In the first week of the London Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), along with its Australian counterpart (AOC), threatened an Aboriginal athlete with disqualification for wearing a t-shirt with the Aboriginal flag on it, meanwhile endorsing a flag with a boxing kangaroo as a new emblem of the boundless human spirit. A young man was reprimanded for wearing the flag of his people while competing for the colony that killed his ancestors in the heart of the empire that stole his country.
“The boxing kangaroo means a lot to our athletes,” said AOC member John Coates. The AOC’s website states “BK (the boxing kangaroo) is not a lout, nor is he aggressive or arrogant. He is, however, assertive when it comes to defending his country’s glory.” Here we have the true spirit of the Olympic Games; one of suppression and reactionary propaganda. The Aboriginal flag is not only branded as illegal, but implied to be meaningless, while a vacuous image that fortifies blind nationalism and serves to sweep aside the past and present brutalities of Australian colonialism is glorified and broadcasted to the world.
From their inception, the Olympics have been an imperialist pissing contest. Like all things imperialist, their proudest moments have been their most revisionist, as have their most shameful. Jesse Owens’ iconic string of gold medals at the 1936 Olympics now have ineluctable ties to anti-Nazism, to the gloriously advanced west’s destruction of Hitler’s credos of racial superiority. In reality, Hitler, who was not present for any events, sent Owens a congratulatory picture of himself, while in America the Jim Crow laws continued to be implemented, segregation ran rife, and Owens himself struggled to make a living on return. Owens later said ‘Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR (President Roosevelt) who snubbed me.’
Or take the 1968 games, which kicked off ignominiously with the slaughter of over 400 protesters by the Mexican government, but are best remembered for the actions of African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists while they stood on the podium, having come first and third respectively in the 200m sprint, and were vilified for adopting a ‘Black Power salute’. Their protest was part of the Olympic Project for Human rights, organized by amateur African American athletes, which called for the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title (stripped for his opposition to the invasion of Vietnam), the removal of nazi-sympathiser Avery Brundage, from his position as head of the IOC, the employment of more African American coaches, and the expulsion South Africa and Rhodesia, both apartheid states at the time, from the Games. The next day, the Los Angeles Times wrote that the athletes performed a ‘Nazi-like salute’. The Chicago Tribune referred to the incident as ‘an embarrassment visited upon the country’ by ‘renegades’ who would be ‘greeted as heroes by fellow extremists’ but had performed ‘an insult to their fellow countrymen.’ The Chicago American referred to Smith and Carlos as ‘a pair of black-skinned storm troopers’. So much for the celebration of the human spirit and achievement! That Smith had broken the world record was immaterial in the context of his willingness expose the rampant racism throughout the US, just four months after the assassination of Martin Luther King.
The shameful legacy of the Olympics lies not only in quelling the civil dissent of its participants. For the 1988 games in Seoul, South Korea, 720,000 people lost their homes to make way for infrastructure as well as for a level of urbanization that made housing in the city unaffordable for ordinary people. In Atlanta in 1996 this number dropped to 30,000, but in 2008 the Beijing Games saw 1.5 million people displaced, with almost one in every six of the city’s inhabitants made homeless. Greece’s catastrophic spending on the 2004 Games was a major catalyst for the depth of the crisis that has created over 30% unemployment (over 50% among youth) and ravaged the healthcare system to the point of a medical regression of generations, with diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and Nile Fever re-emerging and AIDS having become 1250% more prevalent in the first ten months of 2011 alone. This year the Olympic Green Zone was planted in London’s East End. Thousands are already known to have become homeless (though western media sources are a little more reticent about reporting the inhumanity of the British Government than they are that of the Chinese) as often for rooftop missile launchers as for official infrastructure. Under changed police laws, every form of protest can be considered an act of terrorism.
The truly transcendent attitude that the Olympics breeds is one of protest and rejection. Those who have fought in the Games have not only fought against, but in spite of, the Games. They have fought in the face of an institution that not only acts to crush any political statement on the part of the oppressed, but one which seeks to whitewash the vast inequality in the world by dividing people along arbitrary geographical lines and telling them to line up against one another.