The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, November 18, 2001

The politics of the Games and the Games
as politics

D.K. Tandon

AS the countdown to the 27th Olympics begins, one is tempted to look back at the founding of the modern Olympic movement in 1894 and its development over a century. Legend has it that the ancient Olympics, held in Greece, were initiated by Hercules about 1100 BC. They were held over five days. The first and last day witnessed sacrifices and ritual ceremonies. Events in which youth participated were held on the second day; running, boxing and wrestling on the third; and horse riding, armoured races and the pentathelon on the fourth day. The ancient games were abolished in 393 AD by a decree of Emperor Theodosius.

They were revived in 1894, following a meeting at Sorbonne, Paris, largely through the efforts of Pierre de Coubertin. The first modern Olympic Games were held at Athens in 1896. The main purpose of the games is to foster peace, and harmony amongst the people of the world. Messari, a historian of the Olympics, stated that the games play a splendid role for global peace and have emphasised values relating to physical, intellectual and spiritual aspects.


Coubertin tried to depict the spirit of the Olympic Games through the motto Altius, Citius, Fortius ó Higher, Faster, Stronger. Olympics represent healthy competition amongst individuals, not amongst countries.

In Olympics, participation is more important than winning. In de Coubertinís words "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle". There is a difference in the ethos that prevailed at the time of the ancient games and the ethos of the modern games.

The former highlighted divinity and peace, freed from the spectre of wars, and the players attributed the sculptured beauty of their bodies to the Gods. The modern games gave birth to an athletic religion rooted in amateurism wherein the athletes dedicated victory to their respective people and country.

Through the 20th century, the Olympics witnessed a roller-coaster ride with many ideals often being lost-sight of. What are the ways in which the Olympics have evolved over the years?

Political interference

Although the Olympics are based on the existence of and the promotion of world peace, the history of Olympics since 1896 is characterised by protests, antagonism and violence. The modern Olympics have never been free of political influences. Some major political problems connected with the Olympics were racial discrimination practiced by Germans and South Africans, the problem between Taiwan and China and the Cold War between socialist countries and the USA.

In 1904, Baron wanted the Games to be held in the US, in recognition of the countryís role in promoting the Olympic movement. His choice was Chicago, but US officials preferred to have it as a side show with the main event of the purchase exhibition at Louisiana. Predictably, the event was a fiasco since there were less than 100 overseas competitors. Most athletes wanted to avoid the trouble of a long journey to the USA. The turnout was just 12 nations with 76 per cent American participation. The Berlin Olympics in 1936 were employed by the Nazis to distort the motto of Olympism and use the Games as a platform to show the racial superiority of the German people. Unfortunately for them, the exploits of Jesse Owens proved otherwise.

The entry of the erstwhile USSR into the Olympic fold in 1952, at Helsinki, almost transformed the character of sport and competition. For the USA, sailing almost without a challenge worthy of note, the rise of Soviet power was a fact that had to be countered. In the 1956 Melbourne Games, a few countries like Egypt refused to participate owing to some delicate international situation. In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Indonesia and some communist countries had to be banned by the IOC, since Indonesia hosted the Asiad without permitting entry to Israel and China. The 1968 Mexico Olympics had nothing to do with international politics, but there were hundreds of casualties because of demonstrations staged as a consequence of trouble between the army and college students who objected to the hosting of the Games.

In the Munich Olympics, in 1972, Palestinian guerrillas attacked and killed 11 Israeli athletes. In the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Taiwan and 32 African countries refused to participate in the Games as a protest against New Zealandís playing a rugby match with South Africa. This was because South Africa was practising Apartheid. In the 1980 Moscow Olympics, 65 countries, including the USA and the Republic of Korea boycotted the Games, as their response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The worst part is, in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, most communist countries did not join the athletic festival as a kind of counteraction. These are some of the examples indicative of the deterioration of the Olympic ideals due to political interference.

Since the first modern Olympiad held in Athens in 1896, within a century, the games have metamorphosed from events that could boast of levels of sanctity and a sense of aesthetics to those fraught with materialism. In addition to factors such as racism, nationalism, commercialism and all other things inevitable in a world infested with corrupt men.

Amateurism at stake

Coubertinís Olympic ideals focused on amateurism and an athletic religion with lofty and gentlemanly ideals. Amateurism is based on spirits of fair play and sportsmanship, that enable one to enjoy the pure and just aspects of sports without considering material or monetary profits. His idea that amateurism should be an unswerving state of mind began to be controversial from the early 20th century. The first distinction between professionalism and amateurism became obscure as each country competed with the other to hold the Olympics for its own honour and, accordingly, a great amount of money was granted to superior athletes. For the first time in the history of Olympics, professional tennis players participated in the Seoul Olympics. In such a situation, what will be future of the Olympics?

There are two possibilities. One is the widening of the difference between Olympic ideals and reality. If this happens, the spirit of the Olympics will disappear. The other possibility as enumerated by Noel Backer, former Olympic medallist and Nobel Prize-winner, "The Olympics are the best medium to understand each other internationally in this atomic age." Under these circumstances, if we are able to understand the meaning of Olympism correctly and try to maintain it as much as possible in reality, we may overcome these problems and the Olympics will never be exploited for ulterior purposes.

Drug abuse: To win at all costs

A "winning at-all costs" syndrome has emerged and "drugs" have become a method of doing this. It is more serious and widespread than ever before. Although the Olympic spirit emphasises a healthy body and fair play by youth, this drug-taking attitude is becoming more prevalent. For example, a Danish cyclist (Jensen) died due to the complications related to drugs in the Rome Olympics in 1960. Not long ago, 12 weightlifters died and it was revealed that their death was caused by the use of anabolic steroids. The seriousness of the matter has been brought out by these incidents.


Although originally conceived of as being an inexpensive event, the games have become a colossal venture. It is impossible for the games to take place in any particular country, unless the whole state is involved. The games, which were originally designed to be a uniting force through the exchange of knowledge and through mutual respect, as well as to favour peace, have led to a sort of competition between the nations which has been termed as the Olympic war. Right now, the International Olympic Association is in the eye of a storm over last yearís scandal on vote buying for the 2000 winter Olympics. It has to be accepted that the modern Olympics have become very expensive and over-commercialised.

Modern Olympic Games are not what Pierre de Coubertin intended them to be. They will never again be simply an occasion for athletes to compete in friendly rivalry, for spectators to admire extraordinary physical performances, and for everyone involved to feel himself a part of the family of man.

The trials and tribulations that the Olympic Movement was subjected to at every turn form a fascinating study that underscores the essence of sport and the spirit of governing it. We cannot label them simply as occasions of religious fanaticism, ideological display, nationalism, commercialism, racism, etc. Indisputably, the games are a forum for conveying to the universe the message of love and peace. After every four years, as the Olympics approach, or more tragically, disappoint our ideals, they provide us with a dramatic indication of who we are. Perhaps that, is the best argument for their continuation.