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World: Analysis from Washington -- Olympic Dreams Have Not Come True

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 9 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- International appeals for a truce in conflicts among nations during the period of the Olympic Games in Nagano call attention to one of the core ideas of the modern Olympiad: athletic competition can be a surrogate for and ultimately replacement of other more violent forms of competition among nations.

But these appeals -- from sources as diverse as United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to Japanese Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi -- also call attention to just how political the modern Olympics have been.

On the one hand, since the restoration of the modern Olympics in 1896, various nations have sought to use the games to promote their particular national interests. And on the other, the games themselves have often exacerbated rather than calmed conflicts among nation states.

The founder of the modern Olympic movement, French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, argued that athletic competition could serve as a surrogate for the kind of international military conflicts that he believed were now part of the past.

Drawing on that nineteenth century optimism, de Coubertin argued that promoting international athletic games would be a surrogate for both the discipline and the chance for glory that military conflicts had provided young men in the past. And he said that the modern games, just as had been true in Greek antiquity, should be the occasion for putting aside narrow nationalisms and conflicts.

But if de Coubertin believed that the games could perform this surrogate role, he created a structure for the competitions that others were prepared to use for very different purposes. He and his followers set up a system in which athletes won and lost individually but competed under national flags and anthems.

Not surprisingly, politics -- international and national -- immediately put in their appearance as competitors in the games. The Olympic movement was forced to cancel the games during the two world wars. It faced boycotts lead by the U.S. in the 1980 Moscow summer games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and by the U.S.S.R. in the 1984 Los Angeles summer games in response.

The Olympic movement had to contend with Adolf Hitler's efforts to promote his vision of Aryan supremacy at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, efforts that were largely smashed by the gold medal performance of Jesse Owens, a black American.

And in 1972, Palestinian terrorists sought to call attention to their cause by invading the Olympic village in Munich and killing many of the members of the Israeli national team.

But in addition to such clear-cut politicization, there have been other, less dramatic but perhaps equally important political uses of the games. No one who watched the American triumph over the Soviet ice hockey team at Lake Placid, New York, in 1980 can doubt that victory played an important role in the change of American popular attitudes at that time.

Throughout the Cold War, both Soviet and American peoples and governments kept careful track of the medals their athletes won as against the number won by the other side. The Soviet Union did not participate at all until it was confident that it could do well. And concerns that Soviet athletes might show up American ones helped power public support for athletic training in the U.S.

And that tradition continues, albeit in somewhat new directions. The Japanese organizers gave an anti-land mind activist a prominent place in the opening ceremonies at Nagano. And the Western media has given much attention to Japanese interest in seeing fights between their hockey players and those of other nations.

To the extent that the Olympic games give nations the chance to compete in non-violent or at least non-lethal ways, they reflect de Coubertin's hopes. But to the extent that the games at Nagano lead people to focus on national medal counts and to believe that they can ignore broader political issues, these games will only underscore the extent to which his dream remains unfulfilled.