The Olympics: Plus Ca Change…

I’m walking on dangerous ground here, but I’m going to write about the Olympics anyway.  The multi-nationals get a little tetchy when minnows like me try swimming where the big fish feed, and, frankly, I don’t blame them.  If I were paying north of 50 million bucks for the five-ring logo, I’d damn well get my money’s worth, even if it meant passing out “cease and desist” orders as if they were “Two Can Dine for $8.99” coupons.  So, I’m going to insist my use of the various names of organizations is fair comment and hope for the best.  This may seem an excessive disclaimer, but I’ve seen what the IOC does to transgressors (the Olympics came to my town a couple of years ago) and it’s not pretty.

The law dogs are off the leash because the Olympics are the Big Kahuna of organized sports.  They are the perfect ménage a trois of sport, sponsorship and the media.  The revenues they generate are beyond the imagination of Croesus.  Of course, this kind of cash flow means power and the Olympics enjoy the kind of power that the ancient Greeks only dreamed their gods had.  Even the mighty FIFA, Lord High Mafia Caesar of the World Cup, kowtows to the IOC.  Governments tremble and start coughing up cash when the likes of Mario Pescante, Thomas Bach and Jacques Rogge come to town.  It’s a far cry from what Baron Pierre and his Olympic committee envisioned back in 1894 — but this is 2012, and times change.

The tale of Baron Pierre de Couberin and the history of the modern Olympic Games has been over-told by every media outlet that ever existed since 1956.  However, during those televised sidebars that fill in the blank spaces between Olympic Events, there is a large part of the story, as it is retold every four years that kinda gets glossed over.

The fact is De Couberin and his compadres never envisioned the Olympics as an egalitarian gathering of the world’s athletes.  They were men of their class and time, and they saw athletics as strictly a gentleman’s game (de Couberin was an admirer of Thomas Arnold.)  To that end, the Olympic Games have always featured sports that have been historically associated with the upper classes.  The first Games included (among other events) fencing, shooting and tennis.  It’s widely documented that very few 19th century coal miners, factory workers or stevedores played tennis, and although fencing and shooting were not unheard of during the many labour disputes of the period, they were never considered leisure activities.  Polo was introduced to the Games in 1900 and remained part of the Olympics until 1936 when the German team’s aggressive use of the mallet was considered unsportsmanlike in finer circles.
Cricket was also introduced that year, but when the rest of the world found out how insanely complicated, long and boring it was, it was immediately dropped.  Unfortunately, it may return to London 2012.  Sailing, a hobby synonymous with the wealthiest among us, has always been a popular Olympic event.  The oddest activity of the upper classes to become part of the Olympics, however, was Dueling Pistols in 1906.  It was dropped after only one year possibly because, even though there was an undisputed champion, no Silver or Bronze medals were awarded.

Likewise, the original Olympic committee went to great lengths to preserve the Games as the province of the gentleman athlete by insisting that all Olympic participants be virginal pure amateurs.  This kept the professional bully boys away from the podium because, in the early days, this rule was usually enforced.  The most famous case, of course, was Jim Thorpe, who was stripped of the medals he won in 1912 when it was discovered he had once been paid ten dollars to play football.  In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler’s famous competitive spirit led to some pretty serious bending of the Olympic amateur rule.  Luckily, however, Jesse Owens preserved the integrity of the Games when he singlehandedly took on the Nazis and beat their brains out.  In the late 1950s, the IOC adopted the “nudge-nudge/wink-wink” classification for its wealthier athletes when it became patently obvious that the Soviet and East German “amateurs” were anything but.  This system was finally abandoned in the 1980s, when everybody realized that the athletes were wearing more gold during the competition than they were actually competing for.  These days, aside from a few African marathon runners, most athletes in the medal rounds are millionaires.

Thus, more than a century later, the Olympics have remained true to Baron de Couberin’s original vision.  Despite the corruption, bribery, doping and out-and-out cheating, the Games remain the province of the rich and famous.