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Tommie Smith, John Carlos and the Athens Olympics

There is no such condition as complete political neutrality: the Olympics are an exercise in political muting. The question is, what is being muted?

Joe Lockard

Where are Tommie Smith and John Carlos? In the 1968 Mexico City Olympic games they stood on the medal-winners stand with heads bowed and black-gloved fists raised in protest against US racism. It was a memorable, stirring and angry image, one that sprinters Smith and Carlos paid for with loss of their medals, expulsion from the Olympic Village, and lifetime bans imposed by the US Olympic Committee. Although the 2004 Athens Olympics is being conducted as the American military struggles to suppress a revolt in Najab and prop up the Allawi government, the right-wing cultural climate in the United States emerges clearly in the US Olympic team and its media representation. The only visible social anger these days is over the US basketball team's performance.

Instead of anti-war protests, the wholesome, good-boy images of swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Paul Hamm have predominated. Standing on the medal podium, hands over patriotic heart, Phelps and Hamm become model national subjects who perform without questioning. They are apolitical; their lives are too confined by training to manifest a political consciousness.

Top-performing US athletes regularly distinguish themselves in media interviews for the degree to which their physical skills exceed their articulateness. ("How did you feel going into those last fifty meters?" "It was awesome!") If this is an artifact of media condensation on one hand, these same athletes have forceful individual wills: they can't give top-flight performances without them. But this is an athletic elite that does not want to jeopardize post-competition income by alienating present or potential sponsors with contrarian opinions: they have learned marketable public behavior.

Smith and Carlos say different: there is no necessary antithesis between athleticism and broader awareness. When asked in a 2003 interview about those who say athletes should just play and not be heard, John Carlos observed "Those people should put all their millions of dollars together and make a factory that builds athlete-robots. Athletes are human beings. We have feelings too. How can you ask someone to live in the world, to exist in the world, and not have something to say about injustice?" Yet robotic function and blinkered discipline are vital assets in achieving a contemporary Olympic medal. Intense training regimes turn too many athletes into model 'good' subjects, the people who fill those subject-positions that bourgeois capitalism creates for them, the roles it encourages them to play.

Athletics can also create the opportunity — perhaps unfulfilled at present — for athletes to question and complicate the subject-positions they have been allowed to inhabit. Recognizing this potential does not mean advocating for a politics-at-every-opportunity approach to sports. That risks mirroring past exploitation of the Olympics for opportunistic international statements, as in the 1980 US-led boycott of the Moscow games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (and the tit-for-tat Soviet boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles games). It does recognize, however, that there is no such condition as complete political neutrality: the Olympics are an exercise in political muting. The question is, what is being muted?

War has been muted, certainly. The US war in Iraq almost seemed validated by the Iraqi soccer team's struggle for a bronze medal, if some of the American media coverage were to be credited. The war further infiltrated the playing pitch when, with International Olympic Committee permission, the Italian and Iraqi teams wore black armbands to memorialize the execution of Italian journalist Enzo Boldoni. Would the IOC authorize black armbands for the rest of this war's victims, not only one symbolic death? By permitting commemoration of one death, the IOC avoided the politics of commemorating many.

Nationalism, on the other hand, has been blaring endlessly. US ultra-nationalism arrived most visibly with the laughable schmuck Gary Hall, who swaggered into competition wearing his red, white and blue robes like this was all a Rocky film. Hall's bozo fashion statement and bar-room boastfulness as he added to his Olympic medal collection epitomized the ugly, imperial and contemptible American. To think that once it was an understated gentleman, Jesse Owens, who dignified the epitome of an American athlete.

These Olympic games, as seen through NBC's editorial script and Riefensthal-esque video production, are a demonstration ground for American triumphalism, a message that contrasts sharply with the genuine international camaraderie displayed by athletes. Lengthy camera attention gets lavished on gold medal ceremonies featuring US athletes, often more time than the same athletes spent in actual medal competition. NBC's video editors assemble symphonic visual paeans of sports action and medaling clips that ooze national pride. It used to be Soviet television that produced such chest-beating gunk on government ministry instructions; now US corporate media produce similar broadcast stories to ensure that advertisers remain satisfied.

One of the advertisers hitching a ride on national athletic glory has been the Bush campaign. Their carefully-crafted ad, which has generated protests from the US Olympic committee and Iraqi athletes, features a churning swimmer with the narrator saying "Freedom is spreading throughout the world like a sunrise. And this Olympics, there will be two more free nations and two fewer terrorist regimes." That the classical Olympic spirit emphasized international peace is lost in such simple-minded political propaganda. In this formulation, the force producing 'free' nations with puppet governments is the same force that produces US sports champions.

This monofocal worldview promoted by NBC's coverage, one that sees athletic achievement through the lens of triumphal national identity, creates mini-dramas of degradation. Video editing gloats over small errors by competitor gymnasts while commentators fret over errors by US gymnasts that may deny them a medal. A camera focused on the South Korean silver medallist, Kim Dae Eun, for example, as he knelt weeping, having been edged out by Paul Hamm.

Particularly egregious NBC commentary described gymnast Svetlana Khorkina as a “Russian diva" whose nude photographs appeared in "dubious magazines." This frigid and sinister eastern European succumbed, however, to a bubbly-pure Texas teenager and camera shots repeatedly showed Khorkina glowering as vacuous Carly Patterson took the all-round women's individual gold medal. Youthful American middle-class purity triumphed over an older, slightly distasteful foreign woman, a spin that was especially hypocritical given the frequency with which magazines have published nude shots of US women athletes — most recently Amy Acuff, Amanda Beard, Lauren Jackson, and more.

While intense nationalism and medal table measures of success have been standing features of Olympic competitions, the Athens games are a parable of Bush-era globalism. Under a massive security screen, the United States displays the cumulative advantages of capital investment in training, disposable athletic labor surplus, and technological capacities deployed in spectacle production. Yet the sports media ascribe US successes and its winning image either to individual enterprise or team spirit.

As in the global economy, the greatest competitive challenge for the US comes from China. According to NBC's sports news reports, Chinese gymnastics factories are mass-producing new generations of juvenile gymnasts out to conquer the world. If smaller nations win at all in the midst of this ferocious competition, they are either specialist producers, incidental and temporary winners, or — like Greece — relying on the advantages of the drug market. Poverty ensures athletic disenfranchisement: horses in equestrian events eat far better than large sectors of the population in many countries. Reinforcing this inequality no less than global trading rules, as athletes from poorer countries are pointing out (joined by Svetlana Khorkina of Russia), supposedly neutral athletic judging rules and practices seem consistently to favor teams from wealthy Western countries.

Yet all nations are nominally free to compete, even if the unequal terms of 'open' competition render the games a demonstration of overall American supremacy and generate a run-away US medal count.

There are untold stories that never emerge in this Olympic narrative, as under the organizing terms of neo-liberal globalism. These stories concern human potential that never had a chance due to opportunity denied through class or race structures (anyone wonder why the South African swimmers were all-white?). Or, if we create athletic and social models based on competition instead of cooperation, what talents never get recognized or rewarded because they are not intrinsically competitive? Even in the midst of intense competition there is room for generosity and cooperation, as Michael Phelps demonstrated by stepping aside to let a teammate compete in his stead. Extending that spirit further than a national team might radically alter the organizing political principles that govern the present Olympic movement. It might provide a very different resolution than the USOC's arrogant, aggressive response in defense of Paul Hamm's all-round gymnastics gold medal.

The Athens Olympics provided via corporate media represents a diversionary spectacle that conforms to current mainstream globalist culture. In their modern version, the Olympics are about rewarding a heavily-capitalized super-elite rather than sports as an open, participatory democracy. Such privileges are precisely the home-grounds of the Bush political relay team. We need new sorts of Tommie Smiths and John Carlos in response.

Joe Lockard is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. He wishes to acknowledge the Collective’s discussion and contributions to this essay.

Copyright © 2004 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.