Rio 2016

The Olympics Then, Now, and Always: A VICE Sports Q&A With Sports Historian David Goldblatt

Rio 2016 doesn't give us much of a reason to believe in the Olympic movement's ideals. Neither does history. So where do we go from here?

by Aaron Gordon
26 July 2016, 9:34pm

Antonio Lacerda // EPA

"To change or be changed, that is the question," said Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee's president, in Agenda 2020, a set of recommendations for reform in an age where the Olympics are an engine for social unrest and economic waste. "We need to change because sport today is too important in society to ignore the rest of society. We are not living on an island, we are living in the middle of a modern, diverse, digital society...we must engage with this society, we must be in a respectful dialogue with this society."

As the cost of putting on the Olympics exponentially increases to the point of farce, host nations' human rights records deteriorate, and few nations wanting to host the games at all, the IOC is at just another set of crossroads in its long and tumultuous history.

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To fully understand what precipitated Agenda 2020's radical—for the IOC—about-face and whether or not its promises for equality, transparency, respect for human rights and marginalized communities can feasibly be achieved by the modern Olympic movement would require a book of sizable heft. Luckily, sports historian David Goldblatt wrote such a book.

Part of Goldblatt's inspiration to write The Games: A Global History of the Olympics was due to the lack of any book like it. "It was like, where is the book on the Olympics that really debunks this thing? People have come at it from different angles. Let's do the whole thing properly."

And properly he did. Writing without the traditionally IOC-approved dose of feel-goodery, Goldblatt begins by recasting the IOC's founder, Pierre de Coubertin, not as a dedicated servant to the Olympic vision, but as "an opportunist, a self-mythologizer, and a fantasist." Relying on an impressive array of primary and secondary sources spanning 150 years, Goldblatt weaves a convincing and necessary history of the Olympics as a critically flawed enterprise whose very existence deserves serious re-evaluation.

After he wrote the vast majority of the book, Goldblatt stepped away for about a week to sort his thoughts for the concluding section. "The more I went on," he told me recently from his home in Bristol, England, "the more the slightly darker conclusion and the narrower room for arguing the case for the Games became."

With Rio 2016 right around the corner—up there as one of the most problematic Olympics ever from a socio-economic perspective—I spoke to Goldblatt about the Olympics' long road to its current crisis, and how those of us who care about both sports and basic human decency should approach the modern version of the Olympic Games.

I spoke to Goldblatt for over an hour, so this interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VICE Sports: I'm going to be covering Rio 2016, but I got to the end of your book and thought, what am I covering? Am I covering a socio-economic disaster? A sporting event? A TV show?

Goldblatt: I personally am struggling with these things as well. I sort of knew where I was going when I started the book, but the more I went on, the more the slightly darker conclusion and the narrower room for arguing the case for the games became. I realized, on the one hand, how lithe the IOC has been over the years in adapting to the prevailing winds, for finding new justifications, new allies, new kind of ideological garlands to hang around the Olympics.

I don't know if you've read Agenda 2020 but some of the most purple passages in it, and I detect [IOC president Thomas] Bach's own hand in them, are on precisely this issue. And here we are, you know, what are we gonna do? How much more blatant does it have to get?

IOC president Thomas Bach has the unenviable task of ushering the IOC into a new age. LAURENT GILLIERON // EPA

In general, it seems to me like the games themselves have become less about actually having a positive impact and more on making it a talking point, a promise nobody really intends to keep.

I think one of the reasons this has come about is the model of relationships between host and the IOC is basically forged in the era of Antonio Samaranch [the IOC president from 1980 to 2001] where they really don't give a shit. There is no ideological garlanding going on. They just want people to put on a big fuck-all games.

Bach and some of the more progressive characters within the IOC—and we shouldn't paint them all as a kind of uniform blob of ignorance and reaction—realized that there's a problem. They do see there's been some problem and there is an attempt in Agenda 2020 to kind of, for future games, to change the nature of the bidding process, to encourage a certain amount of reuse, but they're stuck with a model that was developed just to put on gigantic spectaculars.

You remember Samaranch at the end of every games (except Atlanta) going, "the best games ever!" That's the whole hype cycle of the Samaranch era. Bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger, total ideological vacuity. And then when you try to inject some sort of social concern or restraint into it, you haven't got the instruments to do it.

What I suppose I'm hanging onto is this: that in the world of international affairs and international culture, we have very, very few moments for sort of reflecting and being global cosmopolitan humanity, and limited as that is, I think it's actually a really good and quite profound thing. So when you've got one of these things, completely dismembering it, and destroying it is a big decision. It's much harder to break things than to make things. So I'm a little bit of a conservative there and I think there's something about the Olympics that still holds to that.

The other thing to say is it doesn't actually have to always be organized like this. Why are we always holding it in one city, for example? In any case, when you have sailing it's not in the same city. Waymouth wasn't in London. So why not put it in a whole network of cities, you know? Suddenly you don't have to build anything. And that's the vast majority of the cost of these things. Beyond security, which is like $2 billion a go at the moment, and the rest of the staging of the games, let's call it another $2 billion, half of which could be paid for from the television fees. Something much more modest and much more popular might be possible.

We don't have to have such absurd standards for the scale of everything that's done. The opening ceremonies is an interesting one. Although people laugh at the theatrics of it, more people watch the opening ceremony than the men's hundred meters. I think about the Chinese politburo which spent $150 million on that opening ceremony. In the book, I go on that this is like making Avatar, but just as a one-off. And the Brazilians are doing it on like $5 million. So, you know, austerity, this is possible. You can do it.

I think the other thing to think about with the Olympics is this whole idea of more sport on television means more people will get active, the world will be healthier, right? All the evidence suggests this is just not true. In fact, in London, which took that aim more seriously than anyone, the numbers have gone down.

One of the things I really enjoyed learning in the book was just how intellectually flexible de Coubertin, the founder of the Olympics, was. He's often lauded as this figure who had this vision and ruthlessly pursued it for the purpose of global sport, but I was surprised to learn that his actual vision for why he wanted the games was pretty flexible.

Oh yeah, he was an opportunist, a self-mythologizer, and a fantasist. I mean he's an extraordinary man and I feel so slightly sorry for him in some ways. But certainly his biographers in the IOC have not done him any favors by covering him up so badly.

What's interesting about de Coubertin, first and foremost, is that he forms his attitudes to sport before he gets into the Olympics. The Olympics is kind of like Phase 2. Phase 1 is coming out of Jesuit School and going like, fuck, what do I do? The Army? Uh, no. The law? No. Foreign service? No. Maybe I'll hang out a bit at this social science college and take a few classes. And then he goes, does his public school trip, reads Tom Brown's School Days [an 1857 novel set at the famed English elite Rugby School] and he's convinced by muscular Christianity and the public school sports ethic of the late 19th Century and it's the American Ivy League collegiate version.

He's active in French sporting circles, organizing and putting on rugby tournaments and all that up to 1891. And then he goes and sees William Penny Brookes' running his bizarre, rural, working class fair, the Wenlock Olympian Games. They have their conversations and this is the moment where he actually gets turned onto the idea of the games. In fact, I don't know if you remember, but before he goes, some other dudes in France who were active in the sports culture and politics world say, 'oh, what about an Olympics?' And he going, 'no, ridiculous idea!'

It brings together a whole load of stuff in his life. The public school ethic and also his dreams for the transformation of France through being a bit more like Britain and America in that regard, his internationalism. And his internationalism, it's not very deep but it's reasonably sincere.

The real driving force is this idea of the public school ethic, being staged as a kind of revived Olympic games and having that, you know he always really dug the spiritual and religious side of it. That, again, gets written out of the Olympic history. His thing with the ancient games that de Coubertin really got—and he didn't get a lot of it, and he made a lot of it up—but what he did get is that they were a religious experience for the people who were there. You were going to have a good time and you were going to have a race and you were going to see your mates, but sure as hell you were going to sacrifice something to Zeus as part of that. And that's profound for the people who were doing it. Athletics was part of a spiritual-religious experience. And de Coubertin thought of the Olympic games very much as a kind of neo-Hellenic revival and a form of semi-religious cult of the amateur gentlemen athlete. And that's the heart of the vision. It's finding a place to celebrate that in the world that he is most driven by, I think. And he describes the games as a display of manly virtue with the quiet applause of women as the reward.

Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement, and also possible fake mustache-wearer. From the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division.

And of course, for the beginning of the Olympics, it was an overwhelmingly white male event.

And upper class! That's what amateurism is all about. People still think about amateurism as some sort of moral bloody category and it's worth remembering amateurism was about excluding the working classes. The Henley Regatta [an annual rowing race on the Thames], which was a model for de Coubertin's IOC in terms of governance; he loved the Henley Regatta, and he said the IOC operates on the same principle: a core of people who know what they're doing at the center, a second concentric ring of acolytes who are learning, and an outer penumbra of stardust, which is all the aristocrats and princes who you use to stick on the letterhead. And their model at the Henley Regatta of amateurism was, not only could you not compete if you'd ever taken money or won money for being a rower, but if you'd ever done manual labor. Seriously! That's where de Coubertin feels most at home. So it's very white, very male, and very upper class.

In terms of how it changes, it's still, by LA '84, we're at 20 percent women, and by the early '90s the IOC is beginning to move towards gender equity of events and gold medals. Now, we're getting pretty close to gender parity. Ethnicity and race, it's a trickle until the 1920s, then you've got the first nations from outside Europe and North America showing up and winning medals: the Japanese, the Indian hockey team, the first Chinese delegations. But of course it's not until decolonization in the '60s and '70s that the balance is really shifted. So yeah, it's not until the '80s I'd say until the Olympics begins to look anything like the world that it purports to represent.

The Olympics are more diverse than ever, which wouldn't please its founders. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In The Games, you wrote, "The Los Angeles [1932] and Berlin [1936] games were the culmination of the Olympic Games evolution as a media event." This was really interesting to me because the two events couldn't have been more ideologically different—LA corporatism and land grabs versus the big production of Nazi Germany—yet the IOC embraced them both, and took cues from both for the Olympics' future.

I mean, '32 is really interesting because the normal narrative is that '36 is the moment that everything changes. In terms of, you know, really bolting on a kind of massive ideology and outrageous nationalism and mad state-backed power projection and monumentalism, and obviously money as well, Berlin is in a different league.

But what's interesting about both of them, is this is the moment the culture industries are really becoming global for the first time, and that's what kind of unites them in some ways despite their ideological differences, is both the people running them have got it with the mass media in the way in which no one has done before. That's one thing you can say about the Nazis: they really got it with mass media, and so too the organizers of LA '32.

I mean the IOC in those days was much more hands-off than it is today. I think the IOC were pretty untroubled, by what I can see, from Los Angeles. I think back in the day there was a sort of snootiness about North America amongst European aristocrats, many of whom started the IOC. But by the time we get to 1932, everybody loves America by now, and everyone sure as hell loves Hollywood. I mean there's that lovely quote from some central European aristocrat who says to William Garland in the run-up to the bid, "Oh, is Los Angeles anywhere near Hollywood?" So I don't think there was much to come to terms to. Although there was no doubt some hand-wringing in some quarters over the amount of commercialization, I have never found actually any evidence of that being expressed. Nobody's bitching about it. Nobody's saying, oh, Coca Cola, don't like this. They don't seem to find it problematic at all.

Germany is another matter. Lots of people are familiar with the criticism of the IOC having done its deal with money, the end of amateurism, the arrival of sponsors, commercialization, which is essentially a phenomenon of the late 1980s and early 1990s onwards. But long before that, the IOC basically did its deal with power and swallowed it and said people who put on our show have necessary leeway, however much we try and control them, in making a statement. And that's frankly the price of continuing, because who else is going to put this thing on? I'm not saying anyone quite said that, but that seems to me the judgment and the exchange that was made.

Just today, one hears the argument that it was a good idea to give the games to Beijing in 2008 because it shines a light on an otherwise closed society, it encourages internationalism, it forces a host country, even for a short period of time, to bring its practice into line with the "international community," all of those things are being said about Berlin as well.

So they, both LA '32 and Berlin '36, are models of the future and the IOC is coming to terms with different things. The IOC is lithe, adaptable, and above all, focused on ensuring its survival, as all organizations are. I don't think it found it that difficult.

Just thinking back on the book as a whole, it seems like the moral arc of the book is a descent. The whole enterprise becomes less and less excusable, which becomes clear with Seoul 1988.

Aaron, you're spot on. LA '84 is often said, this is the model of the future, this turns the Olympics around, but nobody can do it like LA. And similarly, Barcelona is meant to be the model because it will renovate your city and put it on the map, but actually it turns our Barcelona is a complete one-off. And as you rightly say, it's unloved Seoul that is actually the model, where you align the games to this gigantic program, I mean really gigantic program of urban development, done to a great extent in pretty inhumane, undemocratic ways, and funded by the public purse. Seoul didn't let the private sector in quite as much, it didn't have quite the gentrification elements that later games have had. But yeah, I think you're right, the Cold War is basically over, everyone except the North Koreans shows up.

I don't know if it is quite a symbolic moment, but my favorite bit of the Seoul Olympics, I can't remember if I wrote about it, but, have you watched the opening ceremony when they light the Olympic flame?

No, I haven't.

It's really worth watching. Cause in those days it used to be preceded in the standard order of events by the doves of peace. When they lit the Olympic flame, this gigantic industrial thing with a big lift on it, they light the flame and about 50 birds are instant toast.

There are tendencies towards the Seoul games. The cost is rising. Munich '72 spent quite a lot of money, Tokyo '64 spent a real lot of money. But there was a degree of kind of urban planning and consensus and massive amounts of war damage that needed to be rebuilt in both of those cities, whereas Seoul and then, above all, Atlanta '96, Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, and the winter Olympics of those eras, it becomes progressively more expensive, more wasteful, and with more sorts of negative consequences.

And the IOC is just blindly unconcerned about it. Juan Antonio Samaranch [IOC president from 1980-2001], you kind of expect it, but under Jacques Rogge [president from 2001–2013] who painted himself as the man to reform the IOC after the Salt Lake City scandal and return it to good standing—and at the level of governance he sort of just about manages it—but it's on his watch that the thing goes completely haywire and you end up with Sochi which was $55 billion. Britain spends about that much on the entirety of its education sector! This is just madness, just complete madness.

The way I would put it is: rather than a moral arc, I would tell it as a political narrative in which the Olympics movement has successively seen off all sorts of challenges and difficulties, be it the threat of nationalism to an international organization, where you say OK we accept nationalism as fact. And then they do their deal with state power. And eventually they do their deal with commercialism, with professionalism, and with sponsors.

And now, the problem is the Olympics itself. That's the point they've got to. They've seen off everyone else, but they cannot see the thing that's right in front of them that is the biggest threat to the organization and the event, is the event itself. I think it's a tragedy actually that we've got to this.

The IOC aggregated the representation of the world through sport to themselves because of their privileged position of power in the 1800s and early 1900s and this is the spoils of victory. This is not something to which you have an indelible right, you are not necessarily custodians forever. That has to be earned, not assumed. And you guys have burnt pretty much every last bit of your political and moral capital, and I sort of feel like saying, I want it back! We would like it back, rather than just walking away.

With Rio right around the corner, what do you think is the way for fans to approach an Olympics with so many issues but still a captivating sporting spectacle?

A good dose of skepticism, a splendid sense of humor, and a deep sense of history, I think, are the essential equipment to take to the sofa. I'm not for the viewer boycott just yet, though I could get there with Qatar 2022 [World Cup].

I would say to folks, as much as possible, tune into some of the voices coming out of Rio itself, people working and writing from the favelas who have a grassroots perspective. Check out the local anti-Olympic movement, the Comitê Popular, has to say. You may agree or you may not agree. But hear the widest, diversity of voices possible.

I would also say to folks, I'm not asking people to take the weight of guilt upon their shoulders. And I don't think we're colluding by watching. But take a critical air, read around, and above all I encourage people to think, how could it be otherwise? It doesn't have to be as it is. There are things we like about it, but there will be a thousand things one finds irritating or irksome or unjust about it. And here's the critical moment to say: how can it be otherwise? What else would we like? It's a spring to the imagination.