London’s five ring circus
Historians of the Olympics credit much of their modern success to the glamour of the 1908 games, in London. Under the inspired leadership of Lord Desborough, a swashbuckling six-foot-five aristocrat who had climbed the Matterhorn and rowed across the Channel, London became host at the eleventh hour, when the Italians backed out after the April 1906 eruption of Mount Vesuvius killed more than a hundred people. Desborough wasted no time and rushed through the construction of a brand-new stadium in Shepherd’s Bush. He launched the opening ceremony before a full-house of nearly 70,000 spectators – with the 22 nations and 2,000 athletes marching around the track in their now familiar procession. The 1908 games were the first to use metric measurements, award medals and generally to treat athletics as a worthy spectacle in itself. The two previous Olympics had been tacked on to World Fairs and Expositions and the 1904 games in St Louis had included such unedifying pursuits as greased pole climbing and mud fighting.
The 1908 games immediately provoked controversy. James Edward Sullivan, President Roosevelt’s special commissioner, distinguished himself by submitting a formal complaint nearly every day throughout the event. The real and imagined slights his entourage endured included the use of illegal shoes by the British tug-of-war team, and the omission of the Stars and Stripes from the flags adorning the stadium. On his return to New York, Sullivan called the US victory “undoubtedly the greatest in the history of Amateur sport in the world, when it is taken into consideration the handicaps the members were subjected to.”
Grandiloquent political statements became practically de rigueur afterwards, but subsequent games also produced genuinely important political gestures. Although the games are notionally devoid of political overtones, they have always been the staging ground for the zeitgeist’s most urgent concerns. The four gold medals earned by Jesse Owens at the 1936 Munich games was perhaps the most telling refutation of Nazi race theory in its day, and it arguably did as much to inspire black Americans as the comeback victory of Joe Louis over Max Schmeling a year later. To this day the iconic Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 games remains a perfect example of what a symbolic protest can achieve when it takes place in the right venue. Other statements can be made too, especially about the power of little countries. This year’s 100 metres final – arguably the marquee event of any Olympics – will likely see at least three West Indians vying for the podium. Can any of us forget the joy of watching Usain Bolt waltz past his American rivals, laces flying, and with enough time to thump his chest in delight? (In a touching gesture, in 2008 Tommie Smith gave Usain Bolt one of his shoes from the 1968 Olympics.)
The 2012 Olympic games, London’s third, open in the shadow of the usual doubts – some trivial, others potentially serious. Fears of industrial action, delays, mismanagement and overspending, concerns about the heavy-handed security presence as well as the terrorist threat it is there to guard against. As with every big city that hosts major sporting events, there will undoubtedly be inconveniences, oversights and mistakes. But these criticisms largely miss the point. Once the games themselves produce the necessary competitive drama, nobody remembers the other stuff. The Beijing Olympics were a remarkable success from this perspective – despite similar concerns. In fact China was even able to hide its appalling human rights record and present itself as a thriving, metropolitan nation. The other China, in which millions toil in appalling conditions, and corruption and totalitarian intolerance reign supreme, was kept well away from Western eyes.
Barring unforeseeable mishaps, there is no reason why the games in London should not surpass those in Beijing. London is unquestionably one of the great cities of the world, with a depth of history and culture that is second to none. It has spent lavish amounts getting ready for these Olympics and seems as well-prepared as any other recent host. Once its voluble Mayor – who must be almost relieved by the serial gaffes which have characterized Mitt Romney’s ill-advised visit – keeps his feet well away from his mouth, and the infamous British weather holds up, the next two weeks are certain to produce the sort of magic Lord Desborough worked so hard to achieve in the city’s first games. With the turmoil in Syria and concurrent uncertainty in the Middle East and North Africa, these Olympics take place amidst the usual worldly complications. As ever they offer only a partial escape from the political pressures of the day. And yet, however illusory the vision of nations competing peacefully despite their other entanglements, the Olympics remains the most satisfying escape from realpolitik that we have, and ought to be enjoyed accordingly.