Saturday, June 7, 2008

Coubertin's Boycott

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Having been on the front row for the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, I thought we had taken the games to their exploitative limit. SLC's quickly forgotten bribery scandal did nothing to deter every party with a stake in the games from commercializing, proselytizing, and politicizing. Corporate dollars poured in, the LDS Church closed down nearby Brigham Young University to allow eager students to put a genteel and mainstream face on the home of the Mormons, politicians took advantage of the games to remind us to be afraid of terrorists, and Mitt Romney used them as a step toward his ill-fated run for the White House.

Where did the Olympics go wrong? I asked myself. Where had we lost the idealism of a sound mind in a sound body and international harmony?

It turns out, of course, that those ideals never were anything more than window-dressing used to promote other interests surrounding the games. The 2nd Olympiad, held in conjunction with the 1900 World's Fair in Paris, offers a case in point.

During those Olympics, the Baron Pierre de Coubertin attempted to boycott the very games he had founded just four years before. He was outraged at local organizers who were exploiting his Olympics to further their own political and economic agendas.

Fair officials wanted to present France as a modern technological and economic power and felt the Olympics (an ancient ceremony) gave the impression of a country mired in the past. To keep the anachronistic Coubertin in line, local organizers handed out nearly a million francs in prizes to professional participants in sports ranging from fishing to tug-of-war. They used the games as a means to demonstrate both France's military might--during the 1900 Olympics, of the 57,000 participants, more than 21,000 participated in shooting and military events--and its national superiority--France, thanks to the sheer number of participants, won 259 medals, more than all other countries combined (1).

Coubertin, who had set up a rival committee to protest what he saw as a "vulgar fair" (2), eventually had to back down when politicians and members of his own association, desirous to present a united France to the world, abandoned him.

Despite Coubertin's subsequent efforts, the Olympics have served the interests of host countries and corporations since these second Olympics in Paris. The so-called Nazi games of 1936 and the cold-war boycotts of 1980 and 1984 along with the "Coca-Cola" games in Atlanta are the most obvious examples. And when the IOC began allowing professional athletes to participate in the Olympics in the 1980s, it paved the way for international businesses to officially appropriate the athletes as spokespeople and endorsers. The "shoe deal" came to replace Coubertin's laurel wreath as the ultimate prize for athletic excellence.

What is troubling about the Beijing games is the new turn in how corporations and nations are using the Olympics to hide both their own questionable economic deals and their failures in the diplomatic arena.

Chris Renner, president of the sports marketing firm Helios Partners China, told the BBC Radio World Service in March that, despite the situation in Tibet and laws squelching freedom of expression, sponsors would stay. "Many of the sponsors involved, such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds, have gone through a number of these games, and the reason they have become associated with the games is obviously what the five rings represent which is about the world coming together in . . . friendship, inclusiveness and all that" (3).

Clearly, China was not selected to host the games because it promotes the high moral standards represented by Olympic symbols and slogans. Instead, by selecting China, the International Olympic Committee has provided multinational corporations the moral justification to continue doing business in a country where human rights take a back seat to the Communist party and global financial interests. Holding the Olympics in Beijing also allows the western, consuming public to feel good about buying one dollar spatulas and two dollar watches.

Like corporations, politicians are using the 2008 Olympics to hide their own failure to promote human rights in China and to stem violence in Tibet. When diplomacy withers in the face of economic interests, it becomes all to easy to point the finger somewhere else, threaten to boycott opening ceremonies, and suggest the IOC should succeed where governments have failed.

Obviously, Jacques Rogge, current IOC chairman and Coubertin's successor, should do more by acknowledging that the selection of China was premature and by publicly condemning the repressive actions of this year's host country as Coubertin did in 1900. But participating nations need to shoulder their share of the blame. Instead of making the IOC solely responsible to clean up China, they should be more active in requiring environmental and humanitarian conditions be met in order for western corporations to do business in China. Instead of threatening to boycott the games (even Coubertin couldn't make it work), they should legislate against Chinese and American companies that engage in unethical business practices.

But the Olympics have become such a large international spectacle that they have also become too easy to target as the international scapegoat. Unless politicians and CEOs are held accountable for their failings with China, the five interlocking rings will go on masking commercial and political interests as they have done now since the beginning.

(1) This tally includes top three finishers in all the events of 1900. Results are from André Drevon's book Les Jeux olympiques oubliés: Paris 1900, p. 181.
(2) Cited in Coubertin's book Mémoires olympiques, 1996, p. 49.
(3) Broadcast 27 Mar. 2008, archived online here:


Dana said...

Hey, Corry, great blog. I love how it captures the love/hate dynamic.

An observation after reading this post- so should the Olympics be mixed with politics or not? You criticized early Olympics for letting national and political interests sway the competition, and then later in the post you suggest that the Olympic committee and participant countries should leverage their positions in order to facilitate social progression. Or are you saying they should only make it a political thing when they go the direction you feel they should?

I don't have an answer on this, just found your commentary a bit conflicted.


Corry Cropper said...

You're right... there are so many political interests at play around the Olympics, most significantly the agenda of the host country vs. the agenda of the IOC. Coubertin had his own political agenda: he hoped the Olympics would strengthen the physical, moral, and political fiber of Europe's aristocracy. The local committee in Paris wanted to go in the opposite direction by showcasing the national strength of France's Republic. (Shameless plug here: for more on this, see the last chapter of my book.) So Coubertin came out publicly against the local organizers. He lost.

An example of the local committee pushing its agenda too far = the 1936 Olympics in Berlin when Hitler forced Jews into the nazi salute on the medal stand, etc.

An example of the IOC going too far = Mexico, 1968 when they banned Smith & Carlos for their political gesture on the medal stand (claiming no politics was the way to go, the IOC tacitly approved right-wing politics...) and when they chose to ignore the Tlatelolco massacre (300 dead 10 days before the games began).

Obviously, every host country is trying to gain something via the Olympics. I just think there needs to be a balance struck: When there are clear human rights violations, the IOC should say so. And politicians, instead of making the IOC responsible for their failures, should plow ahead with their diplomacy.

Tony Perrottet's op-ed in the NY Times ( offers an interesting solution: do like the ancient Greeks. Quit moving the games from place to place and instead hold them someplace politically irrelevant. That way the games themselves will hold all our attention. Not a bad idea.