Olympic Dreams, Olympic Myths

July 28, 2012 Michael Kaufman

The London Games are on! And faster than Usain Bolt, out sprint many Olympic myths. The problem with myths is they can be dangerous. Here’s what you need to know.

Myth 1: The Modern Olympics are the Continuation of the Ancient Olympics

Starting in 1896, those who created the “modern Olympics” traced their origins to the ancient Greek Olympiad. This claim is nothing more that smoke, mirrors and clever marketing.

The Greek Olympics were hyper-violent. In essence, they were war games preparing youth for combat. Often they were fights to the finish and embodied no concept of fair play or sportsmanship. It was acceptable to intimidate another man right out of competition.

So why were the modern Olympics invented?

The Olympics and, indeed, our whole world of sport, was created primarily in Europe and the United States in the second half of the 19th century.

In a nutshell, the creators of the Olympics and most other organized games (such as the various forms of football) saw in sport the potential to shape men. (Like the Greek games, the first Olympics didn’t allow women and the doors to women opened slowly.)

Indeed, this was the era that witnessed the original crisis of masculinity. Sons no longer worked alongside their fathers and fathers were away from home for very long days; more boys were being taught by women; the industrial revolution had begun the deskilling of labour that had long been part of men’s identities. And most frightening of all, women were challenging long-established institutions of male power: this was the era of the first wave of feminism.

And so, among those men who shaped opinion, there was a growing fear that boys were becoming “feminized.” Men of power asked where would they find men to go into battle, administer the colonies, and run their companies and governments?

The “innovators, organizers, and creative publicists like[Olympic organizer Pierre de] Coubertin consciously regarded sports as educational, preparing boys and young men for careers in business, government, colonial administration, and the military by instilling physical and mental toughness, obedience to authority, and loyalty to the ‘team.’” writes Commonwealth gold medalist and sports scholar Bruce Kidd.

The new world of sport perfectly captured the ethos of the era: It would be a world of competition and machine-like performance where every movement could be optimized and individual performance could be ranked, measured, and proportionally rewarded. In a nutshell sport was something very different than the physical play that preceded it.


Myth 2: The Olympics are All About the Celebration of Athletic Achievement

Well, yes and no.

It’s true, we are treated to wonderful athletic performances that many of us do enjoy. But it’s also about many other things.

One of them is nationalism. If in doubt, simply watch the coverage from another country (as we in Canada have the endless pleasure of doing with the availability of US stations) to see that it is an extended exercise in jingoism and national chest thumping – including the absurd medal standings race.

More than anything, though, it’s about commercial exploitation.  Small shopkeepers in London who had the temerity to do little Olympic window displays to get in the spirit of the games were told by authorities they were using a trademark symbol and ordered to take them down. The chair of the London games (and former runner and Conservative Party hack) Sebastian Coe even claimed that fans wearing running shoes other than those made by one of the game’s sponsors would not be allowed inside, although this rather fascist commercialism went too far and was retracted.

Simply put, the Olympics is a very big business, meant to increase profits of the sponsors, huge amounts for the bureaucrats who run them, and staggering financial windfalls for athletes from wealthy countries who win gold (figuratively and literally.)  And don’t get me started on the leaders of the International Olympic Committee, too many of whom could start a “Friends of Dictators and Murderers Club”


Myth 3: The Olympics Are Good Because They Encourage Children to Play Sports

Sport is often held up as the perfect activity for young people to build character and discipline, to learn cooperation and teamwork, and as a source of physical and emotional well-being. True, however:

  • Our regimes of competitive sport (starting with gym class in schools and children’s leagues) increasingly teach children to ignore physical and emotional pain (even though, of course, pain is a warning sign that something is wrong.) The injunction to “play with pain” not only can be a source of lasting physical harm, it is part of the way that sport teaches children to distrust their feelings and to ignore and discredit fear and vulnerabilities.
  • Particularly for those who wish to join the elite levels of sport, there is a sort of self-administered violence where the ever-increasing demands of elite athletics is premised on physical and emotional self-sacrifice (and then the celebration and masochistic glorification of this self-sacrifice.) One form this can take is the need to use performance-enhancing drugs or be on ultra-high energy and protein diets that do not have a long-term sustainability.
  • Sport increasingly celebrates what we might think of as a hypermasculine ideal for men and women alike where worth is measured in a sculpting of muscle mass and achievement of physical prowess that long ago eclipsed what might be seen as natural.

So, sure, enjoy watching your favorite events. I know, I will be. But don’t get caught up in Olympic hype and myth.

This blog draws in part on an advocacy brief on men and sport that I’m writing for the Men Engage Alliance. This, along with advocacy briefs on sexual violence as a weapon of war and another on changing social norms, will be available in September through MenEngage.org.

Here are a few good sources on the Olympics, sport, and masculinity:

  • Varda Burstyn, The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics and the Culture of Sport, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999
  • Bruce Kidd, “Sports and Masculinity,” in Michael Kaufman, ed, Beyond Patriarchy: Essays by Men on Pleasure, Power and Change, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Michael S. Kimmel, The History of Men: Essays on the History of American and British Masculinities, New York: State University of New York Press, 2005 (and other works by Michael.)
  • Michael A. Messner & Donald F. Sabo, Sex, Violence and Power in Sports, Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1994. (Along with many other books and articles by Michael and Don.)
  • Vyv Simson and Andrew Jennings, The Lords of the Rings: Power, Money and Drugs in the Modern Olympics, Toronto: Stoddart, 1992


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