Every four years, at around th is time, you start reading stories about the “Olympic ideal,” which is always described as having been betrayed. This is usually because something has been done to make the forthcoming Games seem closed, restricted, exclusive or elite.
So we have it here in London. First, in a huge scandal, Olympic officials from several countries allegedly seized control of tens of thousands of tickets and sold them at huge markups. The lion’s share of tickets were already earmarked for the quasi-aristocratic “Olympic family” of bureaucrats and officials, so this effectively prevented most ordinary people from obtaining any tickets at all.
And this week we have the announcement that the private firm that was supposed to provide discreet security for the Olympics had somehow failed to employ anywhere near enough people, so that 13,500 armed soldiers, at huge expense, will be stationed at the Games, making them feel like an armed occupation.
Where, you ask, is that mythic Olympic ideal? And what, really, was it?
As it happens, this summer marks the 100th anniversary of the moment when the modern Olympic ideal made itself most abundantly clear. That occurred shortly after Jim Thorpe, the legendary native American athlete, bolted out of the starting blocks at the Stockholm Olympics and won twin gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon. “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world,” King Gustav of Sweden told him as he presented the medals, to which Thorpe famously answered, “Thanks, King.”
That warmth did not last long. A few months after the Games, the International Olympic Committee unceremoniously stripped Thorpe of both his medals and purged him from the record books. Their reason? They learned that two years earlier, stuck for income, he had played some minor-league baseball games. This, in the interpretation of the IOC, made him a “professional” athlete.
There was little secret about what this really meant. After all, the wealthier and more pale-skinned athletes engaged in the Olympic sports of dressage, deer shooting, fencing and sailing had no need to sell their talents. They financed their expensive sports out of pocket or, increasingly, persuaded their governments to give them money to pursue their pastimes – something the IOC was virtually created to help them do.
The classical scholar Mary Beard, who is well aware of the difference between the modern Olympics and the Greek original (where money-making was very much part of the enterprise), wrote that the IOC’s enemy, from the very beginning, was “the working-class lad who needed the cash to continue training, and who threatened the upper middle-class, Oxbridge/Ivy League club that dominated the Olympic community in almost every competing nation.”
When the French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, who enthusiastically backed the Thorpe purge, came up with the idea of the modern Olympics in the late 19th century, he was inspired by the playing fields of Rugby and other exclusive English private schools, and hoped for the creation of a new, upper-class athletic aristocracy.
From the beginning, the Olympics have been about keeping the wrong sort of people outside the gates, and the right sort of people well provided.
Has it changed? The communist countries created a new, public-sector sporting elite by manufacturing high-tech superstars in gymnastic and pseudo-military events inaccessible to ordinary people. And there have been a few token salutes to non-elite sports – such as baseball, which was played from 1992 until 2008, but was voted out of the Games by the IOC, to be replaced in 2016 with the traditionally upper-class rugby and golf.
Strolling around Stratford-upon-Thames, you realize that the largest swaths of Olympic acreage remain devoted to equestrian events, sailing, rowing, shooting. While the track and swimming and gymnastics glories are capturing our hearts, these aristocratic sports will be walking away with buckets of our tax dollars.
A few months ago, British officials were forced to admit that the Olympic promise to spend hundreds of millions getting ordinary people more involved in athletics was “failing completely,” as participation numbers hadn’t budged. People just weren’t feeling inspired to take up sports by the sight of the walled-off Olympians. Theirs was a different world.
That, too, was described as a betrayal of the Olympic ideal. But if you look back, you realize it pretty much embodies it.