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The Dark History of the Olympics

In the late 19th century, Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat and dropout from the priesthood, found his life’s goal: to create a sporting culture that existed separate from political concerns. And in 1896, with the staging of the first modern Olympic Games, Coubertin got his wish. Sort of.

In ancient Greece, athletic endeavors were seen as an important preparation for war, but Coubertin’s gathering in Athens was a more clumsy affair, with 241 athletes, all white and male, competing in nine different sports over two weeks. Races ran clockwise on tracks that measured a curious 330 yards. American sprinters began their heats by crouching, while those next to them stood erect. One Italian who lacked funds jogged most of the way from his home country to Greece. Black ties and top hats were worn for medal ceremonies, in which it was the silver medal, not a gold one, that was the top prize.

The true history of the Games is a far cry from the platitude-laden, sepia-toned nostalgia pumped out by the International Olympic Committee and Olympic sponsors. But as David Goldblatt tells us [in his new book, A Global History of the Olympics], little has changed in what is often a story of Olympic absurdity and its disconnect from reality. “The Games” is an exhaustively researched account of the modern Olympics, from Coubertin’s early follies to the clouds hanging over this summer’s events in Rio de Janeiro. ...

If Howard Zinn gave us “A People’s History of the United States,” Goldblatt provides a people’s history of the Olympics. So we learn that volunteers at the 1968 Mexico Games were overwhelmingly light-skinned, upper-middle-class women, chosen over their darker-skinned counterparts. Then there’s the Chinese high jumper at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles; the windows of his Shanghai home were broken and his family was threatened after he failed to win a medal in his event. More recently at the Atlanta Games in 1996, many of the arenas were built by mostly Hispanic, low-wage laborers, Goldblatt points out, and some homeless Atlantans were offered one-way bus tickets to any place in the country where they said they had family members or could find a place to sleep. ...

Read entire article at NYT