The Olympics: Politics and sport don’t mix apparently.

The Olimpiastadion, Berlin, 1936 – a place where important things happened. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

The Olympics: Politics and sport don’t mix apparently.

“Friendships born on the field of athletic strife are the real gold of competition. Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust.” Jesse Owens

The Olympics in the modern era were the result of the vision and hard work of a French noble called Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937). He was at least partly inspired by the popular games which had been taking place in the small English village of Much Wenlock in Shropshire since 1850. This gathering, which is still held each year, aimed, “to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock”, an ideal which the Baron wanted to share on a far grander scale.

Baron de Coubertin was a regular visitor to Much Wenlock and he was much inspired by what he saw. After several years of planning, athletes gathered in Athens in 1896 for the first modern Olympic Games, the city being chosen, of course, because of the ancient games which had been held at Olympia from 776 BC to 393 BC. At those original games, winners received nothing more than a wreath of olive leaves, women were banned from competing and glory was all. There is no space here for a full history of the Olympics but some brief observations on a few key moments in recent history will hopefully show how fascinating and important the games have been in political as well as sporting terms.

The Baron himself: Pierre de Coubertin. He actually won a gold medal at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912 – for poetry. They really did have a range of competitions in those days and he would probably have had a chance if they had held a bushy moustache competition.

(Author: Photograph from Bain News Service; Source: From the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division digital ID cph.3c22269)

1936 – BERLIN OLYMPICS

An obvious starting point for a discussion of politics in the Olympics is Berlin, 1936. For anyone visiting the city, the stadium there should be on the agenda: a Nazi building of beauty and importance, and the venue for one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time. The hero who dominated the Berlin Olympics of 1936 was an all-time great, namely the Black American star, Jesse Owens (1913-80). Owens’ life is a story which is truly worth knowing, not just for the fact that he won four gold medals in 1936, setting a record for athletics at one Olympics which was not matched until Carl Lewis at Los Angeles in 1984. (Some of you will mention Mark Spitz, who won seven golds in swimming at Munich in 1972 and Michael Phelps who went even further to win eight golds at Beijing in 2008, again in the pool. But four athletics golds is still a record for one Olympic Games). Owens’ achievements were remarkable in themselves but they have always had an extra dimension because of the context in which they happened. The place, the times, the opponents and the spectators all contributed to the glory of what he did.

Owens was a black athlete at a time when segregation was rife in the USA. Racism was the norm during much of his life at home but, by competing in Germany when the Nazis were in control, he faced one of the most racist systems in history. When he went to Berlin, Owens was already a legend of track and field having broken three world records and equalled a fourth, all within 45 minutes at a meeting in the state of Michigan, one afternoon in 1935. He was outstanding at the long jump and at sprinting, where he competed at 100m, 200m and in relays. However, at the time when his world records were set, he could not even get a scholarship because of his skin colour, having to work in part-time jobs to fund his athletics; many lesser athletes found such scholarships easy to come by.

Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics.

(Author: Unknown; Source: derivative work by Durova of Image:Jesse_Owens.jpg – reproduction of photograph in “Die Olympischen Spiele, 1936″ p.27, 1936.)

In 1936, Adolf Hitler was looking for a major propaganda victory at the Berlin Olympics. For the Nazis, the Olympics were a wonderful opportunity to show the world the glories of their system. Berlin had been awarded the games before Hitler came to power and he wanted to take every advantage he could from this opportunity. With the world in economic depression following the Great Crash of 1929, Germany would put on a show that would show it was stronger and more dynamic than any country in the world. It was to be not only a glorious event, but it would also show the superiority of the Aryan race as blond-haired, blue-eyed athletes from Germany were expected to dominate the Games. Indeed, Germany did finish top of the medals table, but they had far more athletes than anyone else and they had been supported in training to an extent no other team could match.

The Berlin Olympics saw several innovations, such as electronic timing, the Olympic Torch and the filming of the games. The film was made by one of the most important, famous and controversial film makers of all time, Leni Riefenstahl (pictured above during filming). She produced ‘Olympia’ using some dramatic new techniques of filming, creating a record of the games which is well worth watching today – as is her most famous film, the horrible and extraordinary ‘Triumph of the Will’.

(Author: Unknown, August, 1936; Source: German Federal Archives)

Hitler thoroughly expected success in the high-profile events, such as the 100 metres sprint, and this is where Jesse Owens achieved his greatest fame, winning gold in 103 seconds, an Olympic record – and remember there were no starting blocks and the track was ash. Hitler is alleged to have refused to meet Owens after he won the 100 metres and his other events but this is pretty much a myth. What is true is that Hitler had upset Olympic officials early on in the games by greeting only the German gold medallists. They told him to meet all or none in future and he settled for not meeting any, which included Owens. But there is no doubt that Hitler was appalled by Owens’ victories, at least according to his famous architect and confidante, Albert Speer.

Jesse Owens won gold medals in the 100m, 200m and the 100m relay, but it was in the long jump that sportsmanship really stood out. Owens was warming up before the heats and took a practise jump. Without warning, the officials classed this as his first jump. Furious and distracted, Owens fouled on his second jump and faced the prospect of elimination if he failed with his third jump. At this point, one of his German opponents, Carl ‘Luz’ Long, spoke to him and gave him some advice, telling him how good he was and that he could easily jump from well behind the board and still qualify. Owens took the advice, qualified and went on to win gold – leaving Long with the silver medal. Long was delighted and apparently very proud that he had helped Owens win through.

The photo below shows Luz Long and Jesse Owens at the Olympics. Long had actually approached Owens on their first day in the Berlin stadium. With Hitler and 100 000 spectators watching, Long shook Owens’ hand and chatted with him, a public display that went against the Nazi propaganda as they looked down on Owens as an ‘inferior’ person. Owens treasured their friendship, as the letter below shows.

Jesse Owens and Luz Long during the long-jump medal ceremony, 1936.

(Author: Unknown; Source: The original can be viewed here)

He wrote it to Owens in 1942, just after the United States declared war on Germany:

My heart is telling me that this is perhaps the last letter of my life. If that is so, I beg one thing from you. When the war is over, please go to Germany, find my son and tell him about his father. Tell him about the times when war did not separate us and tell him that things can be different between men in this world.

“Your brother, Luz.”

Luz Long died on July 13, 1943. He had been wounded in action, fighting for the German Army, and was treated at a British field hospital. He was only 30 and was buried in a war cemetery in Sicily. In 1951, Jesse Owens kept his promise and found Long’s son in Germany. He said that the thing he valued most from his Olympic experience was his friendship with Luz Long, more so even than the medals and fame he won.

Remarkably, rather than being able to return to the USA as a great hero, Owens suffered at the hands of the American establishment. He received no recognition from President Roosevelt, a major negative point against one of America’s most famous Presidents. Nor did his successor, Harry Truman, acknowledge Owens’ achievements in any way. On his way home from the Games, Owens took some paid employment as a way of funding his expenses for the Olympics. Avery Brundage, the head of the US delegation, made sure Owens was stripped of his amateur status for doing some advertising, and so his career was brought to an end just as he faced a period of greatness. Brundage was a seriously important, and most unpleasant, man in Olympic history and he comes up again later in this section. Ruined by his loss of amateur status, Owens was reduced to racing against horses as a gimmick to make a living, a tragic development in the life of a truly great athlete.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the story was that, straight after being greeted as a hero on the streets of Nazi Berlin after the Olympics, Jesse Owens returned to the USA to suffer continued racism. In New York, a reception was held in honour of the Olympic athletes at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Jesse Owens, the greatest champion of the Berlin Olympic Games, had to go upstairs in the lift used by the waiters because the lifts were segregated and the public lifts were for ‘whites only’. Nazi Germany was evil but the American system was hardly a beacon of justice and integrity.

Since Owens died in 1980, there has been some evidence to suggest that the above story is not entirely true. One American commentator, Grantland Rice, said he watched Owens through binoculars during the entire qualifying for the long jump competition. At no point did Owens have any contact with Long, according to Rice, making it impossible for Long to have given the famous advice. And in an article published in his local newspaper, a week after the long jump final, Long spoke of his joy and excitement at seeing Hitler applauding his fifth round jump which tied Owens at 7.67 metres. This is presented as evidence that Long was a loyal Nazi who was positive about Hitler, although one has to ask what else he was supposed to say in an age when devotion to Hitler was so widespread and so ‘expected’. In 1965, it was said that Owens admitted to ‘enhancing’ the story of his friendship with Long because it was what the people wanted to hear. In history, as in life, these difficulties over interpretation and truth often exist. Maybe the friendship and duel between Jesse Owens and Luz Long was not quite like the story that has been passed down over the decades. But so powerful is that story, that it is hard to see its power ever being diluted. The photos of them lying on the grass in the Olympic Stadium the evidence of Long running to hug and congratulate Owens after his final jump and the last letter Long wrote before his death in 1943 – they all stand as testimony to a remarkable friendship.

1956 – MELBOURNE OLYMPICS

The Melbourne Games were the first Olympics to be held after the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, made his ‘Secret Speech’ in 1956. This speech, which is covered in more detail in the section on Khrushchev himself, had criticised Joseph Stalin, the hard-line Communist ruler of the USSR who had died in 1953. Khrushchev’s speech had sent shock waves around the world as it seemed to promise greater freedom and opportunity for those who lived in the Communist world behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. The Melbourne Olympics were, of course, in Australia and were, therefore, the first Games to be held in the southern hemisphere. They were not held in July-August but were moved to November-December, which meant they came just after the Hungarian Uprising (see Chapter 22) had been put down by troops of the Red Army and the Warsaw Pact. There had been huge loss of life and many people in Hungary had been deeply shaken by what had happened. The surprising scene for a symbolic Hungarian revenge would be the swimming pool in Melbourne, and, more specifically, the Olympic water polo tournament.

Hungary has a great tradition in swimming, having many outdoor pools and producing some fine swimmers over the years. The country has always been very strong in water polo, too, and. Hungary’s team made it to the semi-finals in Melbourne where there they had to face the team from the Soviet Union. Although the Hungarians actually had a stronger team, the Soviets considered themselves favourites, being from a much bigger country, and almost expected the Hungarians to collapse, respecting their superiority and power in the political world. Nothing could have been further from the truth and the match became the stuff of legend. The Hungarians won 4-0 but it is remembered not so much for its outcome as for the violence of the game and the blood that stained the pool by the end. One of the Hungarians, Ervin Zádor (1935-2012), left the pool with blood streaming from a cut eye after being punched by one of the USSR team. It became known as the ‘Blood in the water’ match and it was an iconic moment in sport, a great example of ‘David against Goliath’.

Ervin Zádor: Photo link

The Hungarians went on to beat the Yugoslav team 2-1 in the final and so win their fourth Water Polo Gold Medal. But the glory of victory could never make up for the horrors of the suffering in the Hungarian Uprising.

THE MEDALS TABLES AND DRUGS: 1948-1988

The Cold War officially saw no direct fighting between US and Soviet forces but tension and conflict was everywhere as each side aimed for superiority. In a dramatic move in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev had promised a change in Communism’s approach to the West. Under ‘peaceful coexistence’, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev promised that the USSR would crush the USA by non-violent competition rather than by force. One example of this was to be the rise of athletics under Communism. By defeating Western athletes, the Communist system in the USSR and Eastern Europe would show itself to be a better way of life. ‘Better’ meant superior in attitude, tactics, diet and the like. In reality, it’s fair to say that a lot of it would also be down to professionalism and drugs. In the days before serious drug testing, almost anything could be used by athletes and, in this period, almost anything was. The most dramatic examples were seen in the power events for women where records set in the 1970s are well beyond anything achieved today. It was mainly down to huge injections of testosterone. It reached such levels in some women that they developed stubble and some have since had sex changes to become men. These athletes often suffered enormous horrors in the name of ‘peaceful coexistence’.

The Olympics became the focus of much attention and competition for the Superpowers from the 1950s onwards,. Whereas the Games had been dominated by the older Western powers and the host nations before World War II, the Superpowers came to prominence in the post-war period. The Medals tables shows this quite clearly:

Date and host city First (Gold medals) Second (Gold medals) Third (Gold medals)
1948 – London USA – 38 Sweden – 16 France – 10
1952 – Helsinki USA  – 40 USSR – 22 Hungary- 16
1956 – Melbourne USSR – 37 USA – 32 Australia – 13
1960 – Rome USSR – 43 USA – 34 Italy – 13
1964 – Tokyo USA – 36 USSR – 30 Japan – 16
1968 – Mexico USA – 45 USSR – 29 Japan – 11
1972 – Munich USSR – 50 USA – 33 East Germany – 20
1976 – Montreal USSR – 49 East Germany – 40 USA – 34
1980 – Moscow USSR – 80 East Germany – 47 Bulgaria – 8
1984 – Los Angeles USA – 83 Romania – 20 West Germany – 17
1988 – Seoul USSR – 55 East Germany – 37 USA – 36

 

There is so much to understand about the Olympics that they are a series of books on their own. But here it is worth noting just a few things.

Firstly, the medals table was won by either the USA or the USSR every time between 1948 and 2004. China broke that domination in 2008 and 2012. This is partly due to the fact that the USA and the USSR were large countries in terms of population and wealth but it really bears testimony to the fact that the Olympics became an event of great significance for both countries as the Cold War developed. For the USSR, under Khrushchev and Brezhnev in particular, sporting success was a way of showing the power of the nation and the Communist way of life. They could not really compete with the West in areas which demanded high levels of technology or established skills, such as motor racing, horse racing or golf, but they could develop in athletics, gymnastics and swimming. And, of course, the USA had to respond as leader of the ‘free world’ and the richest nation on earth.

Secondly, look at the rise of East Germany. With a population of only 18-20 million, just a third of the size of West Germany and with far less economic power, it came third in the world in 1972 and then second in 1976, 1980 and 1988. This represents extraordinary progress – with some serious drug abuse and an aggressive selection and training policy behind it.

Thirdly, there were a number of bans and boycotts which affected most of the Olympics between 1948 and 1984. Most of these were to do with the broader political situations of the time. Germany and Japan were banned from London in 1948 while the USSR refused to send a team. In 1956, the Melbourne Games saw seven teams absent because of the Suez Crisis (Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq), the Hungarian Revolution (Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands) and the situation in Taiwan/Formosa (the People’s Republic of China). In 1964, South Africa was banned because of its laws on apartheid, a ban which would last until 1992, while North Korea and Indonesia withdrew because of a dispute with the IOC. Munich in 1972 saw the absence of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the face of a threatened ban by African countries, as the country was led by a white-minority after it had declared independence from the UK. At Montreal in 1976, twenty-two African countries refused to compete, in protest at New Zealand playing South Africa at Rugby Union, while the People’s Republic of China continued its boycott over Taiwan. In 1980, the US team and many other Western countries abstained in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Next, the USSR and fourteen of its allies amongst the Communist countries boycotted the 1984 games in protest at the USA’s boycott of 1980 – and that led to Romania coming second as it was far stronger than most Western countries despite being relatively small. And, finally, North Korea surprised no one when they boycotted the Seoul Games of 1988 in a general protest against South Korea. In 1992, there was no formal boycott of the Olympic Games for the first time since Rome in 1960.

Lastly, a point about world records, especially in the women’s power events, as referred to above. Here is a list of a few records still on the books after quite a few years. Major progress has been made in so many other events while these have not been bettered. And so many are from those really successful countries: the USA, USSR and Communist Eastern Europe. Note that drug tests were stepped up after 1988. By any measure, this all looks rather fishy.

Events for women Athlete/country Date
High jump Stefka Kostadinova – Bulgaria 1987
Long Jump Galina Christyakova – USSR 1988
Shot Put Natalya Lisovskaya – USSR 1987
Discus Gabriele Reinsch – East Germany 1988
Heptathlon Jackie Joyner-Kersee – USA 1988
100m Florence Griffith-Joyner – USA 1988
100m hurdles Yordanka Donkova – Bulgaria 1988
200m Florence Griffith-Joyner – USA 1988
400m Marita Koch – East Germany 1985
800m Jarmila Kratochvilova – Czechoslovakia 1983

 

1968 – MEXICO OLYMPICS 

The Mexico Olympics took place at a time of great upheaval in the world and especially in the USA. It was during the Vietnam War and while the Civil Rights Movement was becoming increasingly violent. The year had already seen the assassinations of both the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, and the Democrat presidential candidate, Bobby Kennedy. A new figure had appeared in the Civil rights Movement: Stokeley Carmichael had become Chairman of SNCC (‘snick’ or the ‘Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’, a civil rights organisation which had moved towards supporting aggression) and was also ‘Honorary Prime Minister’ of the violent ‘Black Panther’ movement which advocated an aggressive approach to Civil Rights for Black Americans. In 1968, Carmichael was proclaiming ‘Black Power’ and ‘Black is beautiful’, while the Black Panthers, led in their actions by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, were challenging the police on the streets of the USA. In addition to these events, Muhammad Ali, the world heavyweight boxing champion, had been imprisoned for three years in 1967 for refusing to join the army and fight in Vietnam. There were huge racial tensions around that filtered through to the US Olympic team that travelled south for the Mexico games.

The 1968 Olympics had already seen traumatic events with the deaths of many people in riots before the games even began. However, despite this huge tragedy, the incident which came to make the Mexico Olympics famous actually happened after the 200 metres final. It was won by a black athlete, Tommie Smith (b. 1944) of the USA, in a world record time of 19.83 seconds, while a second black American sprinter, John Carlos (b. 1945), won the bronze. In silver medal position was an Australian, Peter Norman (1942-2006). At the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos decided to make a protest about Civil Rights in the USA. They each put on a single black glove. They wore no shoes and rolled their trousers up, a symbol of the poverty of slaves who had gone without shoes in the past. And rather than putting their hands on their hearts and singing the national anthem, as was normal for US athletes, they bowed their heads, refused to sing and raised their fists in the salute of the Black Power movement. To put it mildly, all hell broke loose, with condemnation coming from many different people in the USA and in the IOC (the International Olympic Committee).

The President of the IOC at this time was none other than our old friend Avery Brundage, the man who had blocked Jewish athletes from competing in the 1936 relay team. Based on his previous record, it came as no surprise when Brundage ordered that both Smith and Carlos be expelled from the US team and from the Olympic village. When the US officials refused, Brundage threatened to expel the whole US team, so they then complied. The hypocrisy of this was extraordinary: Brundage had been present in Berlin for the 1936 Games as president of the US Committee and had done nothing in response to competitors’ use of Nazi salutes, one of the most blatant political gestures ever at the Games. And he had done nothing to help Jesse Owens either, being the man who had stripped him of his amateur status after the Olympics. The whiff of racism hung heavily around the proceedings.

The Silent Gesture: photo link

Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked out of the Olympics. They faced an outcry when they returned to the USA and never competed for the USA, again although both went on to play American Football professionally. Tommie Smith later to become an athletics coach, teacher and civil rights activist while John Carlos faced major financial problems after his brief career in American Football ended, often having to burn chopped up furniture when the nights were cold; he later found employment as a school athletics coach in California.

Peter Norman, the Australian silver medallist, was a 26-year-old PE teacher and a Salvation Army officer, at the time. It was Norman who had suggested the Smith and Carlos should share their one pair of gloves after Carlos forgot his. In his desire to help in the protest, Norman had worn an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, like the two American sprinters. Norman came under huge pressure from the Australian media for joining in the protest but he simply said, “I believe that every man is born equal and should be treated that way.” When he died in 2006, John Carlos said, “Peter Norman was my brother.” Peter Norman remains a sports hero in Australia to this day.

In 2008, John Carlos and Tommie Smith received the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage for their raised fist salute. In 2010, Smith tried to distance himself from the ‘Black Power’ salute which had, he said, ‘Ruined my life’, by putting his gold medal and running spikes up for auction although it seems no one has yet reached the starting bid of $250 000.

Over forty years later and the gesture still carried meaning in terms of rewards and pain.

1972 – MUNICH OLYMPICS

Munich 1972 was remembered for wholly different reasons to those of the previous games. It was the darkest hour of the Olympics, as a terrorist group called ‘Black September’ stormed the Olympic Village, holding numerous members of the Israel team hostage. After days of tension, eleven Israeli athletes and coaches, one West German policeman and five of the eight terrorists lost their lives.

The 1970s were an age of terrorist violence which focused in part on hostage taking and the hijacking of planes. The attack on Israeli athletes in Munich was tied in to the bigger picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a situation has dominated affairs in the Middle East for decades. The organisation that carried out the attack, ‘Black September’, made demands for the release of 234 Palestinians and other prisoners held by the Israelis. The Israeli Government, led by Prime Minister Golda Meir, refused to negotiate and the tragedy developed. Having broken into the Olympic Village, the terrorists were able to take a group of Israeli athletes hostage in their accommodation at Block G 31, Connollystrasse in the Olympic Village.  Two members of the team were killed immediately with another nine being held hostage.

The incident ran from about 5am on 5th September in the Olympic Village to 4am the following day at Munich airport. In an apparent attempt to ensure a peaceful conclusion to the siege, the authorities agreed to fly the terrorists and their hostages out of the country, even though the deaths of some hostages had already occurred. But at the airport, the police and special services launched a desperate rescue attempt to free the hostages. It was chaotic and mismanaged. The attempt failed, leading to the deaths of the remainder of the hostages, a police officer and the five hostage takers.

Black September: photo link

The tragedy of this happening to Israeli athletes at the first Olympics held in Germany after World War II was clear. In the country which had seen the events of the Holocaust and the Nazis’ attempt to wipe the Jewish people from the face of the earth, these Israeli athletes suffered the worst terrorist attack in Olympic history.