The power of the Olympics

With rising uncertainty regarding the viability of the Olympics taking place in 2021, James Mahon looks back at era defining moments that have happened thanks to its existence

The Olympics has consistently been a source of unencumbered joy, inspiration, and athletic skill. Watching athletes from an eclectic range of sports has transfixed generations spanning centuries. The postponement of the Olympics in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the increased uncertainty in recent months, leads one to return to the moments in Olympic history that remain permanently imprinted upon our minds.

The roots of the Olympics can be traced back to ancient Greece. Every four years, thousands Greek citizens would participate in and view a variety of sporting events, ranging from long-distance running to wrestling. The sporting festival was held in honour of the Greek god Zeus, with the sacrifice of 100 oxen in his name being the highlight. Thankfully this has been discontinued, yet the innate Olympic spirit remains a constant presence. It was Pierre de Coubertin in the 19th century who was the catalyst for the emergence of the Olympics as we know it today. Taking inspiration from Dr. William Penny Brooks, another 19th century figure advocating the creation of the modern Olympics, Coubertin made an eloquent plea to the “Union des Sports Athlétiques” in 1892 urging them to form a new contemporary Olympic games. Despite this, Coubertin was unsuccessful, with little or no response to his expressive speech. Nonetheless, mainly to reward his persistence, Coubertin was granted his wish when he made a similar argument at a conference on international sports in 1894. The Olympics as we are familiar with began in 1896, with the first revival of the “modern” Olympics being held in Athens, Greece.

Whilst an in-depth history of the Olympics would be far beyond this article, one can appreciate its historical significance through key era-defining moments that have occurred thanks to its existence. Firstly, is the brilliance of African-American athlete Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. The backdrop to this of course was the Nazism that had infected Germany, spearheaded by its most potent force Hitler, perpetuating vile theories that people of colour are somehow inferior or lesser beings. However, Hitler’s intention to utilise the games as a means in which to observe the racial superiority of the ‘Ayran man’ was superbly undone by the athletic genius of Owens. The American eased to victory in the 100-meter sprint, set a world record in the corresponding 200-meter event and, in a symbolic image, defying Hitler’s pronouncements, defeated the much lauded German Luz Long in the long jump. Owens ultimately capped it off with another record-breaking performance in the 4x100m relay. Although criticised for attending by the African-American organisation the NAACP, Jesse Owens through his actions, not his words, reminded us of the underlying purpose at the very core of the Olympics: to unite varying cultures, ethnicities, and nationalities in celebration of great human endeavour.

“The power of the Olympics as a medium to heighten global awareness regarding issues affecting all society can be found throughout history.”

The power of the Olympics as a medium to heighten global awareness regarding issues affecting all society can be found throughout history. The actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two African-American athletes are indicative of this. Smith and Carlos, after winning Gold and Bronze in the 200-metres sprint raised their fists in a Black Power salute while the American national anthem played during the podium ceremony. Peter Norman, the Australian athlete who finished second, stood in solidarity with them by wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. Less than a few months after the assassination of Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the increased disillusionment in American society regarding the Vietnam war, it was representative of their demand for better social and racial equality, not only for African-Americans, but for all marginalised groups around the world. It was done as Smith said in 2008 because “we had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard”.

Smith and Carlos faced a barrage of criticism and abuse upon their return to America, including death threats. Eventually they overcame ostracization, both going on to pursue professional football careers. Peter Norman suffered similar consequences, he was isolated completely by the Australian Olympics team for his political stand with Smith and Carlos, before succumbing to depression and alcoholism. Carlos and Smith were pallbearers at his funeral after his death in 2006. The courage shown by Carlos and Smith in addition to Norman, using the Olympics as an international platform to protest peacefully their desire for equality to be achieved strikes an even more poignant cord considering the events of 2020.

“…the world as a whole collectively savoured the majestic ‘Dream Team’”

Smith, Carlos, and Norman proved the ability of the Olympics to connect with audiences globally regarding social justice and inequality. The 1992 USA “Dream Team” Olympic basketball team was an altogether different spectacle. This was the first occurrence of the American basketball team featuring professionals from the NBA, as opposed to college students. Amongst the legendary players included were Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. The Olympic tournament itself was a formality, with the USA cruising to victory over Croatia 117-85 points in the final. Yet it goes beyond a gold medal, previously it was only imaginary exercises of the mind that allowed one to combine Bird or Johnson onto the same team as opposed to facing off against one and other. To see it manifested transcended all national and international tensions, the world as a whole collectively savoured the majestic “Dream Team” – illustrative once again of the unifying power of the Olympics.

In the 21st century, spectators continued to witness sporting figures enter the pantheon of greats, courtesy of their performances at the Olympics. Michael Phelps, perhaps the greatest Olympian of all time with his singular dominance at all swimming categories, succeeded at the 2008 Olympics. Phelps won eight gold medals at a single Olympics, breaking Mark Spitz’s record of seven that had existed since 1972. Phelps was an athletic outlier, reigning supreme in virtually all Olympics in which he participated. Similarly, Usain Bolt, with his charismatic charm and supersonic speed replicated Phelps, not in medal tallies but in his ability to grab the world’s attention with his multi-generational talent. Completing his Olympic career with eight gold medals, he is the greatest sprinter of all time. Though it is not his world record performances that stand out, but rather his 100-metre gold in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Questions surrounded Bolt’s desire, tenacity, and endurance in the months before the Olympics, and he responded the only way he could by winning with a blistering time of 9.81 seconds. In a more personal reflection watching David Rudisha break his own 800-metre world-record at the London Olympics is something that is indelibly imprinted on my memory. His energy, fluency and poetic beauty captivated myself and millions of others on that August summer night.

“If it is to be cancelled or postponed once more, it will hopefully make the wait all the sweeter when it finally does happen, be it in Japan or elsewhere.”

Emotions like that which only the Olympics can evoke were threatened by the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics until 2021. Throughout 2020 there was a defiant optimism that the Olympics would take place the following year, reflecting the naivety regarding the pernicious nature of Covid-19. In recent months doubt has been cast on the Olympics happening in 2021, with rising Covid-19 cases globally and in Japan there is an emergency order in certain sections of the country. Despite the fact that almost 80% of the Japanese population do not want the games to go ahead, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) and local organisers are definitive that it will take place with Covid-19 measures enacted. A potential driving factor in this outlook is the billions already invested in the event and the expected revenue from TV rights that the IOC is hoping to receive. Nonetheless, despite the organiser’s certainty, one cannot stand by it giving the changing global environment. If it is to be cancelled or postponed once more, it will hopefully make the wait all the sweeter when it finally does happen, be it in Japan or elsewhere.

Once the Olympics inevitably makes its return, it will be a joyous occasion and be welcomed by nations everywhere. Undoubtedly it will serve to unite the globe in a time when such unification is more than necessary, showing what true power it continues to hold.