THE London Olympics got off to a spectacular start last week, as such events tend to do nowadays, with the ambitious opening ceremony orchestrated by filmmaker Danny Boyle.
It won accolades for its cultural diversity, with a dollop of self-deprecating humour thrown in for good measure. An entertaining divertissement, one would have thought, if not exactly an antidote to the corporatism and nationalist triumphalism that tends to trump athleticism at most international sporting contests.
It did not please everyone, though. The Daily Mail found fault with its innocuous tribute to the National Health Service, which for all its inadequacies and flaws is a venerable British institution. And Aidan Burley, a Conservative MP, derided it in a tweet as: “The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen — more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state!” Shortly afterwards he added: “Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multicultural crap.”
Burley might, one would have thought, have learned a lesson or two after losing his job as a ministerial aide last year following a bit of a stink over his presence at a Nazi-themed stag party in France. In which case one would obviously have been wrong.
Perhaps he would have felt more comfortable with a display reminiscent of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The German chancellor of the day apparently wasn’t exactly thrilled at having to host the Olympiad precisely because of its multicultural aspects, but eventually began to cherish the prospect of showcasing Aryan supremacy. The first torch relay, on its way from Olympia in Greece, passed through several countries that the Nazis would shortly thereafter seek to occupy.
Although Germans led the medal tally in 1936, everything did not go according to plan. Adolf Hitler was less than impressed by the African-American athlete Jesse Owens’ emergence as a track star. Owens won four gold medals — in one instance, somewhat ironically, when he was inducted into the 4×100 relay team after the Americans had been persuaded not to field a Jewish contestant.
Hitler’s aide Albert Speer later recounted that the Fuhrer “was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvellous coloured American runner Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilised whites and [hence] they should be excluded from future games.”
Thankfully, that never came to pass, not least because Hitler lost the war he launched a couple of years after the Berlin Olympics. Owens, though, was more peeved at being snubbed by other ‘civilised whites’, notably the then US president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who failed to congratulate him. There is also considerable irony in the fact that whereas in Nazi Germany Owens was able to stay in the same hotels as white athletes, back home — after being honoured with a ticker-tape parade on New York’s Fifth Avenue — he had to make his way to a reception in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel via a service lift.
The US was effectively an apartheid state at the time and it took a decades-long struggle to chip away at the foundations of racial inequality. One of the more enduring images of that struggle dates back to another Summer Olympics — the fraught Mexico City games of 1968. That was when a pair of African-American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, after winning gold and bronze respectively in the 200-metre dash, appeared barefooted on the medal stand and, as the US national anthem played, bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists.
The symbolic defiance brought them heaps of disapprobation and scorn in the US and, as Dave Zirin recently noted in the US weekly The Nation, “while the image has stood the test of time, the struggle that led to that moment has been cast aside. When mentioned at all in US history textbooks, the famous photo appears with almost no context.”
A rather different US-related controversy preceded this year’s London games. It is by now customary for each Olympics to be prefigured by a degree of breast-beating about the apparent lack of preparedness. In Britain’s case this has focused primarily on security arrangements — with the private firm G4S proving unequal to the task, and regular military troops being summoned to assist, alongside understandable concern about surface-to-air missiles being positioned on residential rooftops — and prospects of immigration arrangements being overwhelmed by the influx of visitors.
There is a considerable difference, though, between a domestic debate on potential shortcomings and disparagement by a foreign luminary. And Mitt Romney crossed the line by saying he found the lack of preparedness “disconcerting”. Romney’s first overseas foray as a presidential contender was obviously intended to establish his credentials as a potential statesman, and he did himself no favours by aiming for gold in the foot-in-mouth category, prompting British headline writers to move on from ‘omnishambles’ to ‘Romneyshambles’ and earning the American public rebukes from the prime minister, David Cameron, as well as London mayor Boris Johnson.
He verbally stumbled in other contexts, too, amid futile efforts to backtrack on the Olympics front. This managed to raise eyebrows back home even among some of his most fervent supporters — although they were able to console themselves with the thought that Romney’s misadventures abroad were unlikely to substantially affect his standing with the notoriously insular American voting public.
At any rate, he briefly managed to overshadow a truly disconcerting phenomenon on the sidelines of the games, namely the re-emergence of unrepentant warmonger Tony Blair in the public eye, nominally as an Olympics adviser to Labour Party leader Ed Miliband. Far more ominously, though, the former prime minister has hinted at harbouring ambitions of a return to Number 10 Downing Street.
Blair combines an infinite capacity for self-serving platitudes with moral vacuousness and an undiminished thirst for power but fortunately, at least for the time being, the likelihood of his return to power is at par with Britain’s chances of leading the medals tally on Aug 12.