I love watching the Olympics. But this week kickings (Li-Cheng wasn’t walking so well after losing the Tae Kwon Do final) and beatings (Katie Taylor), equine indignity, sexualised, sometimes bandaged, contortionists, heptathlete and swimmer ambassadors for British Petroleum (the ‘Olympic family’ branding reminds me of the ones in ‘The Descendants’ who wanted to sell the wilderness and build a golf course), and an overweening sprinter who thinks he has a special relationship with God nauseated me off the couch to Farringdon’s Free Word Centre. Free Word is currently hosting a collection of captioned photographs on Politics & the Olympics including the body, national identity, extremism, the environment, security and protest.
Some things I now know. The reason there’s no branding in the stadium is not because London’s organising committee drew a courageous line (an impression you may have taken from the statements they put out when challenged about sponsorship) but because it’s in the Olympic rules.
Sexual inequality in the Olympics (see for example gymnastics) was built in from the beginning. On the admission of women to some sports in 1912, Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, showed himself to be a fine internationalist but a tedious sexist:
“[women’s sport] is not in keeping with my concept of the Olympic Games, in which I believe that we have tried, and must continue to try, to put the following expression into practice: the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism, based on internationalism, by means of fairness, in an artistic setting, with the applause of women as reward.”
In 1932 and ’36 when medallists’ hands were raised in fascist salutes, nobody got disciplined. In 1968 Tommie Smith of the U.S. won the 200m in Mexico City and John Carlos took bronze, also for the U.S. They were suspended and banned from the Olympic Village by the International Organising Committee for the black-socked feet and black-gloved fists, symbols of black poverty and pride, which they wore to their award ceremony. The film Salute was made about this.
Hopefully after the recent publicity campaign most people are already aware of the Israeli athletes murdered in the name of Palestine at the 1972 Munich Olympics, assisted by German neo-Nazis to the dismay of the German establishment. There were no commemorative minutes of silence, prompting Philo to delve into some of the International Organising Committee’s more unsavoury influences. For the London 2012 Olympics, Britain spent more on security than it did on the athletes (which isn’t to say it would have been better to let the clear and present security threat – consider Atlanta 96 – sink the Olympics).
The Cold War was sporty. In Melbourne 1956 with the Hungarian Revolution ongoing, a Soviet water polo player punched a Hungarian water polo player in what became called the Blood in the Water match. Poland’s Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz was delighted to stick it up the Soviet-supporting crowd in the 1980 Moscow games. Opening ceremonies got especially silly in those times, notably the aforementioned Moscow games with its patriotic human mosaics, and the Los Angeles games which followed in ’84 where Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was played by 84 men.
For anybody bothered by flag flying and talk of nations, in 1936 the People’s Olympiad, scheduled for Barcelona, was cancelled by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Its planning is well documented at the University of Warwick. There was one flag for all (if it was this one then no wonder that didn’t take off) and chess was included, though not the barbaric and back then uninvented sport of chess boxing.
And if you haven’t yet found last month’s spoof Olympics edition newspaper London Late, it’s here – a superior protest rag (gsoh) collaboratively produced by groups who are trying to bring various of the Olympic sponsors to justice, namely the London Mining Network, War on Want (not a fan but this is probably their finest hour), the Bhopal Medical Appeal for the victims of the 1984 Union Carbide gas explosion, the oil campaign group Platform and the Tar Sands Network. From the selection on its middle pages, something good by Mau Mau.
So now I plan to return to gape at the sporn in the knowledge that I’ve heard, even amplified, some of what wanted to be heard and amplified. Yes, it is a shame I didn’t get my act together in advance.
My favourite Olympic performance so far is Russia’s synchronised swimming duet on the theme of puppets, along with the Italian duet’s swum biography of Frieda Kahlo. Mo “Look mate, this is my country” Farah is a legend, of course. We have tickets to Paralympic athletics finals in September.
But I think I may well, with the skepticism you should always reserve for people referred to as French intellectuals, have a read of Marc Perelman’s diatribe against organised sport as a “project of a society without projects”.