Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Olympics: sport as warfare (1980)

From the August 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

A large number of people are currently assembled in Moscow to take part in, watch, or report on, a festival of international sport which, supposedly, contributes to world peace by bringing people of different countries together in a spirit of friendly competition. The popular mythology has it that even the compilation of medal tables, so as to discover which nation has come “top”, is preferable to other ways of asserting national superiority or increasing national prestige—score, score is apparently better than war, war. In fact, those who gather in Moscow are participating in a gigantic charade—a mixture of hypocrisy, chauvinism and plain dishonesty which mirrors accurately enough the world of which it is a part.

In the first place, there is no way in which the Olympics could possibly contribute to the establishment of peace in the world. A few thousand athletes come together in this way may get to know, and understand rather better, people of differing countries and cultures (the same sort of claim has been made about the Miss World contest!), but it cannot seriously be argued that such contacts will help prevent war. Countries go to war for good (to their rulers) economic and strategic reasons, and are not going to be diverted from such designs by the fact that a few of their citizens have made friends with a few of the “enemy”. Of course, if workers refused to kill each other in defence of their masters’ interests, then wars could not take place, but such a stand implies a degree of socialist consciousness which results from something more than just taking part in the Olympics. To suggest that the Olympics can serve the cause of peace reveals a naive misunderstanding of the causes of war.

On the contrary, the Olympic Games—like international sport in general—are used as a device to inflame nationalist sentiments and to delude workers into thinking that they have some sort of interest in “their” country doing well. It won’t just be Sebastian Coe who wins a medal, it’ll be Britain—or “us”. It is national sides who compete in team sports such as hockey and football, and it is national anthems and flags that are played and raised at medal ceremonies. Jacques Julliard, in an article in Le Nouvet Observateur for December 1979, argues that the true founder of the modern Games was not Baron de Coubertin in 1896 but Adolf Hitler in 1936. It was in Berlin that the nationalist and propaganda value of the Games was first exploited fully. And it is in Hitler's footsteps that the more recent practitioners of the propaganda art are following.

As a consequence of the exploitation of a victory for nationalistic purposes, the production of sporting champions has become a major industry in a number of countries. Russia has specialist schools and institutes for the training of the talented few—and this although half of the country's schools have insufficient equipment for physical education lessons (James Riordan: Soviet Sport). It is commonplace in the West to point out that East European sportspeople, whether described as soldiers, students, or whatever, are not really amateurs but in effect full-time professional athletes. This is fair enough, but it conveniently overlooks the fact that a very similar situation obtains in the West. Athletes are employed by sports goods firms, paid to wear their running shoes, and (in America) given generous college scholarships. The modern world-class athlete, whatever their natural ability, is an expensively-produced and carefully-nurtured product, packaged in a national flag.

And usually filled up with drugs to boot! The anabolic steroids taken by shot-putters and others are the most celebrated, but there are many examples, including—most distasteful of all, perhaps—the drugs taken by girl gymnasts to arrest the advent of puberty. Sports medicine is now a highly-developed science, but nobody really knows the risks being run by the drug-takers, especially the child prodigies who are subjected to drugs from an early age. Although doping is illegal, the rules are easy enough to circumvent: stop taking your steroids a few months before you know you’ll be tested, and you can be confident you won’t be detected. Indeed, even if you are found out, you’ll probably be competing again very soon, anyway.

So the countries that win the most gold medals arc those that have the best-organised and best-financed production line for top-class athletes. Sport at international level has been taken over by the ruling classes of the various nation-states for their own ends.

Which brings us to the boycott. In protest against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, a number of national Olympic Committees have in response to a boycott campaign orchestrated by President Carter, decided not to send teams to Moscow. At the time of writing, eighty-five countries only had accepted the invitation to attend, out of a possible hundred and thirty or so, the non-acceptors including such successful nations as West Germany and the United States. It is as concerted an exercise in hypocrisy as could be imagined. Just look at some of the countries that are adopting a high and mighty moral stance and not attending. Military dictatorships such as Argentina and Pakistan. Israel, which is occupying parts of neighbouring countries. America, which till five years ago was waging a bloody war in Southeast Asia. China, which just eighteen months ago invaded Vietnam.

Looking back over recent Olympics, there have been few not marked by some particularly nasty illustration of the nature of capitalism. Just before the 1956 Games, Russia invaded Hungary, and Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt in the Suez Crisis. Spain (!) and the Netherlands withdrew because of the Hungarian invasion, and Lebanon and Iraq because of Suez. The Mexico City Games of 1968 were preceded by the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, and by a massacre of Mexican students. Although there was a threatened boycott by African countries because of South Africa’s intended participation, nobody refused to attend Games in a country run by a government that had recently murdered some of its citizens. And in 1972 the Olympics went on despite the killing of some Israeli athletes by Palestinian guerrillas.

Even when there were no “spectacular” events of this kind, there were wars and dictatorships the whole time. It is difficult not to agree with Avery Brundage, President of the International Olympic Committee, who, in a moment of rare perception, said in 1956:
In an imperfect world, if participation in sports is to be stopped every time the politicians violate the laws of humanity, there will never be any international contests (quoted in Richard Espy: The Politics of the Olympic Games).
But of course boycotts aren’t mounted whenever there might be grounds for doing so, only when it suits those who organise them (when they are faced with a forthcoming presidential election, for instance).

It was particularly interesting to observe the humbug that surrounded the attempt by the British government to cajole the UK Olympic Committee into joining the boycott. When sports representatives pointed out that they were being expected to carry the can alone, in that the government was doing precious little else to protest about Afghanistan, Lord Carrington informed them that a trade embargo could not be considered, as it would hurt Britain more than Russia. “We are”, he said, “a trading nation.” It is then hardly surprising to learn that one British sportsman who has refused to go the the Olympics on grounds of “conscience” — is a fencer who is an army captain, in other words a man who is trained to kill (or, more likely, to order others to kill) in defence of the interests of British capitalism. His conscience won’t stop him doing that, presumably.

The deadly serious Olympic “Games”, as part of capitalism, reflect its nature and its values. The gold medals are tainted not just with the blood of Afghans, but with the essential rottenness of all class society.
Paul Bennett

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