Ah, Leap Years. So many rare, exciting things happening in the same twelve months. A 29th day in February. US Presidential elections. And the Summer Olympics! Guess what? It’s 2012, and in just a few months the XXX Olympiad will officially kick off in London. What do the Olympics mean to people around the world? It’s a celebration of international peace and cooperation, harmony and goodwill, glorious pageantry and a rare view into the beauty of the human spirit and form at their most highly developed levels.
Eh, okay. I can buy that. But if you’re going to get very culturally disparate humans together from every corner of the globe, no matter what the high-minded motivation, we’re also going to take our shadier baggage with us. Of course I could write about all the great and wonderful things the Olympics bring us, but that just wouldn’t be as much fun. What’s the Olympian subject of this blog post? Why, controversy of course!
Being the professional realist that I am, I have scientifically concluded that Olympic controversy can be broken down into three broad categories in order of ascending severity: competitive, municipal, and national/ideological. I will attempt to briefly address a single example of an historical high(low?)light in each subject.
First, the competitive. This is the stuff that has to do more with individual people. The athletes and officials that arrive at each Olympics represent their respective countries and are the best in the world. They have trained their entire lives for this moment. Motivation, tensions, and emotions are at a fever pitch.
In 1972 the American basketball team was still all-time undefeated in Olympic play. In the final game they took a 50-49 lead against the Soviets with three seconds to play. The referees then stopped the game with one second left and added three more seconds because the Soviets had been complaining they had signaled for a time-out at the three second mark that wasn’t awarded. The Soviets then inbounded the ball a second time and the horn signaled the apparent end of the game with an American gold medal victory. The Americans celebrated a second time, but both teams were then ordered back on the court again, the referees now saying the clock had not been properly reset. Play resumed a third time with the Soviets this time throwing the ball the length of the court for a game-winning lay-up at the buzzer. This time the referees said it was final. The shocked Americans refused to accept the silver medal. An American appeal was lost 3-to-2, with all three judges voting for the Soviets members of Communist countries. To this day the American basketball team refuses to accept the silver medal; they sit in a vault in Lusanne, Switzerland. American team captain Kenny Davis has it written into his will that his wife and children are not allowed to accept the silver medal either.
The second category of Olympic controversy is municipal. By this I am referring to the city government and infrastructure that hosts the Games. The prestige that goes with hosting the Olympics is enormous; the entire world is focused on your city for nearly a month. Politics and money clearly play a central role in landing and producing the Games. Corruption and Pollyannish financial predictions are common.
In 1970 Montreal was named the site of the 1976 Summer Olympics, allegedly in part because it was not a superpower during this highly-charged period. Excitement to host Canada’s first ever Olympiad was intense; Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau predicted “The Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby.” But the Olympics ended up being an utter financial disaster; before they began the province of Quebec had to step in to help Montreal fund it; the tower that was supposed to manipulate the retractable roof on the Olympic Stadium could not be completed in time, and ultimately Montreal would be mired in debt for the next thirty years. The Olympic Stadium was not paid off until 2006; by then it was hopelessly out of date and the final insult had come a year earlier when the Montreal Expos Major League baseball team had relocated to Washington, DC, leaving the aging stadium empty. The whole intractable mess was summed up in a tasteless political cartoon showing an obviously pregnant Drapeau on the phone inquiring about a particular medical procedure.
The third Olympic controversy category, and my personal favorite to read about or discuss, is the national/ideological kind. In theory the Olympics are supposed to be about the humanity of the individual athletes; the International Olympic Committee itself doesn’t even officially keep score of national medals. In actuality the Olympics do become about the nations themselves — who follows the Olympics without keeping track of their country’s victories? More importantly, the Olympics become a world stage for the expression of nationalism and ideology.
No Olympiad is more associated with nationalism and ideology than the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics–the “Nazi” Olympics. Berlin was voted on as the Olympic site in 1931; two years later the Nazis came to power and in typical Nazi style seized the opportunity as a showcase for Nazi German pageantry and propaganda.
Among other things, the Nazis rounded up thousands of homeless Gypsies and put them in camps, but also temporarily took down the now-ubiquitous anti-Semitic signs. The German national team was composed almost entirely of Nazi-approved “Aryan” athletes. That most famous of Olympic traditions, the running and lighting of the torch, was a Nazi innovation of 1936.
In simple terms the 1936 Olympics may best be understood by a juxtaposition of Nazi Germany and the United States. The United States seriously considered boycotting the Berlin Olympics in protest of Nazi dogma. American Jewish groups were generally against participation, while African-American groups tended to support participation as a means of undermining Nazi claims of racial superiority. The United States would ultimately compete, but the city council of Los Angeles refused to spend $2,000 of taxpayer money to ship the 1932 Olympic flag to the Nazis.
No discussion of the 1936 Olympics would be complete without mention of African-American sprinter Jesse Owens’ track and field domination. He won four gold medals, including a four-man relay that included two Jewish-Americans and a second African-American. One of his gold medals came in the long jump. It was here that Luz Long, a visibly textbook “Aryan” German, struck up an impromptu friendship with Owens and gave him technical advice that Owens later credited with helping him win the gold. Long won the silver, was the first to congratulate Owens, and they walked arm-in-arm to the dressing room in front of the Nazi audience. In 1943 Long, a German soldier, would die of wounds suffered in combat in Italy. Hitler infamously refused to attend the medal presentations for the rest of the Olympics. Ultimately in 1936 the Germans would win the most medals and the United States would come in second.
So as July, 2012 rolls around, I will be eagerly awaiting the London Olympic Games like much of the rest of the developed world. I will enjoy the international flavor, the pageantry, the competition, even the architecture. But I will be waiting to see what kind of yet-unimaginable controversy, mild or severe, genuine or manufactured, flares up. It always does.