In 1892, Baron de Coubertin, a French educator and historian, called for the restoration of the Olympic games, hoping that they would promote peace and also help achieve his decidedly conservative political aims. De Coubertin considered the games a way to promote ideals of manliness. He argued that women’s sport was “the most unaesthetic sight human eyes could contemplate“ and that the games should be reserved for men.
The Olympics have always been intertwined with politics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has never wavered from its underlying conservatism. Taiwan preserved its place in the Olympics far longer than it did in the United Nations.
Ludicrously, the IOC maintained the “hypocritical and ultimately forlorn“ pretence of amateurism until 1988—even as Soviet athletes were amateurs in name only.
And from 1928 until 1968, there were no women’s races of more than 200 metres because it made them look too tired. It took until 1984 for women to make up one-fifth of competing athletes.
At every turn, the Olympics has alloweditself to be manipulated by governments, including appalling regimes. Ahead ofthe 1936 games in Berlin, the chairman of the American Olympic Committeeconcluded that there was no case for a boycott as there was no discriminationin German sport. Nazi Germany, which had initially been reluctant to play host,soon realised the huge potential benefits: it is estimated that more was spenton the Berlin games than all the previous Olympics combined. Adolf Hitler andthe Nazi entourage attended every day.
More recently, the IOC has allowedgovernments to hide their problems from view during the games—after Atlantasubmitted its bid for the 1996 games, homeless people were even locked up—andto trample over the rights of their citizens.
In crude financial terms, hosting is adisaster: the 2004 games in Athens cost the Greek government about $16 billion(about 5% of the government’s total debt) and the swimming complex remainsunused. Mr Goldblatt reckons that, of the 17 Olympic tournaments held betweenthe second world war and 2012, only the one in Los Angeles, in 1984, actuallymade a profit. Moreover, the idea that the games makes a host nation moreathletic has no foundation. In Britain, fewer people do sport now than didbefore the Olympics in 2012. Little wonder, then, that a “Nolympics“ movement hasbuilt up, made of protesters against hosting the games.
Another dark side of the sport can beseen in the way athletes, often at the behest of their national Olympiccommittees, have used performance-enhancing drugs.
This kind of cheating began in the1930s, if not earlier, though the IOC did not introduce drug testing until1968. As the recent Russian doping scandal highlights, drug use remains all tooprevalent.
So far, this has not undermined thepopularity of the games. In 1912 de Coubertin created a poetry contest andchose as the winner a poem he had written himself, which included the words, “Osport you are justice!“