History Today Volume: 62 Issue: 8 2012

The modern Olympic Games are an international phenomenon, often criticised for their controlling commercialism. However, as Mihir Bose explains, they owe their origins to a celebrated novel set in an English public school.

An illustration from Tom Brown’s School Days, published 1877. Image courtesy of History Today

The death in June of the Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson provided an opportunity to remind everyone of the magical pulling power of the Olympics. Stevenson, who won three heavyweight golds in successive Olympics in 1972, 1976 and 1980 – he might have won a fourth had the Soviet bloc not boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games – was offered eight million dollars by an American promoter to turn professional. This would have seen him fight Muhammad Ali, then the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. And with Ali having announced himself to the world by winning gold in the 1960 Rome Olympics this promised some fight. Such a contest might have been impossible given that Fidel Castro had banned professional boxing in Cuba. But it is Stevenson’s words in imperiously rejecting the Yankee gold that have echoed down the decades: ‘What is eight million dollars when you have the love of eight million people.’

As London becomes the first city to host the Olympics three times, many would like to think that in a world where sport has been converted from a pastime into a business Stevenson’s words sum up the Olympic spirit. The Sunday Times may publish an annual sports rich list, to supplement its regular list of the British rich, but when it comes to Olympics the Britain of 1948 could almost be recreated. True competitors this time will not get free Bovril – the male athletes also got Y-fronts, much advertised as a new fangled innovation – but in many other ways 2012 can be presented as not that different.

So as in all Olympics the winners will only get a medal not a cheque and unlike other major sporting occasions, such as football World Cups and Euros, the Olympic venues will carry no advertising. There will be no sponsors’ names attached to the television images beamed across the world and even sponsors’ logos on athletes clothes will be strictly controlled. Just to emphasise what a brotherhood of nations this is, before the Games begin, Jacque Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee, will leave his plush Park Lane hotel and take up residence in the village in London’s East End built to house the athletes.

For this Belgian count and professional surgeon, a former Olympian, to experience the dormitory nature of the games is part of the unique charm of the Olympics. This above all else can claim to set the Olympics apart. In World Cups and Euros much is made of where teams set up their headquarters. Indeed England’s dismal 2010 World Cup was blamed partly on its choice of its South Africa location. But at the Olympics all competitors share the same roof and often the same dining table. The 2012 Olympic Village is a lot smarter than the old RAF camp up the Uxbridge Road in which 1948 competitors were housed, but it is still an endearing picture of the biggest of all sports event, something we can all identify with.

Yet this outward facade should not fool anyone into believing that London 2012 is not totally different to 1948. Indeed it will illustrate how far the Olympics have come since Rogge’s predecessor, the French Baron Pierre Coubertin, recreated the ancient Greek events by staging the first modern games in Athens in 1896. Unlike in 1948, Britain will be welcoming what are in effect members of a very special kind of state, a sort of Olympic Vatican. Like the Pope’s kingdom this state has no territory, or an army but not only has it a special name for its ‘citizens’ – the Olympic family –it can claim through sport to reach places few other states can. It also has unique regulations and part of the price a country pays for hosting the games is to accept its conditions.

The most important of this is that this Olympic state has the power to issue its own visas. For these games, as in all recent Olympics, the accreditation issued by Rogge’s organisation will act as the visa for visitors to Britain. They will not require to visit the British consular offices in their country to get a British visa. And should the British government decide that certain accredited members of the Olympic family, such as those from Syria, are not welcome they will have to revoke their accreditation and keep the IOC informed.

Indeed until the fall of Moammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator, his son, as president of the country’s Olympic committee, was a member of the Olympic family and entitled to all its privileges. So when tickets for London 2012 tickets went on sale the young Gaddafi asked for and was allocated 1,000 of them. This at a time when his country was subject to NATO bombing to help rebels get rid of his father’s dictatorship. As far as the Olympic state was concerned the young Gaddafi was in good standing and had done nothing against the Olympic family, whatever his family might have done against the Libyan people. The tickets were later withdrawn but it showed the special power of this state.

Indeed 2012 Olympics will emphasise that Olympic state’s control over the Games are as tight as that exercised by McDonald over its franchises. This means cities hosting the games have to follow very detailed regulations. So Rogge’s officials have specified the height of the Olympic Village having worked out how long it should take athletes to get down from their rooms to the transport taking them to the venues. London has also had to specify how long it will take for athletes to reach the venues. There are various other obligations the British government entered into when London beat Paris, Madrid, New York and Moscow to secure the games.

These require London to provide 250 miles of dedicated Olympic lanes for use by the Olympic family, 500 air-conditioned chauffeur-driven limousines, 40,000 hotel rooms of which 1,800 must be four and five star rooms and most importantly protection of the intellectual property rights to trademarks such as the Olympic rings, London 2012, even the use of the word Olympics. The British government cannot issue any Olympic themed material such as postage stamps, coins and banknotes without IOC permission.

The Olympic venues may not display advertising but the games are only possible because of huge sponsorship from worldwide companies such as Visa, McDonald, Coke and Samsung. The Olympic sponsors are allowed to display their wares but such displays are kept well away from where the sporting events take place. They have their own village inside the venue and, outside the sporting arenas, there are several places where they can actively sell their products. Sponsors pay good money to enjoy these rights and the London Games, like all recent Olympics, have already demonstrated the power sponsors can exercise. So, to buy tickets, the only credit card a purchaser can use is Visa. On the Sunday of the week the tickets first went on sale, the Observer ran a story in its business pages headlined, ‘a Visa card is a must for hopeful punters’. It then went on to explain how those who did not have Visa cards could acquire ‘virtual Visa’. Visa’s exclusive hold over the Olympics will be further emphasised when the Games begin. This is because within Olympic venues it will be the only card accepted. Other sponsors will enjoy similar privileges for their products.

And with the Olympics keen to make sure their sponsors have all the freedom to sell the organisers must make sure London, like all recent host cities, is a ‘clean city’. This means that it must ensure billboard advertising products which rival those of Olympic sponsors are removed. This applies not only to Olympic venues but also access routes to these venues. They cannot have anything that would, says the agreement, be ‘in conflict with or cause a breach of any’ official Olympic corporate sponsor. The undertaking has meant that for months before the Games the London organisers have been busy buying up billboards round the city to make sure it had obtained ‘control of all billboard advertising, transport advertising, airport advertising etc for the duration of the Games and the month preceding to support the marketing programme’ of the IOC. This to prevent the IOC’s great fear ‘ambush marketing’ by rivals who have not paid top dollars to be considered an ally of this Olympic Vatican of sport.

Such ambush marketing can cause much headache as Vancouver, which two years ago hosted the winter Olympics, discovered. It also provided a neat commentary on an aspect of Canadian history. The Squamish (who were once known as ‘Canada’s Indians’ and are now described as one of the First Nations of Canada) suddenly erected giant billboards on their land. This was very near the Games venues. But being sovereign Indian land, the Vancouver Olympic organisers could do nothing and had to pay the Squamish a couple of million dollars to buy up space on their billboards to ensure they did not carry advertisements for products that rivalled Olympic sponsors.

And those who visit Olympic cities during game time can often find that a product that rivals one produced by an Olympic sponsor is suddenly no longer available. I discovered this during the Vancouver Winter Games and had to abandon my favourite bottled water. Interviewing an Olympic official at a hotel along the city’s glistening waterfront where the top bosses of the Olympics, including Rogge and Princess Anne, were staying I had ordered a bottle of Perrier. The waitress turned to me with a rueful smile and said: ‘Two weeks ago I could have served a Perrier. But not now.’ Instead I had to be content with Coke’s answer to Perrier. Coke, as one of the sponsors of the Olympics, had the right to have only its products served at all Olympic venues, including hotels where the Olympic family were staying, to the exclusion of its rivals. In Vancouver’s Westin Bayshore they even had to cover up the kiosk of Starbuck coffee and also change several other drinks including the apple juice that they traditionally serve as Coke has what it called pouring rights during the games.

The person I was interviewing was Urvasi Naidu, whose day job in Manchester is to run the International Netball Federation. A volunteer at the winter games she told me she went to venues carrying masking tape in her bag. As she explained: ‘What I was looking for was a group of people all wearing T-shirts advertising a rival product. I would get them to try and wear the T-shirts inside out. If that did not work then I would use masking tape to cover up the advertisement. The point was to make sure it was not visible on television. Sponsors pay a lot of money for the Olympics and they are entitled to protect their investment.’

Words that may well be uttered by commercial enterprises promising to bring jobs to a region. When such enterprises do deals with governments it is not unknown for them to extract generous concessions to make sure they have the edge over their rivals. The difference is they do not pretend that their purpose is anything other than to make money. However Olympic administrators may want the money and can behave like a car manufacturer seeking a new factory but shy away from using the sort of language that the car manufacturer would have no problems with. This makes Sir Craig Reedie, the Briton who serves on the IOC’s executive board, spell out the wider benefits to the community as a result of the IOC’s anti-ambush marketing policies:

‘Take Athens for instance. Before the Olympics [in 2004] the city was disfigured with billboards. We got them to take them down and several were found to be illegal. The result was the entire look of the city was transformed. What we did was not just to protect our commercial sponsors but also to improve the city.’

Some modern observers consider this a Faustian pact which the Olympics entered into following the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when it took the commercial road. That is when, encouraged by then President Juan Antonio Samaranch and with the design provided by the Adidas boss Horst Dassler, the Olympics got into bed with Mammon. Since then, and particularly after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics – generally considered a disaster due to the free for all at the games – the rules have been tightened. Now everything is done to protect the Olympic product and the brand image. However officials continued to insist that the principles of amateurism have remained intact. But while no athlete may get any money for winning, success in the Games are a passport to riches through sponsorship and marketing contracts. Indeed some high profile athletes have begun to benefit in anticipation of success at London 2012. All this has made many former Olympians argue that the modern games no longer qualify as Olympics.

Peter Elliott, a diver, was at 17 the youngest British competitor in 1948. But as told me he does not see the present Olympics as having any connection with the one he took part in. ‘Unlike us, today’s Olympic athletes are not amateurs. I do not resent the fact that the 2012 British team has actually already made a lot of money through sponsorship. What I resent is that these people are professionals. That means they are not Olympians.’

Ironically, had Coubertin been alive today he would have applauded his successors for tying the knot with money so intricately. For all the notion that Olympics is about participation and not making money the founder of the modern Olympics did not care for amateurism. This was only a convenient tactic he was forced to use to revive the games. He felt this was necessary as he had found it very hard to get the Olympics restarted. While ‘everyone applauded’ the idea, there was, he confessed later, ‘absolute lack of comprehension’ about what he wanted to do.

Coubertin’s solution for this was to hold a congress in Sorbonne in June 1894, what has come to be known as the first Olympic Congress. Ostensibly it was meant to help define amateurism. This had become a major problem for many sports bodies and in his invitation, sent on behalf of the French Union of Athletic Sports Clubs (USFSA), Coubertin not only listed this as the first aim but went on to declare that the amateur principle must be defended ‘against the spirit of lucre and professionalism that threatens to invade their ranks’. Unless this was done it would ‘transform the Olympic athlete into a circus gladiator’.

As for his real mission, the re-establishment of the Olympic Games, this was stated as his second aim. Years later, in his Olympic memoirs Coubertin confessed that he had never been concerned about amateurism. The first part of the invitation was ‘a screen to convene the Congress designed to revive the Olympic Games’. Now that he was old and the Games were established he could come clean:

‘I always showed the necessary enthusiasm [for amateurism] but it was an enthusiasm without real conviction. My own conception of sport has always been very different from that of a large number – perhaps the majority – of sportsmen. To me, sport was a religion with its church, dogmas, service [….] above all a religious feeling, and it seemed to me as childish to make all this depend on whether an athlete received a five franc coin as automatically to consider the parish clergy an unbeliever, because he receives a salary for looking after the church.’

If Coubertin used subterfuge to get the Olympics going then the idea of sport as a religion that drove him to revive the Olympics in the first place was also a bit of spin. Coubertin had acquired his vision of the high ideals of sport when aged 12 he read Tom Brown’s Schooldays. This was a novel published in 1857 in which Thomas Hughes immortalised Thomas Arnold, his old headmaster at the English public school of Rugby. In the novel a fictional Thomas Arnold is presented as the man who first preached that sport was not mere recreation, but could reach out beyond playing fields into areas far beyond sport. Indeed, that sport could shape society for its greater good. That a sporting philosophy first emerged through a novel is a bit like Harry Potter being credited with having invented a philosophy of witchcraft that had universal relevance. But that was indeed the impact Tom Brown’s Schooldays made on the Victorians.

The real life Arnold would have been astonished to have been converted into such a sporting icon. A prolific and often polemical writer, who published a book or a pamphlet every year between 1829 and his death in 1842 at the age of 47, he did not say a single word about sport. Indeed he had no time for organised games and on occasions even banned certain sports at Rugby. But in order to attribute to Arnold the belief that sport could build character and create discipline, Hughes, like a modern spin doctor, completely ignored all these inconvenient facts. Perhaps it was appropriate that a man of religion, who wanted to be the Archbishop of Canterbury and did not like games, inspired ideas that made sport a religion.

Hughes’s book ends with a cricket match against the MCC which spells out the great moral of sport. Tom, his friend Arthur and a young master, who would later become head at Marlborough school, are watching the match. Tom describes the game as an institution. Arthur goes further: ‘Yes, the birthright of British boys, old and young, as habeas corpus and trial by jury are of British men.’ And the master rounds this up by saying: ‘The discipline and reliance on one another which it teaches is so valuable, I think it ought to be such an unselfish game. It merges the individual in the eleven; he doesn’t play that he may win, but that his side may.’

Cricket as a game meant little to Coubertin but the moral ideas of the book and the way Arnold was presented as the great sporting guru appealed immensely to the Frenchman. Nineteenth-century Frenchmen had long been infatuated by English customs and ways: the novelist Stendhal said: ‘English government is the only one in Europe that appears to be worthy of being studied.’ French visitors marvelled at the English elections and the English were praised for hardiesse à entreprendre, tenacité à conserver (bold in launching new things, tenacious in conserving old ones).

Coubertin would visit Britain many times, journeying to Rugby to pay homage to Arnold and worship at his tomb. He also tried to find anything Arnold had said on sport but, discovering he had said nothing, created an Arnoldian sporting myth in the sort of inventive fashion that Hughes would have appreciated. This involved visiting Gladstone in Downing Street. The prime minister knew Arnold did not care for sport. However, Coubertin spun a tale in which he got Gladstone to say that he believed Arnold’s advocacy of sport was the bedrock of the British Empire. Thus armed Coubertin returned to France and began to argue that Arnold’s ideas of how sport can make a better human being should be adopted by his countrymen.

Here Coubertin, like all great sportsmen, had got his timing right. The French were in need of ideas to revive the nation. The French were also considering rival sports models by the German and the Swedes but Coubertin made sure the British prevailed. In any event he could not have accepted the German one as this was soon after the defeat the French had suffered in 1870 at Sedan at the hands of the Prussians.

The secret of Coubertin’s success was his recognition that sport had to be internationalised. He acknowledged that he could not make sport popular in France without contacts between French athletes and those from other countries. As Coubertin put it in a speech in 1892:

‘It is clear the telegraph, railways, the telephone, the passionate research in science, congresses and exhibitions have done more for peace than any treaty or diplomatic convention. Well, I hope that athletics will do even more . . . let us export runners and fencers; there is a free trade of the future, and on the day when it is introduced within the walls of old Europe the cause of peace, would have received a new and mighty stay.’

As he had put it in the second part of his invitation to the first Olympic Congress: ‘The revival of the Olympic Games [….] in conditions suited to the needs of modern life would bring the representatives of the nations of the world face-to-face every four years, and it may be thought that their peaceful and chivalrous contests would constitute the best of Internationalisms.’

Since the games restarted in 1896 it has not always worked out that way. Hitler used the 1936 Olympics to try and fool the world his state was normal and the torch relay, which Goebbels invented, remains a Nazi legacy. But this will not stop Coubertin’s successors talking in a similar fashion during the London Games. What would be good is if as Coubertin did late in his career they dropped the ‘childish’ pretence of there being no money to be made from the Games. But that seems too much to ask. Having set the Olympics up as the great temple of sport, to actually admit that the money changers are inside is a leap too far for them.


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