On The Olympic Games: Past and Present
A Reflection on Race, Nationality and Sport
Although it is considered chic in certain leftist circles to hate on the Olympics, accusing the promoters of unspeakable transgressions like seeking corporate sponsorship and serving as an arena for the exercise of big power chauvinism; I continue to be smitten by the games. There is no other event that brings together the family of man in a celebration of human aspiration and possibility like the Olympics.
Everybody I have ever met that participated in the games says it was a highlight of their lives. Even multi-millionaire professional athletes with vast followings like the 1992 US basketball “Dream Team,” which is widely considered by experts as the greatest team in the history of sports, say their participation in the Olympic games was the crowning moment in their athletic careers twenty years later.
Hence this is no picayune affair. Despite the billing of the games as entirely dedicated to athletic competition, an unabashed celebration of sport, it has often encompassed issues that transcend sport. Today the big issue is the rise of women in unconventional roles, symbolized by the inclusion of women in the boxing competitions and women from Muslim countries who are competing in track and field contests for the first time. The issues of race and nationality have largely faded to black, but continue to linger on.
All the fuss being made about Gabrielle Douglass, the effervescent beautiful “Brown Butterfly” who just won the Gold Medal for the best individual performance on all apparatuses, because she is the first woman of African descent to win this much coveted prize, is a case in point.
The constant medal count between China and the USA presents unimpeachable evidence that the issue of nationalism is alive and well. The expectation that the American basketball teams, male and female, will trounce all others is a dramatic demonstration of national chauvinism, since basketball is an American invention.
Yet all one need do in order to see how far humanity has progressed is to recall the gravity with which the issues of race and nationality once weighed on the Olympic Games. The Berlin Olympics of 1936 remains the most poignant case in point. Held in Nazi Germany as Hitler’s war machine menaced the world; the Games were viewed as a test of Nazi ideology regarding the natural superiority of the blond, blue eyed, Teutonic “master race. Some thought the fate of the world depended upon exposing the German master race theory as a myth.
It was a double irony that the USA assumed this burden, because Hitler imported his racist theories from a book by the New York Eugenicist Madison Grant, and patterned his racist anti-Jewish laws on the anti-black laws in the American South.
White American Terrorist’s Favorite Sport
This is what Jessie’s family fled in Alabama
Yet it was Jesse Owens, whose family along with millions of southern Afro-Americans, had been driven out of his native Alabama by white racist terror, upon whom the burden fell of disproving the Nazi master race theory. His destruction of German athletes in several Gold Medal performances lifted the spirits of Jews everywhere and raised the morale of the US for the coming war against the Nazi’s.
And then there was the Moscow Olympics, in which the careers of gifted American athletes were wrecked when President Jimmy Carter decided the US should boycott the Olympic games as a protest against Russian foreign policy. Since no such earth shaking issues are at stake in these games, we are free to enjoy the Olympics for what they are intended to be: an exhibition of the beauty of athletic competition in a unique gathering of great athletes from every corner of the globe, who put on the greatest show on earth.
Jesse Owens on the Victory Stand: Berlin 1936
Jessie Owens recieves his Gold Medal Surrounded by Nazi’s
Double Click on Link to view Jessie Owens’ 4 gold medal performance
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
August 3, 2012