U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Olympics and Intellectual History

This weekend’s festivities in Rio De Janeiro in celebration of the 2016 Summer Olympics are an occasion for me to combine two of my favorite fields of history: sport history and intellectual history. It is both a professional and personal connection. Down the road in my academic career, I want to pivot towards sport history and use it as a lens to understand American—and specifically Southern—history since the late 1960s. While this should include an analysis of college athletics, and the rise of pro sports in the region, Atlanta’s hosting of the 1996 Olympic Games should not be forgotten. And being a native Georgian, it means studying those games takes on a personal outlook as well.

The 1996 Olympics were a symbol of America’s “hyper-power” status in the 1990s. That year, Bill Clinton would win a decisive re-election on the record of a booming economy and a nation at peace. Independence Day rocked the box office, becoming a landmark in the summer box office blockbuster that now seems like a tame, exhausted sub-genre of Hollywood cinema. At the Olympics themselves, the United States would win the most 1996_Summer_Olympics_logo.svggold medals, and the most medals overall. As a ten-year-old boy growing up in Georgia, it was a special event. To know that Kerri Strug became an Olympic heroine in my state—and in particular the city of Atlanta, the symbol of the modern and busy South—has remained a point of pride for many years. And I say all of this acknowledging the growing commercialization prevalent at the 1996 Games, with heavy sponsoring and advertising by Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, among other companies.

Atlanta’s leadership of a “New South” of the late 20th century—symbolized in such moments as the ascension of Jimmy Carter to national prominence in the 1970s, the growth of professional sports in the city, or Atlanta’s growth as an economic and cultural capital for Black America—culminated with the 1996 Olympics. In reality it is not that different of a story from many other cities that have hosted the games. The Olympics can serve as a coming out party for a city, and a nation, on the rise, such as they did with China in 2008. Or they can serve as a way for a nation to re-introduce themselves to the world, as was the case with Tokyo, Japan in 1964 or the tragic games of Munich, West Germany in 1972. The 1996 Games tell a uniquely modern story–a highly choreographed games, with heavy commercialization, the relocation of the poor from Atlanta’s streets, and fears of terrorism that became all too real.

The politics of the games have also changed greatly over time. While in retrospect the politics of the1936 games were quite clear—the United States versus Nazi Germany—at the time it was not so simple within the USA. Newspaper coverage in the Deep South, for example, obscured the race of Jesse Owens, if he was even mentioned at all.[1] International sport in the late 1930s often turned into a political clash between fascism and western democracies—with fascism getting its fair share of victories. The 1938 World Cup quarterfinal between France and Mussolini’s Italy, a 3-1 victory for the Italians, was seen as a dangerous referendum on the Third Republic and democracy overall. Joe Louis’ two fights with Max Schmeling, along with his earlier bout against Italian Primo Carnera, also took on outsized importance due to the politics of the day.

The Olympics of the middle of the twentieth century were always overshadowed by the Cold War. The struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union meant the two nations, and their allies, used the Summer Games (and in the case of 1980, the Winter Games) as a propaganda tool. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, I argue that two stories govern the Summer Olympics: the “rise of the rest,” and America’s continued dominance at the games. A good place to find an example of the latter is Olympic Men’s basketball. 1988ussrbasketballEmbarrassed by defeat at the hands of the Soviets in 1988,[2] the United States assembled the “Dream Team” for the 1992 games and destroyed the competition. While the Americans were lavished with praise by opposing players in Barcelona, by the Atlanta games of 1996 the blowouts became an embarrassment. I do not wish to press the following point too hard, but it is interesting to note how the US Men’s National Team’s travails in Olympic basketball match the nation: the 2000 Olympics featured a close victory over Lithuania, just as the world began to tire of America’s hyper-power status. By 2004, jeers directed at the Americans were not just due to the nation’s standing in the world—it was also due to bad basketball, justly punished by a superior Argentine team in the semifinals. The 2008 and 2012 games have featured a “redemption” narrative, matching America’s own struggles to navigate a fraught international climate.

That’s just an example of how the Olympics offer an interesting way to combine sport and intellectual history. The symbolism of the games can be taken any number of ways, especially how they match up to what a host city/nation wish to achieve with the Olympics. Rio’s games are, so far, symbolic of a nation struggling to rise to the status of a major power. Like Mexico City in 1968 or Seoul in 1988, the Olympics this year may be as much a story of the domestic political problems of the host nation as they are about the external pressures of the games. Much of this can be pared with a much broader history of neoliberalism across the world since the end of the Cold War, especially when thinking about the difficulties for Greece’s government to put on the Games in 2004, or the massive economic effort required by China to put on a spectacular performance in 2008. Whatever the 2016 Games come to mean, they will provide much for historians to consider when writing about the era in which we live.

[1] Robert Drake, “Jesse Who?: Race, the Southern Press, and the 1936 Olympic Games,” American Journalism, Vol. 28, Issue 4, Oct. 2011, pg. 81-110.

[2] Ask any basketball fan my father’s age about this game, and expect an angry response. While 1972 was a heartbreaking loss against the USSR, the 1988 game stands out because the Soviets simply had a better team.

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Robert,
    This post reminded me that a couple of days ago I happened to pick up WaPo in hard copy and there was an op-ed by John Feinstein, “When the Olympics’ golden moment lost their luster” (WaPo, Aug.5). Criticizes the Olympics as “too big, too corrupt and far too expensive,” singling out the sending of the ‘Dream Team’ to Barcelona as “the moment when the Olympics lost much of their luster.” According to Feinstein, Michael Jordan wrapped himself in the flag during the medal ceremony to cover up the team’s Reebok logo, which Jordan’s Nike sponsors didn’t want him to be seen wearing. Not so much a criticism of Jordan as of commercialization, I think. I’m not much of a sports fan (except for tennis, and I don’t even follow that esp. closely any more), but since I ran across this op-ed just thought I would mention it.

    What you say about the basketball team’s fortunes and reception mirroring the U.S. position on the int’l stage is interesting — I’ll have to think about that more before venturing an opinion.

  2. I’m glad you brought up the MJ story at the 1992 Games. It’s definitely a symbol of the growing commercialization of the Olympics.

  3. Thanks for writing on the Olympics here, Robert. For most of my life, I’ve been a fan. I’ve paid more than casual attention to the games, the personalities, the symbolism, and the general hype and hubbub. Not this year. I’ve never been less enthused. I think it’s because an acute awareness of the doping scandals, the rampant political corruption in Brazil, and the severe inequality in that country. I’ve never felt more sorry for a people and country hosting the games. If I spent time on the games this year, it would feel like poverty voyeurism, or I’d be cheering for the wrong reasons. In sum, I’d be a general irritant to my family and friends by watching the games just to complain about them. – TL

    • No, trust me, I get the concern. The night of the opening ceremonies I had mixed feelings because of what you mentioned above.

  4. As usual, great post Robert.

    The Olympics are on my mind these days not just because I’m tuning into the coverage and reading analysis of the games, such as in your post; I’m assigning John Carlos’s memoir this semester, so I’ve been (re)considering the politics of sports as well.

    I’d like to add 2 resources to the discussion as a way to further the connection to intellectual history.

    Maurice Hobson’s book on Atlanta will appear later this fall, The Legend of the Black Mecca: Myth, Maxim, and the Making of an Olympic City. There’s a great interview about his project here: http://www.newblackmaninexile.net/2016/07/on-second-thought-what-hip-hop-teaches.html

    The second is a volume of poetry: Jonathan Moody, Olympic Butter Gold, a collection of verse that plays off of Chuck D’s comment about a rap Olympics. http://www.nupress.northwestern.edu/content/olympic-butter-gold

    Moody’s collection of poetry on hip hop’s history intersects with Hobson’s engagement of southern rap as it relates to Atlanta, the 1996 games, politics, race, class, etc.

    • Thanks for both of these suggestions! I’ll definitely check both of them out. Hobson’s book, in particular, sounds like something I’ll assign to any courses about the modern South have the luck of teaching.

  5. Over the years, I’ve lost my appetite for sports competition at these levels. I can’t help but consider the corruption that takes place to get to host an Olympics, the nepotism that takes place once a host city begins to build and the tragic disruption to communities especially those communities already suffering. I also have great disdain for the symbolism the games have in relation to nationalism and politics in general. I personally enjoy several sports for the love of better health and the great feeling I gain from the sports I engage in, but I am so tired of sponsorship athletics, arrogant athletes, doping and an almost bizarre focus on athletic superiority. Furthermore, I think the Olympics given it’s political inference and tremendous cost and even impact on the environment is completely out of touch with the reality of our times and seems almost antiquated in general.

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