There's a Dark History Behind the Glittering Olympic Games

The athletic spectacle has been tarnished by racism, sexism, and displacement of the poor.

Next week, the XXXI Olympiad will kick off in Rio. By the time the 10,500 athletes from a record 206 countries file into the Maracanã stadium, in front of a global TV audience of nearly one billion, the Olympics will have cost the Brazilian government almost $12 billion—$2 billion of it on security alone. Whole sections of the city have been reconfigured, new transport systems built, and tens of thousands of people uprooted.

This gargantuan spectacle is light years way from the original vision of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat who founded the modern Olympics, says David Goldblatt, author of The Games: A Global History Of The Olympics. Talking from his home in Bristol, England, he explains how the very scale and cost of today’s Olympics may spell their doom; why women were not allowed to compete in track events beyond 200 meters until 1968; and why Usain Bolt’s bid to be the fastest man on earth for the third time will be one of the greatest moments in Olympic history.

Kickbacks, corruption, disdain for the people they are meant to serve, political skullduggery. I am talking about FIFA, soccer's governing body, here. But is this also a good description of the International Olympics Committee (IOC)?

Yes, that is a pretty good description of the IOC. To be fair to the institution, its last great meltdown occurred in the late 1990s to early 2000s, when the Salt Lake City scandal erupted. It emerged that Salt Lake City, which won the 2002 Winter Games, had made an extraordinary array of payments to IOC members—from treatment for somebody’s bad knee to house-flipping—to ensure their votes. There was a certain cleaning out of the stables and reform. At the level of sheer untainted corruption—like the taking of bribes to allocate television or hosting rights, which has been going on at FIFA—the IOC is broadly clear of those problems. The problems of the IOC are the Olympics themselves. The sheer scale and cost of the games and the terrible costs that are invariably born by the poorest people living in the host cities are the soft underbelly of the IOC at the moment.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Introduce us to the spiritual godfather of the games, Baron de Coubertin, and map out his vision for the Olympics.

Baron de Coubertin was a French aristocrat born to a strict Catholic Jesuit family, who grew up in the world of the French Third Republic, when the purpose of an aristocrat was no longer clear. He was a man searching for a mission. In the emerging sport cultures of North America and Britain, he comes across the contribution of sport to the transformation of nations and humanity. Above all, what he finds there is the idea of the "gentleman sporting amateur aristocrat." When he came up with the idea of reinventing the ancient games of Olympia in a modern guise, his vision was to create a display of manly virtue—an incredible phrase, but that’s how he described it [Laughs]—in which the moral, athletic, and physical brilliance of amateur sporting gentlemen would provide not only the esprit de corps and energy they required to go on and rule their various empires, but an elevating example to the rest of us.

How much do we know about the original Olympics in ancient Greece?

We know a lot about the ancient games. Not as much as we’d like and probably quite a lot more than de Coubertin would have had available to him. The Olympic games of the ancient world happened every four years in the sanctuary of Olympia. Five percent of the freeborn men of the Hellenic world would trek their way there. Most of them would stay in the original Olympic village, which rather than the plush surroundings of today, was a sort of tent village beset by the terrible dusty heat of August in Greece. We know from writings at the time that there were also infestations of insects. [Laughs]

Above all, it was a religious event. The Temple of Zeus was the center of attention, and offerings to Zeus formed an integral part of the games. But the idea of amateurism, which de Coubertin made so much of, did not exist. Many of the people who competed at the ancient games were, in fact, professional athletes. You would come home from the games with your laurel and prizes, plus status, public office, and a whole variety of gifts in kind. The idea that this was the home of gentlemanly amateurism 2,500 years ago is, I’m afraid to say, a myth.

The Olympics are a useful lens through which to view questions of ethnicity and race. Tell us about the bizarre “tribal games” in St Louis in 1904.

The disgraceful anthropology games, or anthropology days as they were called, were the creation of what was the then department of anthropology at the St. Louis World’s Fair, for which the Olympics was just the athletic side show. There was a debate within the athletic and anthropological community at the time as to whether people of color from colonized countries were natural athletes. So they thought they’d do some experiments to prove the veracity of this racist anthropology. They gathered together people from different ethnic backgrounds and got them to perform Olympic sports, then tested their times and performances against white, collegiate American athletes.

It was a farce. Two days before the events took place they were still planning swimming events for a group of people who didn’t know how to swim. [Laughs] Pygmies from Central Africa were asked to throw the 56 pound weight. They simply refused, saying that it was too silly to even contemplate.

The Berlin games of 1936 became famous for Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Olympia. Explain its importance.

It’s important to remember how extraordinary it was to have a visual record that tried to capture something of the grandeur and drama of the event in a way TV does now. It’s one of the main reasons that the Olympics are so huge. If they weren’t on TV, they’d be getting a fraction of the interest they do. Film was the technology of that moment and Leni Riefenstahl brings a level of technical expertise and aesthetic vision that none of the news reels comes close to. For all its problematic political position, its closeness to and support of Nazi ideology, the film is technically an extraordinary aesthetic triumph.

The Olympics have also been a driver of gender equality. I was amazed to read that until 1968 women were not allowed to compete in track events longer than 200 meters. Give us some context.

It was men that created the IOC and their vision of sport was strictly masculine. De Coubertin is on record as saying that the Olympic games should be reserved for men only and that the reward for their performance should be the polite applause of women. [Laughs] As late as 1924, there are fewer than 100 women at the games, confined primarily to swimming, diving, and tennis. Amsterdam in 1928 is a huge breakthrough where you have the first women’s track and field events.

But there’s an insistence that there can be no long distance track and field events. The 800 meters becomes infamous because the two women who come first and second are completely exhausted as they cross the line. This was deemed so unacceptable and dangerous to the health of global womanhood that the IOC said, “Right, no women’s events over 200 meters.” It’s not until 1968 that this changes and not until 1984 that women run the marathon.

Today, we are approaching 50 percent parity in the Olympics. And for me, one of the most exciting things about Olympic history is seeing the long evolution and struggle, in terms of race, gender and disability, from what started as a game for white aristocratic men to truly become the games of humanity.

Beijing 2008 smashed all the records for cost and construction. It also resulted in displacement of urban populations. Talk about the clearance of Beijing's hutongs.

When the Beijing Olympics was staged, the Chinese authorities took it as an opportunity to completely retrofit the city, which was one of the reasons that the games came in with a bill of $40 billion. One of the features of Beijing’s transformation was the decimation of the hutongs, the old, traditional streets often with poor sanitation and overcrowding, but with much of the atmosphere and intimacy of the old city. Many of those were swept away to create bland forms of modernist development, which exclude people and create neutral, dead spaces within the city. It also involved somewhere between half to one million people being displaced.

There is a long tradition of this. Even at games where there has been a smaller level of building, there has been a very determined effort to effectively socially cleanse the Olympic city of the homeless, drug addicts, or vagrants. Atlanta didn't build very much but still managed to deport 25,000 homeless people and close most of the city’s facilities for the homeless. In the context of Rio, there has been 100 years of struggle over land. For many generations, people have occupied the most difficult and inaccessible land to build their own communities, though almost invariably without infrastructure, sanitation, or policing.

Numbers vary, but we’re hearing between 35,000 to 70,000 people have been displaced during the buildup to the Rio games. It is not only the displacement but the manner of the displacement. The use of force and intimidation is widespread, the deals people are offered are almost invariably well below market rates. At one level, I’m a believer in these great cosmopolitan festivals of humanity. But we cannot keep buying them at the cost of people’s homelessness and their communities!

Two billion dollars will be spent on security alone in Rio. Looking forward, what other issues do the Olympics face? And what are you excited by?

As to the future, you only have to look at how the bidding for the Olympic games is going at the moment. For the 2022 Winter Games, only two cities were eventually prepared to bid. One was Almaty, in Kazakhstan, which has an even worse human rights record than Beijing, which won the games. But Beijing has no mountains; the mountains are 120 miles away. [Laughs]

For the 2024 Olympic games, we are down to just four bidders. Rome is almost certainly going to withdraw under its radical new mayor, and Budapest, frankly, is a makeweight. So we’re looking at Los Angeles versus Paris, just two cities. If the costs continue to spiral, and if a more socially equitable participatory Olympics can’t be created, I worry for the future of the Games. In recent years, the people of Hamburg, Boston, and Oslo have all demonstrated such high levels of public opposition that those cities, otherwise perfectly capable of staging the games, refused to do so. The problem for the Olympics now is the Olympics itself.

What I’m excited about for Rio 2016, beyond everything, is to see if Usain Bolt can do it a third time. He’s the most incredible Olympian athlete of the 21st century, perhaps ever! The prospect that he might again be the world’s fastest man, even as he ages, is an extraordinary prospect. It is those spellbinding moments of absolute human achievement, married, in his case, with extraordinary charm, that make one excited about the Olympic Games.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter.

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