My first exposure to the Olympics was in the spring of 1992, when in gym class all of a sudden we had to start trying to throw a discus (frisbee), my second grade teacher taught us that the ancient Greeks stopped wars so they could compete against each other naked and I didn't go to recess because I asked about the athletes' penises. Now, not all of you had the benefit of a Connecticut public elementary school education, but I'll nevertheless assume that you grew up thinking the Olympics were a triumph of mushy liberal internationalism; nations coming together peacefully for a celebration of amateur athletics.
But no. The Olympics are tied to some of the nastiest historical figures and political movements. They've always been fraught with controversy, corruption and racism. Even the most successful Games cannot escape some sort of intrigue. That's why I'm providing this helpful rundown of the history of the Olympics, so I can disabuse you of any romantic view of the Games that may persist.
Origins: Frank Deford already wrote the definitive guide to the origin of the modern Olympics, so I'll give you a brief summary here even though you should read his whole article on your lunch break. Baron de Coubertin, the man most people think of as the father of the modern Olympiad, was an unlikable loudmouth who took the credit for other people's work. Anyone who has worked in the corporate world knows just how successful this type of person is. Anyway, he got the idea from the Olympics after the Franco-Prussian War. He thought France lost because its soldiers were in worse shape than Germany's, so the doughy Frenchman decided to promote physical fitness. His persistence paid off and the Olympics were born.
1896-1904: Deford points out that the first three Olympiads, organized by de Coubertin, were failures. The worst was the 1904 Olympiad in St. Louis, where medals were awarded for mud fighting and climbing a greased pole. Europeans did not want to visit St. Louis (a lesson not heeded by Clark Griswold) so the events were dominated by Americans. And 1904 was kind of a low point in American racial history, only 8 years after Plessy v. Ferguson codified segregation, so the Savages' Olympics was set up in parallel to prove white racial superiority. de Coubertin was embarrassed, and needed the British to bail him out.
The start of the 100 meters sprint at the first Olympic Games of the Modern Era in Athens, Greece. (Photo by Getty Images)
1908: Dr. William Penny Brookes took over Olympic planning from de Coubertin and organized an outstanding event in London; its success ensured that the Olympics would continue. Also of note, it's only 24.85 miles from Marathon to Athens in Greece. But in 1908 the queen wanted her children who lived at Windsor Castle to see the start of the marathon, which would end in London. So the event was lengthened to 26.2 miies, and has been that length ever since. So if you're running a marathon, it's mile 25, you've pissed yourself and your toenails have fallen out, just know that it's an inbred monarch's fault that you're still running.
1912: The Stockholm games were notable for a couple of reasons. The first is that it was the first time the Olympics gave medals for poetry, art and sculpture. I wish this had continued, because I'd love to see John Baldessari crying as he received a gold medal and a band played the Star Spangled Banner. And Jim Thorpe, who was a turn of the century Bo Jackson, won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon. In both events, a surly Chicagoan named Avery Brundage finished out of the running. Unfortunately, Thorpe had played semi-pro baseball before he entered the Olympics, and the American Amateur Union stripped his medals in 1913 because of it. Brundage later rose to be the head of the USOC, but he declined to restore them because he was a stickler for amateurism (he was a proto-Mark Emmert). Oh, and Thorpe was a Native American too, but I'm sure that didn't play a role in his persecution.
1916: These games were supposed to be in Berlin. But by 1916 Europe was in the midst of World War I, which was the Godfather I to World War II's Godfather 2 (in this metaphor, Godfather 3 is Vietnam). Remember how the Greeks stopped war during the ancient Olympics? Well, the concept of Total War kind of made that impossible. Also, it's a myth. My Second Grade teacher was full of crap. So disappointed in you, Mrs. Rooney.
1920-1924: You might know that the seeds of World War II were sewn at the Treaty of Versailles, which humiliated Germany and made it resentful of the rest of Europe. In was so punitive that the Germans weren't even allowed to participate in the Olympics in 1920-1924. This was the first instance of proving that holding a county out of the Olympics never ends well.
Also, the Winter Olympics show up here, but nobody cared.
1928: The art competitions no longer received medals at this Olympiad. Score one for the jocks!
1932: This Olympiad was held in Los Angeles during the Depression, so I assume events included Waiting For Bread, Not Getting Shot By General MacArthur's Troops and Moving From Oklahoma.
1936: In 1931 the IOC, in a brilliant moment of foresight, awarded the games to Berlin in the hopes that it would prop up liberal democracy in Germany. But within a year, Nazis were in charge.
Now, today the term "Nazi" is thrown around pretty glibly. Wanna force me to pay for health care? You're a Nazi. Tell me I can't buy a landmine? Step off, Nazi. But in 1936 the Nazis in charge of Germany were actual Jew killing, beer hall putsching, Holy Grail coveting Nazis. So the IOC faced a decision, do we actually let the Nazis run an Olympiad? Communist Soviet Union and socialist Spain actually boycotted the Games; the first instance of a political Olympic boycott proving worthless.
Our old friend Avery Brundage was in charge of the American Olympic Committee at the time, and believed that communism was a greater threat to America than fascism, so he didn't want to side with the USSR and Spain. He also dug Hitler's abilities as an administrator. And he feared that criticizing the Nazis would expose America's hypocrisy because Jim Crow laws weren't much different than Nuremberg laws. So Brundage decided that America would send a delegation, which provided cover for other liberal democracies like the UK to send athletes as well.
If you watched SportsCentury in 2000 then you know that Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals, embarrassed Hitler, and beat Michigan in Berlin. But the Games were considered a success for the Nazi government and quickly became pro-fascist propaganda. U-boat captains even painted Olympic rings on their submarines.
Oh, and the Winter Olympics were in Germany too, but nobody cared.
1940-1944: These games were supposed to be held in Tokyo and London, respectively. I suggest you ask an elderly Japanese or British person about the difficulty of staging an international event during this period.
1948: Imagine it's 1945. The last time the Olympics took place, they lent credibility to Nazi Germany. Would you support them? Once again, the Olympics faced a credibility deficit and asked London to bail them out. The world was still reeling from WWII (Germany and Japan weren't invited and the USSR decided that the death of 20 million citizens during the war was enough to prove their international bona fides) but the games were generally considered a success.
1952: This was the Soviet Union's first Olympiad and they finished second in the medal count while America was in the midst of the Red Scare. And just to show that these games wouldn't be about mushy internationalism, the USSR and its Communist puppets in the Eastern Bloc had their own separate accommodations in the Olympic Village. Notably, the games took place in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, which had the distinction of driving out both Russian and German invasions during World War II despite being very outnumbered. Dude, don't mess with the Finns.
1956: As the Games grew so did the responsibility for host cities. Host city Melbourne faced a housing shortage and did not want to dedicate public funds to build sports venues. But after our old friend Avery Brundage (now head of the IOC) threatened to take the games away from Australia so the federal government stepped in with a loan to pay for construction.
Also, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon boycotted the games because Israel had taken the Sinai Peninsula (which it would leave only due to pressure from the United States and USSR), Switzerland, Spain and Holland boycotted the games because of the Soviet occupation of Hungary (which remained Communist for three decades) and China boycotted because Taiwan (which still exists today) was allowed to compete. But I'm sure all the athletes from these countries were cool with not getting to compete.
1960: Since the Winter Olympics took place in America they were actually relevant this time around. The State Department (which had been purged of anyone with ties to the international left, including Vietnam experts, oops) was loath to grant visas to people from Communist countries. Brundage, who once considered the USSR a greater threat than Nazi Germany, remarkably told the State Department that if they wouldn't grant visas then Squaw Valley would lose the Games. So the Communists got to participate.
This wasn't enough for China, though. Still angry at Taiwan's inclusion (and the fact that Taiwan called itself "China"), they again refused to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics. Even though not a single Taiwanese athlete actually qualified for the Winter Olympics.
Meanwhile at the Summer Olympics in Rome, an Ethiopian became the first black African to win a gold medal. This must have been embarrassing for the hosts because in the 1930s they had tried and failed to conquer Ethiopia. Seriously, people make fun of the French military but they had a pretty gnarly colonial empire. If you want to mock a country with an ineffective military, aim your barbs at Italy instead.
Herb Elliott of Australia finishes the 1500 meters final at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome in a world record time of 3 minutes, 35.6 seconds. (Allsport UK /Allsport)
1964: Quick -- which city suffered the most casualties in a single bombing event during World War II? It wasn't Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but Tokyo, where more than 200,000 people were either killed or injured during coordinated firebombing in March of 1945. So the fact that Tokyo could host the games in 1964 was hailed as a symbol of Japan's ability to rebuild.
Also, the early 1960s saw much of colonial African declare independence from Europe, and these new IOC members were none too keen on competing against South Africa (its constitution was based on Alabama's, ROLL DAMN APARTHEID!) and threatened a boycott. Thus, South Africa was no longer allowed to send a delegation to the Olympics. Apartheid was still in place for nearly three decades later, again showing the efficacy of an Olympic boycott.
1968: These games were almost a disaster. Mexico City was chosen to host, but Detroit was in second place. That would have been problematic because in 1967 Detroit suffered from the largest riots the U.S. had seen since the Civil War. Governor George Romney had to call in the National Guard to restore order. The IOC really dodged a bullet on that one.
Of course, the summer of 1968 was pretty testy as well. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two black American sprinters, won gold and bronze in the 200 meter race and, during the national anthem, gave a black power salute. You know about this because it was on The Simpsons once. Our old friend Avery Brundage suspended them from the team afterward, even though he didn't mind the Nazi salutes during the 1936 games.
What you might not know is that the guy who won silver, a white Australian named Peter Norman, also donned a badge in support of their cause. Norman was suspended from the Australian team and, even though he posted a qualifying time, Australia did not send him to the 1972 Olympics. Smith and Carlos served as pallbearers at his funeral in 2006.
On Tuesday: Part II of the History of the Olympics, from a disaster in Montreal, to (even more!) boycotts and corruption, to the 2012 Summer Olympics, where plenty could go wrong.