Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Brief History of the Olympics

The Olympic Games have changed dramatically since French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the ancient Greek tradition in the late 19th century.  The modern games, first held in Athens during the summer of 1896, have become one of the biggest sporting events in the world, matched only by the World Cup.  As a result, the Olympics have often served as the stage for political rivalries and the promotion of national prestige.  Once a bastion of amateur athleticism, professional athletes dominate today’s competition.

Politics gradually became part of the games in its early years.  In 1936, Adolf Hitler used the Berlin Summer Olympics as a propaganda tool to bolster the international stature of his Third Reich.  In the months before the Olympics, the Nazis tempered their anti-Jewish policies in order to counter news stories of the regime’s repression.  Though the Fuhrer hoped the games would provide a venue to demonstrate Aryan supremacy, African-American sprinter Jesse Owens stole the show when he won four gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, 4X100 meter relay, and the long jump.

Suspended during World War II, the Olympics resumed in 1948 and the Soviet Union returned to the games in Helsinki in 1952.  During the Cold War, American and Soviet troops never actually faced off in battle (except in “Red Dawn”).  As a result, the games became one of the few arenas where the US and the USSR actually fought for world supremacy.  The Soviets invested huge resources in athletic programs to demonstrate the superiority of its communist system vis-à-vis Western capitalism.  The medal count became a battlefield in the ideological conflict between the two countries and led to some of the most dramatic moments in the history of the modern games, such as the controversial Russian victory over the US in the 1972 gold medal basketball game and the US hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviet hockey team in 1980.

The Olympics also became a venue for nations to demonstrate their power and prosperity.  Both the 1964 Tokyo Games and the 1972 Munich Games were designed to illustrate the economic recovery of the former Axis powers, Japan and Germany.  Notably, German officials deliberately implemented weak security measures at the Munich Games to contrast it with the heavily militarized environment of the Berlin Olympics of 1936.  Sadly, this created the conditions that allowed Arab terrorists to invade the Olympic Village and capture 11 Israeli athletes, holding them hostage until they murdered them during a shootout with police at a Munich airport.

The 1960 Rome Games would be the first games seen on American television.  By the 1970s, TV coverage would grow to the point that the games would dominate prime-time schedules for two weeks of the summer.  American television money would also become a key element of the Olympics’ bottom line.

The Olympics fell into financial difficulty during the 1970s and few cities competed to host the games.  Los Angeles Olympic organizer Peter Ueberroth changed the business model in the summer of 1984, using existing venues and corporate support to make the games profitable once again.  Ueberroth became Time’s “Man of the Year” and the battle to host the games became high stakes, eventually leading to a bribery scandal over the right to host the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Politics returned to the games with a vengeance in the 1980s as President Jimmy Carter boycotted the Moscow Games of 1980 to protest the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.  The Soviet bloc responded in kind with a boycott of the 1984 LA Games.  The 1988 Seoul Olympics saw an end to the tit-for-tat and served as the first Summer Games with every major power competing since 1976.

For years, only amateur athletes were allowed to take part in the competition. The Warsaw Pact countries made a mockery of this ideal by paying their athletes to serve in the military, even though all they did was train for their sport.  Eventually, the governing bodies of each sport allowed professionals to participate, exemplified by the 1992 US Olympic basketball squad, known as the “Dream Team,” composed of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and other top NBA stars.

With the Cold War over, the battles between the US and the Soviet Union for medal supremacy no longer dominate the games.  Long past the days of amateurism, the Olympics have become a full-scale advertisement for commercialism, replete with multi-billion dollar television contracts and corporate sponsorships.  One could not turn your head in any direction during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics without seeing a Coca-Cola ad. Today, world-famous professional athletes from basketball and tennis participate alongside relatively obscure swimmers and track stars.  Though some bemoan the evolution of the games, the spectacle will transfix the people of the United States and the world for the next two weeks.

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