While the scandals and problems that were there nearly at the beginning of the Games remain to this day, I still would like to think of the Games as something to inspire. In many ways, I credit that Olympics’ mile marker sign for motivating many of my early morning runs in the dark in high school. I have not stopped running since.