Time Essay: The Games: Winning Without Medals

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The other old Olympics sham is that the Games foster international good will. If logic failed to destroy that idea, observation would do nicely, since the sight of mingling, embracing athletes at the close of the Games is characteristic of nothing in the world or in the Games themselves but momentary (and partly ceremonial) good nature. Observers of the sporting life, like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, had a dimmer view of the Games. Orwell called them "war minus the shooting." The connection with war has always been up front. Coubertin, who argued for French colonialism as ardently as he did for reviving the Olympics, admired the relationship between British colonialism and sports in the public schools. Every Etonian knows how Wellington is supposed to have explained Waterloo. Hitler, who had a way with brass tacks, said bluntly in Mein Kampf: Give me an athlete and I'll give you an army —which he did, to Austria, two years after the success of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Of course, "war minus the shooting" may be a way of justifying the Games, but that is something quite different from stating that the element of war is not present.

Not that anyone needs to reach for the ancients, or for theories, to connect the Olympics and politics. A casual scanning of events in the modern Games shows that for every example of exchanged T shirts and kisses among competing nations there are a dozen instances of international cheating, needling and foul play, all laced with as much nationalism as competitive nastiness. In 1908, British officials dragged the Italian marathoner Dorando Pietri over the finish line in an attempt to withhold victory from the American Johnny Hayes. The water polo match between the Soviet Union and Hungary in 1956 ended with a bloody-faced Hungarian in the pool. Boycotts have been threatened before, and two actually occurred: the African boycotts of 1972 and 1976. (Many Americans sought to boycott the 1936 Olympics, but Brundage prevailed, explaining Nazi anti-Semitism as a "religious dispute.") If hard evidence of the political character of the Moscow Games were needed, there are plenty of Soviet statements to draw on. The bestselling Handbook of Party Activists maintains that the decision to give the Games to Moscow "was convincing testimony to the general recognition of the historic importance and correctness of the foreign policy course of our country, of the enormous service of the Soviet Union in the struggle for peace."

Killanin and Brundage have always contended that the Games are contests among individuals, not nations. This is a patently preposterous claim, given the I.O.C. prohibition against athletes competing as individuals rather than as nationals of a specific country. Several countries that refused to lend their national stature to the opening ceremonies were nevertheless happy to be identified in the Games. The nuances grow tedious, the examples superfluous. Every country that has ever participated in the Olympic Games, ancient or modern, knows that the events have political analogues, effects and overtones, and that the host country always gains useful prestige. When nations as powerful and athletic as the U.S., Canada, West Germany and Japan stay out of the Games, the damage cannot fail to be political.

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