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Politics and the Olympics: An illusion of equality

Every four years, the countries of the world gather to celebrate athletic achievement in an atmosphere of international cooperation. That is the goal of the Olympic Games, yet rare has been the Olympiad that is totally free of politics. Adolf Hitler used the Games as an Aryan showcase in 1936, and a string of politically motivated boycotts in the 1970s and '80s threatened to kill the Olympic movement. The Games rebounded, but in 2008 the spectre of boycott returned as protesters sought to use the Beijing Games as a political platform.

Transcending politics was the lofty ideal that motivated Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin to propose a revival of the ancient Greek Olympic Games as an athletic contest among the world's nations. But the modern Olympics are intensely political and have never been free from class tensions and jingoism, says cultural critic Varda Burstyn in this edition of CBC Radio's Ideas. This overview of the Games, seen through the lens of politics, takes listeners through the Workers' Olympics of the 1930s, John Diefenbaker's faith in sports as a force against communism and the overt nationalism of the 1984 Los Angeles Games. 
• The pursuit of excellence in sport was not the only focus for Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics. According to the online Olympic museum, de Coubertin's ideal of Olympism was:

• To be a religion, that is, to 'adhere to an ideal of a higher life, to strive for perfection';

• To represent an elite 'whose origins are completely egalitarian' and at the same time represent the moral qualities of 'chivalry';

• To create 'a four-yearly festival of the springtime of mankind'; and

• To glorify beauty by the 'involvement of the philosophic arts in the Games'. 

• The first meeting of the International Olympic Committee took place in Paris in 1894. The committee chose Athens as the site for the first modern Olympics in 1896 in recognition of the Games' origins in ancient Greece. According to the official website of the Olympic Games, the Greek spectators were jubilant when one of their own, a shepherd named Spyridon Louis, won the marathon.

• Bruce Kidd, heard in this clip, competed as a runner for Canada in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He went on to become a member of the School of Physical Health and Education at the University of Toronto and a prolific author on sport.

Medium: Radio
Program: IDEAS
Broadcast Date: Oct. 16, 1986
Guest(s): Rick Bruno, Bruce Cummings, Bruce Kidd, George Lipsits, John MacAloon, Jim Reardon, Alan Tomlinson
Host: Lister Sinclair
Reporter: Varda Burstyn
Duration: 44:59
Photo: Postcard for 1934 Workers' Olympics in Prague from alphabetilately.com

Last updated: June 28, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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