Soon after President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the Pentagon unleashed a covert cyber-sabotage attack on Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities aimed at disabling centrifuges designed to purify uranium. Because of a programming error, the operation’s cyber-worm slithered errantly out of Iran’s Natanz nuclear plant and slinked around the Internet for all to see. Computer security gurus named the cyber-weapon “Stuxnet,” but the Pentagon had chosen a different code name for the attack: “Operation Olympic Games.” The choice was apt. After all, the process was orchestrated by political elites behind closed doors; it wreaked havoc on the local host; and it cost a bundle, in terms of both political and actual capital. In a nutshell, that describes the state of the Olympics in the twenty-first century: a largely clandestine, elite-driven process with significant impacts on host cities, and all of it coming with an exorbitant price tag. But this has not always been the case. In Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, I chart the evolution of the Olympic Games, from the quixotic dream of a quirky French baron to the domineering colossus it is today. Tracing the political history of the Olympics helps us understand how sport has evolved from pastime to profession, from the ambit of the few to the spectacle of the many. And engaging the history of the Olympics provides an exceptionally useful foundation for comprehending larger cultural, social, and political processes of the last 120 years—and in particular, for understanding class privilege, indigenous repression, activist strategy, and capitalist power.
These are all topics that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has actively tried to avoid addressing, often by forwarding the notion that the Olympics are not to be politicized. When, for example, IOC president Jacques Rogge was asked about the death of Osama bin Laden, Rogge replied, “What happened to Mr. bin Laden is a political issue on which I do not wish to comment.” Throughout his twelve- year tenure as head of the IOC, Rogge — a former orthopedic surgeon, avid yachtsman, and Belgian count — reliably asserted that the Olympic Games could and should sidestep politics, as has every IOC president before and since. But their supposed aversion to politics has always brimmed with hypocrisy. Theirs is “an apoliticism that is in fact deeply political,” as the philosopher Theodor Adorno would have put it.
In reality the Olympics are political through and through. The marching, the flags, the national anthems, the alliances with corporate sponsors, the labor exploitation behind the athletic-apparel labels, the treatment of indigenous peoples, the marginalization of the poor and working class, the selection of Olympic host cities — all political. To say the Olympics transcend politics is to conjure fantasy.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat who revived the modern Olympics at the end of the nineteenth century, built the Games on a bedrock of contradiction. While he publicly rejected injecting politics into the Olympics, behind the scenes he mobilized political power brokers to help establish and nurture the Games. Coubertin’s biographer deems his disavowal of politics “disingenuous in the extreme.” From the start, the IOC marinated in politics.
Much later, IOC president Avery Brundage advanced his own brand of Coubertin’s duplicitous philosophy. “We actively combat the introduction of politics into the Olympic movement and are adamant against the use of the Olympic Games as a tool or as a weapon by any organization,” he asserted. Brundage pushed this narrative even as South Africa’s apartheid system led the IOC to withdraw the country’s invitation to the 1964 Tokyo Games and to ultimately expel South Africa from the Olympic Movement in 1970, only to reinstate it in 1992. The IOC, in its role as a supranational sports organization, has also inserted itself into matters of war and peace by hosting meetings between the National Olympic Committees from Israel and Palestine.6 In the 1990s the IOC began working with the United Nations to institute an “Olympic Truce” before each staging of the Games, whereby countries agree to cease hostilities for the duration of the Olympic competition. This intervention into geopolitics, though unanimously supported, is routinely ignored, as when Russia invaded Crimea in the immediate wake of hosting the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
Politics were once again at the forefront with the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The city’s bid team explicitly claimed the Games would create a groundswell of democracy in China. Liu Jingmin, the deputy mayor of Beijing, said, “By applying for the Olympics, we want to promote not just the city’s development, but the development of society, including democracy and human rights.” Liu went still further: “If people have a target like the Olympics to strive for, it will help us establish a more just and harmonious society, a more democratic society, and help integrate China into the world.” While in retrospect these claims appear preposterously extravagant, they appealed to the willfully gullible “Olympic family.” According to the former IOC vice president Richard Pound, the suggestion that bestowing the Games to China would hasten human-rights progress in the country “was an all-but-irresistible prospect for the IOC.” The IOC awarded the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing over Toronto, Paris, and Istanbul.
But does hosting the Olympics really help improve living conditions for residents of the host city? Evidence supporting the claim is scant. Just look at Beijing. Predictions of Olympics-induced human-rights progress in China, it turns out, were greatly exaggerated. When Beijing hosted the Summer Games in 2008 the country ranked 167th on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. In 2014 the country dropped to 175th. “The reality is that the Chinese government’s hosting of the Games has been a catalyst for abuses,” said Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch. This grim record didn’t stop the IOC from selecting Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, which will make the city the first to stage both the Summer and Winter Games.
The IOC’s plea for apoliticism partly arises from the need to safeguard its biggest capital generator, the Games themselves. The Olympic Games have become a cash cow that the IOC and its corporate partners milk feverishly every two years, since the staggering of the Summer and Winter Olympics began in 1994. For the IOC, acknowledging politics might jeopardize their lucre.
In Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague, Marc Perelman offers a blistering demolition of sport in general and the Olympics in particular. For him, sport has not only come to be “central to the machine” of capitalism, but “the new opium of the people.” Sport, he argues, is actually “more alienating than religion because it suggests the scintillating dream of a promotion for the individual, holds out the prospect of parallel hierarchy.” Perelman concludes, “The element of ‘protest’ against daily reality that even religion (according to Marx) still retained is stifled by the infinite corrosive power of sport, draining mass consciousness of all liberating and emancipatory energy.”
While I wholeheartedly agree that sport affords us insight into how capitalism shimmies and schemes — indeed that shimmying is a major leitmotif in this book — a closer look at Marx’s original “opium of the people” passage is in order. There’s a great deal of empathy embedded in Marx’s critique — more than Perelman lets on. Marx noted, “The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.” He added, “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” So, for Marx, religion — and by extension here, sport — was “the heart of a heartless world.” We need not eviscerate what provides so many with enjoyment and zest. The chants of the sports fan are not necessarily the blind yammering of monomaniacal naïfs. They can be efforts to make meaning in a cruel capitalist world rigged for the rich — and they can wedge open a path for political conversations we might not otherwise have.
To concede the terrain of sports is to unnecessarily surrender potential common ground for political understanding, and perhaps even action. With that in mind, in this book I’ll argue that critical engagement with the politics of sports has historically helped pry open space for ethical commitment and principled action, as evidenced by the Olympic athletes who have taken courageous political stands, the alternatives to the Olympics that have emerged over the years, and the activism that springs up today to challenge the five-ring juggernaut. In short, the Olympics are more than mere opiate.
Sports are remarkably popular. Pope Francis is a lifelong soccer fan from Argentina whose favorite club, San Lorenzo, catapulted in 2013 from the brink of relegation to the league title—divine intervention? Sports can also be the last refuge of the scoundrel. Osama bin Laden marveled at the passion soccer could generate, and he knew it well; in 1994 in London he attended Arsenal Football Club matches on numerous occasions, even purchasing souvenirs for his sons from the club’s gift shop.The kind of passion sports generate can be channeled in countless directions, from the radical to the reac- tionary, from reverence to treachery.
I should acknowledge up front that I come to this book not as some grumpy academic with a penchant for spurning sport, but as someone who dedicated a big part of my life to competitive, high-level soccer. In the late 1980s I earned a slot on the Under-23 National Team — also known as the US Olympic Team — alongside stalwarts like Brad Friedel, Cobi Jones, Joe-Max Moore, Manny Lagos, and Yari Allnutt. My first international match with the Olympic Team took place in France in 1990. Our opponent? The Brazilian Olympic Team, which featured stars like Cafu and Marcelinho. In that same tournament I also suited up against Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. The following year I captained the north squad to a gold medal at the US Olympic Festival in Los Angeles, with teammates Brian McBride, Todd Yeagley, Brian Dawson, and Brian Kamler. In short, I am a fan of sport. My personal history is entwined with the political history of the Games.
In his masterful book Beyond a Boundary, the West Indian cricketer and essayist C. L. R. James described a pivotal moment in his life. “I was in the toils of greater forces than I knew,” he wrote. “Cricket had plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it. When I did turn to politics I did not have too much to learn.” Soccer plunged me into politics, but I still had a ton to learn. As the avant-garde poet and union organizer Rodrigo Toscano once wrote, “there’s enormous gaps in my education.” After my experience playing for the US Olympic Soccer Team in France, where we were roundly booed whether we were playing Brazil (understandable), Czechoslovakia (plausible), Yugoslavia (questionable), or the Soviet Union (quizzical), I was eager to start filling in the gaps in my education. In many ways this book is the outcome of that journey.
In April 2015 IOC president Thomas Bach spoke at the United Nations about the Olympic movement’s relationship to politics. He evoked a “universal law of sport” that could be threatened by “political interference” undermining “the core principles of fair play, tolerance, and non-discrimination”— traditional IOC language. However, Bach also said: “Sport has to be politically neutral, but it is not apolitical. Sport is not an isolated island in the sea of society.” The modern IOC has updated its rhetoric, adding a dose of nuance.
Today the International Olympic Committee is a well-oiled machine, with slick PR, palatial accommodations in Lausanne, Switzerland, and around $1 billion in reserves. National Olympic Committees now outnumber United Nations member states, 206 to 193. The US government references the Games in code names for covert missions. The Olympics are a force to be reckoned with. Let the reckoning begin.