Adapted from the author’s new book, by O/R Books
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) claims in its 2008 Global Television and Online Media Report that 3.6 billion people, or 53% of the Earth’s population, watched at least one minute of the action from the Beijing Games. Quite how such a statistic can be verified with any precision is unclear. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that the Games are one of the biggest shows on Earth.
In terms of attracting a global audience the Olympics have a number of advantages over football and other major sporting events. First, the Games have the longest history, predating football’s first World Cup by 34 years, and the World Athletics Championship by just under a century. Second, there is no lengthy qualifying campaign to reduce the number of countries taking part to just 32 as is the case for the World Cup – practically every nation on the planet is represented at the Games. Some 205 national teams competed in Beijing; 216 are expected at London 2012. Third, unlike rival sporting attractions, the Olympics incorporate a wide range of different competitions: there will be 26 different sports on show in 2012. While, obviously, not all events are of equal interest around the world, together they offer something for everyone. Finally, despite the medal-winning positions in too many events being dominated by too few countries’ athletes across the Games program, as a whole the Olympic victors’ podium is shared by an enormous diversity of medal winners. Competitors from Panama, the Dominican Republic and Estonia were among those collecting Gold in Beijing, while representatives of Mauritius, Moldova and Venezuela each picked up a Bronze. In the total 86 nations appeared in medals table at Beijing 2008, compared to just 39 at the 2011 World Athletics Championships.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The significance of the Olympics, however, extends beyond its history, range of participants and vast global reach. This occurred to me with particular force when, in the summer of 2005, I found myself on a tour of Berlin’s Olympiastadion. Being an optimistic sort I’d decided to try to get a feel for the place where I fully anticipated England would be playing in the World Cup final twelve months later. I was of course disappointed in this expectation after England made their customary early exit, losing out in the quarterfinal to Portugal, following the misery of a penalty shootout. But my visit to the Olympiastadion turned out not to be a complete waste of time.
The stadium had been the main venue for the 1936 Olympics, forming part of the vast Reichssportfeld, the Nazi name for the Olympic Park, the construction of which was a pet project of Hitler’s. Although, with typical German ingenuity it had been extensively rebuilt from the inside for the 2006 Word Cup finals. Much of the original outer structure had survived Allied bombing and remained intact. As we completed our tour we were shown a stone plaque honoring those who had won medals in 1936. The name at the top of the list, with details of the four Golds he had won, was that of the black American runner Jesse Owens. Owens’ victories had been an emphatic answer to the theories of racial supremacy propagated by Hitler and his followers. Accounts conflict as to whether the Führer stormed out of the stadium in a fit of anger as the American repeatedly defeated the finest specimens of Aryan athleticism that could be found. But one thing is certain: the most enduring story of the Nazi Games is, ironically, that medals are won by athletes, not races, master or otherwise. Despite the immense power of the Nazi leadership, Owens’ name, chiseled into that plaque, was never removed and remains to this day a statement of hope and resistance. Just seeing it there made my visit entirely worthwhile and underscored the magical power of the Olympics to shake established orders.
What’s Wrong With the Modern Olympics?
The Atlanta Games marked the centenary of the first Olympics of the modern era, at Athens in 1896. The logical host one hundred years on would have been Athens again. Many believe the reason the city had to wait a further eight years for the privilege can be summed up in two words: Coca-Cola. The fizzy drink is one of the grandly titled ‘Worldwide Olympic Partners’. I know this because it’s printed on every can of Diet Coke that I knock back. And where is Coca-Cola’s headquarters? Atlanta. Amongst those who shared the sense of surprise at Atlanta’s victory over Athens, many felt this had been a major factor in deciding which city should host the centenary Olympics. What is certain is that these were the first Games where the intrusion of unsavory business practices into the IOC bidding process attracted sufficient public attention for the Olympic Movement to at least take some notice. It is an association the IOC has been forced to live with ever since.
Sport, unlike almost any other cultural form, can hurdle barriers of culture, language or politics, giving it an unrivalled position as a means of promoting goods to a global audience.
The process that began in Los Angeles in 1984 deepened in Atlanta in 1996, with the corporatization of the Olympics becoming a defining characteristic as sponsors established themselves as one of the most powerful components of an Olympic Games. Staging the 1996 event in Atlanta was in large measure a recognition of this accelerating phenomenon.