Saturday, September 13, 2008

My Second Sports Book Ever

Every two years, I put aside my general indifference towards sports to watch the Olympics. This year, I even stayed overnight at my parents' house so we could watch the opening ceremonies together, live at 6AM our time. I also caught a PBS program about the history of the modern games and its similarity to ancient games. They interviewed several authors, and the program was so engaging that I looked them up downtown. In the process, I found Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936 by David Clay Large. I finished it last night.

In the other sports book I read, the author, Dave Zirin, deals with the issue of politics in sports, and of course, this was a main theme for this book as well. It led me to wonder why so many insist on this division. Nobody cares if there's politics in music, art, or theater. In fact, a lot of music, art and theater is overtly political. Having only read the two books on the topic, I can't really make an educated speculation, but I think that some of this might have come from the modern Olympic games itself, and its early movers and shakers like IOC founder Baron de Coubertin, who was determined to foster an international understanding through sport.

Yet, like the concept of amateurism, the idea of politics being completely removed from the Olympics is a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance. (How much do you suppose Michael Phelps got for that AT&T cell phone commercial anyway?) Large shows how skillfully the Nazi party exploited the games for propaganda purposes, embarking on large-scale construction projects, working hard to sanitize open anti-Jewish sentiment at the site of the winter games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and (fascinatingly) preserving just enough of the seedy side of Berlin so as to not disappoint those who came to have sex with transvestites, but not so much that the more vanilla visitor got the wrong impression.

Large also covers the worldwide boycott debate. By 1936, the Olympics were becoming more organized and athletes more serious. In the first few Olympiads, competitors came primarily from the ranks of college sports and upper-middle-class leisure-time sports clubs. As the Olympic movement caught on, athletes became more serious and more backing to attend became available. The issue was no longer fielding a team at all, but culling the competition. Athletes who had sacrificed much for the right to compete weren't about to forgo the Games due to some still-brewing political situation. Yet, some of the bodies that certified athletes were considering refusing to send teams anyway, and many might have done so were it not for the strong pressure from IOC president Avery Brundage.

There was also the determination among many minority athletes to shove the patent absurdity of the Nazi's beliefs right in their faces by competing and kicking ass. This book tells the whole story behind Hitler's refusal to congratulate black American track star Jesse Owens (who was the Michael Phelps of those games: dominant, breathtaking, admired even by his competitors). It also shares a lot of other interesting things that happened at those games: how American Helen Stephens was forced to prove that she really was a woman after winning the 100m dash over Polish world-record holder Staneslawa Walasiewiczowna, who was really a man; the determination of British racewalker Harold Whitlock, who won the 50k, but vomiting (and worse) most of the way; and the story of Korean Kitei Son, who won the marathon competing for Japan, but courageously told reporters after the medal ceremony that he had his head bowed not in pride, but in shame for the Japanese occupation of his homeland.

After the Beijing games, many of the arguments employed in favor of the Berlin games sounded unsettlingly familiar: that isolating the country wasn't the answer; that the Olympics could bring new transparency to the country; that it was unfair to athletes who'd trained all their lives; that sports and politics shouldn't mix, anyway. Unfortunately, they're inexplicably interconnected. Many of the Olympic events, like the biathlon, marksmanship and equestrian events, were inspired by war and military training.

Large doesn't draw easy conclusions. Although he seems to think that boycotting the Berlin games would have been the proper thing for most nations to do, as it would've denied the propaganda whores their audience, he also acknowledges that the 1980 boycott of the Moscow games did nothing except provoke a counter-boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles games. It's probably too soon to tell whether we really should have boycotted Beijing or not. Who knows, some of the predictions may come true: with an estimated 40 billion dollars invested in the games, maybe they really will be a positive force for change in China. And unlike the creepy, organized popular support of the Berlin games, there did seem to be a genuine outpouring of emotion on the part of the Chinese people. I watched a fair amount of coverage, and if spectators were paid to fill the stands, I didn't hear a word of it, yet many events sold out.

After over a century of the Olympics, the dream of unity through sport is still as far distant from reality as it was at its time of conception. International politics constantly rears its ugly head: from the infamous "blood in the water" USSR vs. Hungary water polo match in the 1956 Melbourne games, to the murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich games, to the more benign intensity of Cold War competition between the Eastern bloc and USSR and the United States and western European democracies. The spectators may just want to enjoy the games, and the athletes may just want to win, but governments of different nations are standing in the shadows, wanting something else entirely, no matter how much we wish they weren't.