Today, Professor Louis Menand turns his canny eye on the Games of the XXX Olympiad that will end with its closing ceremony on August 12, 2012. Since late July, more than 10,000 athletes from around the world have competed (or are competing) in 302 events covering 26 sports and NBC Universal will win gold. If this is a (fair & balanced) circus for the masses, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
By Louis Menand
Tag Cloud of the following article
I had a grandfather who played the horses. That was about as close as anyone in my family got to competitive sports, unless you count mixed doubles. Sports, or, as my relatives used to put it, “that damn fool athletic stuff,” were not among our household enthusiasms. In general, we did not genuflect much before the temple of the body. Just the concept of exercise, the notion that a person should “work out” in order to “stay in shape,” would have been greeted with incomprehension. In shape to do what? Health we understood. We knew what made a person healthy: sleeping with the windows open and drinking three glasses of whole milk a day. It was pretty simple.
A more principled reason for this indifference was an aversion to the belief, popular when I was growing up, that the ability to run faster or throw farther than other people is a contribution to the common good, and that we ought to honor the athlete in the same way that we honor the artist and the statesman. Games, in my house, were O.K., because games are fun. Sports are games taken much too seriously. Organized sports are an attempt, through regimentation (uniforms and trophies) and rhetoric (rah-rah boosterism and coach talk), to give an inherently pointless activity some kind of point, to inject a purpose into play.
In this flock, I was the unlikely black sheep. I didn’t play Little League, which, along with the Boy Scouts, my father regarded as a paramilitary organization. But I didn’t think that sports were silly, or for blockheads and Neanderthals. I thought that sports were sublime, and I set my boyish heart on playing a part in what “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” called “the human drama of athletic competition.” To be worthy of those words someday, I was prepared to endure a great deal of sarcasm.
These hopes were cruelly shattered. It turns out—something they don’t tell you when they’re urging you to go for the gold, follow your dream, etc.—that, in most sports, size and strength are kind of important. I had imagined that all I needed was brains and the will to win. Though a strapping five-nine today—closer to five-nine and a half, really—in the prepubescent days of my love affair with sports I was a shrimp. One of my idols was Bob Cousy, the playmaking guard of the Boston Celtics, regularly described as undersized for his sport. As I diligently heaved basketballs in the general direction of distant rims, I pictured myself a future Houdini of the Hardwood (one of Cousy’s nicknames), swift and savvy, executing the behind-the-back pass or finishing off the fast break with a supercool underhand layup. One day when I was in junior high, the Cooz, now retired, came to town to direct a clinic at the local high school, and our gym class was invited to watch. It was an experience I’ll never forget. Cousy walked onto the court, and my heart sank. Bob Cousy was tall.
A lot of kids get hooked on sports by television. Television—another altar we didn’t worship at in my house. But I did get to watch “Wide World of Sports.” The show, which was on the air for thirty-seven years, was created and produced by Edgar Scherick and Roone Arledge, telecommunications visionaries who grasped a basic ingredient of male psychology, which is that, no matter what kind of contest you put on the screen, men will say, “Wait a second. I just want to see how this comes out.”
“Wide World of Sports” was significant for two reasons. First, it lived up to its promise of “spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport” (a classy touch, the singular noun). It was the first program to broadcast Wimbledon in the U.S., and to cover exotic and far-flung sports like surfing, curling, and jai alai. The producers were right: people who knew little and cared nothing about curling still wanted to see how it came out.
Second, and more important, the show established an intonation, a cadence, a discourse for high-level athletic competition. This was not the hopped-up staccato of ordinary play-by-play. It was weightier, more momentous, more world-historical. “The thrill . . . the agony . . . ” It was Churchillian.
That voice is the voice of the Olympics, a competition where contestants pursue not “victory” but “glory.” The London Summer Games are being broadcast from July 25th to August 12th, and although one can complain about the commercialization (Visa, which has a longtime association with the Olympics, has an app that Facebook users can deploy to cheer on athletes who are sponsored by Visa) and the cost (upward of fourteen billion dollars, in a country undergoing drastic cutbacks in social services and with an unemployment rate above eight per cent) and the draconian security precautions (anti-aircraft missiles have been mounted on the rooftops of apartment buildings near the sports venues, over the owners’ objections), the Games will be good to have.
And probably better to have in your own house, rather than over there, because showing people performing amazing feats with their bodies is one thing that television does really well. Yes, television organizes the perceptual field—it “tells” you what to look at—but, unless you know the sport and the competitors pretty well beforehand, you are not going to make much sense of what you’re looking at otherwise. The Olympics present themselves as pure spectacle—as Auden said of poetry, the Games appear to make nothing happen—and television loves a spectacle. Even more, television loves a spectacle that has a script, a live event for which every camera angle can be plotted—that is, a ritual.
If someone described to you an ancient civilization in which, every four years, at great expense, citizens convened to watch a carefully selected group perform a series of meticulously preset routines, and in which the watching was thought of not as a duty but as a hugely anticipated and unambiguously pleasurable experience, you would guess that, socially, this ritual was doing a lot of work. You would assume that it was instilling, or reinforcing, or rebooting attitudes and beliefs that this hypothetical civilization regarded—maybe correctly, maybe just superstitiously—as vital to its functioning. You would say that the spectacle had a content. Do these Summer Games have a content? What are we really watching when we watch the Olympics?
A little history is always useful. The Games have a history, but so does every event. Topping the list of helpful companions to this year’s Games is David Wallechinsky’s Complete Book of the Olympics: 2012 Edition prepared with Jaime Loucky, a 1,334-page record of every event—results plus, in most cases, detailed highlights—at every Summer Olympics since the first modern Games were held, in Athens, in 1896.
Wallechinsky’s marvellous book reminds us that the issues that have surrounded the Games in our time have been present almost since the start—from politics (nations were banned from or boycotted the Olympics regularly starting in 1920, when Germany and its allies were not allowed to participate) to performance enhancement (long-distance runners once consumed brandy and strychnine as stimulants, sometimes with calamitous results) and prosthetic limbs. Oscar Pistorius, a.k.a. the Blade Runner, the South African sprinter who runs on two carbon-fibre lower legs, will compete this year in London; in the 1904 Games, the American gymnast George Eyser won six medals in one day, including a gold in the vault, with a wooden leg.
Also entertaining are the capsule stories of the athletes themselves. Some are paragons in sports history, legends from a time before specialization, like Jim Thorpe, who, in the 1912 Stockholm Games, won, by huge margins, both the classic pentathlon and the decathlon, even though it was the first decathlon he had ever competed in; and Babe Didrikson, who was allowed to compete in only three events in the 1932 Games, in Los Angeles. She finished first in two, the javelin throw and the eighty-metre hurdles (a world record), and tied for first in the high jump (another world record). Thorpe was retroactively stripped of his amateur status and his medals when it was discovered, well after the official deadline for filing a challenge, that he had played minor-league professional baseball for two summers before the Olympics. Didrikson, after touring briefly as the only female member of the House of David baseball team, became one of the greatest professional golfers in history.
There are also, in Wallechinsky’s book, many profiles of huge stars in sports that the average American fan doesn’t follow. The Bulgarian-born Turkish weight lifter Naim Süleymanoğlu, for example, won gold medals in three Olympics, from 1988 to 1996. By the time of the 1996 Games, in Atlanta, he was one of the most famous men in Turkey, where he owned twenty-one houses. It was said that the Turkish government had promised to give him a twenty-second house plus ten kilograms of gold if he won again.
In Atlanta, Süleymanoğlu defeated the Greek lifter Valerios Leonidis for the gold medal in an intense final round, in which both athletes broke the world record, and with the spectators in a frenzy because of the long history of hatred between the two nations that the athletes represented. Süleymanoğlu was said to be, pound for pound, the strongest man in the world. To win the medal, he had to clean-and-jerk four hundred and thirteen pounds, almost three times his body weight. He was known as the Pocket Hercules, and lifted in the featherweight division. He was under five feet tall, and smoked fifty cigarettes a day.
The Complete Book of the Olympics is for fans, people who need to know who won the most consecutive gold medals in Olympic history (Aladár Gerevich, of Hungary, won a gold in team sabre in six straight Games), or who was the oldest medalist (Oscar Swahn, of Sweden, was seventy-two when he won the silver in team double-shot running deer shooting—whatever that is, I’ll have what he’s having—in the 1920 Games). For grownups who have a life, How to Watch the Olympics (2011), by David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton, will suffice. The authors offer information from the ground up about every sport in the Summer Games—they explain why it’s worth watching canoeing and field hockey—along with loads of facts about the rules, the scoring, and even the equipment specs.
The width of the women’s balance beam, for example, is ten centimetres, a hair under four inches, a measurement thereby associated with more than one female athletic event. In the 2000 Games, women’s beach-volleyball players were required to wear bikini suits with a maximum size for the bottom half. (The rule has since been modified.) The diameter of the table-tennis ball has been increased from thirty-eight millimetres to forty, so that spectators have a better chance to see it when it is in play. (A bigger ball also slows down the game.) The authors advise, when watching water polo, to look out for groin grabbing, which is illegal. And so on. Something to browse through during the Visa commercials, which will feature plenty of your favorite Visa-sponsored athletes.
John D. Barrow’s Mathletics: A Scientist Explains 100 Amazing Things About the World of Sports (2011) is about sports in general, not just Olympic sports, and may sometimes seem to fly far over the head of the ordinary math slob. We learn, for instance, that the maximum speed, V, possible for a racewalker is given by the formula V2 = ½gL [3√ (4 – S2/L2) – 4], where g is the acceleration caused by gravity, L is the length of the walker’s leg, and S is the length of the stride.
There is a payoff, though. First, the formula explains why racewalkers make that windup-toy hip movement: they’re trying to increase V by effectively increasing L, the length of their legs. Second, it turns out that world-record speeds in racewalking are mathematically impossible, unless both feet are losing contact with the ground, which is a violation of the rules of the sport. It’s time to clean up racewalking!
Barrow’s larger point is that achievement in sports must comply with the laws of physics. This was, minus the math, my own youthful realization. You can dedicate your life to the sport, but, if you are under six feet tall and weigh less than two hundred pounds, you are never going to throw the discus seventy metres. The motto of athletic competition should not be “Follow your dream.” It should be “Follow your reality.”
Innovative techniques are therefore basically efforts to tweak one of the coefficients in the equation governing speed, height, or distance in a sport. When you jump, you are exerting energy, by running and pushing off the ground, to raise as high as possible not simply your body but your center of gravity. If you curl into a U shape at the top of your leap, as high jumpers and pole vaulters do, you will be able to clear a bar while your center of gravity passes underneath it. The curvier you become, the greater the height you can achieve. In the 1968 Games, in Mexico City, the American high jumper Dick Fosbury won the gold medal by flipping himself over the bar head first and backward—a technique now known as the Fosbury Flop. He set an Olympic record, which made it a lot easier for people to forget that his leap looked like something out of the Ministry of Silly Jumps, and now every high jumper does it.
Innovations in equipment are somewhat less noble. Forty-three world records were broken at the 2009 World Swimming Championships, in Rome. Barrow thinks that one reason for this was the use of seamless whole-body polyurethane swimsuits. He says that these suits not only reduce drag in the water; the fabric also traps tiny pockets of air, which raise the swimmer higher out of the water. Since the drag on a human body is approximately seven hundred and eighty times as great in water as in air, swimmers wearing the suits were able to post faster times. In the London Games, polyurethane swimsuits are banned. Michael Phelps, who has won more Olympic gold medals than anyone, in any sport, threatened, through his coach, to boycott competitions in which the suits were permitted.
Books can’t adequately reproduce “the human drama of athletic competition,” of course. You need to see it. There are the great races: the Czech runner Emil Zátopek, in Helsinki, in 1952, winning the men’s five thousand and ten thousand metres, and then entering the marathon, which he had never competed in before, and breaking the Olympic record; the Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila winning the marathon running barefoot through the streets of Rome, in 1960; Billy Mills breaking out of the pack and sprinting past Mohamed Gammoudi and Ron Clarke, the world-record holder, as though they were standing still, in the last twenty metres of the ten-thousand-metre race in Tokyo, in 1964; the stork-like Dave Wottle passing seven runners with less than a lap to go to win the eight hundred metres by three one-hundredths of a second in Munich, in 1972.
And the otherworldly gymnasts, who have a different relation to gravity from the rest of us: Larysa Latynina, who won eighteen medals, the most of any athlete ever; Nadia Comăneci, who scored the first perfect ten in gymnastics competition (under a scoring system that has, sadly, been abandoned); the charismatic seventeen-year-old Olga Korbut, whose backward somersaults on the balance beam and the uneven bars, in the 1972 Games, stunned the crowd; sixteen-year-old, four-foot-nine Mary Lou Retton, a human beach ball, who came from behind with two perfect scores to win the all-around in Los Angeles, in 1984, her first international competition; and Kerri Strug, who, despite a sprained ankle, stuck her landing in the vault in Atlanta, in 1996, where the United States won the team gold medal.
There are few more courageous Olympic performances than Strug’s. The Japanese gymnast Shun Fujimoto, who, in the 1976 Games, in Montreal, stuck his dismount from the rings on a broken leg and helped his team win the all-around gold medal, gave another. Strug and Fujimoto never fully recovered from their injuries, and Wallechinsky says that, contrary to legend, the U.S. team did not even need Strug’s score. It was virtually guaranteed the gold already.
The best resource for moments like these would be the documentary archive of Bud Greenspan, who filmed many Olympics, from the Los Angeles Games, in 1984, to Beijing (he died in 2010)—except that almost none of his work has been issued on DVD. Greenspan also produced compilations and Olympics histories using old footage, and you can get some of these, notably the eight-cassette “Olympiad: Greatest Moments,” in VHS format from online remainder stores.
Greenspan’s work is the consummation of the old “Wide World” style. It’s unashamedly monumental and oratorical, a combination of Leni Riefenstahl and Ted Baxter. The voice is not merely Churchillian; it’s the voice of God. (Actually, up until 1992, it was the voice of David Perry, né Greenspan, brother of Bud.) The campy solemnity—there are a lot of “On this day”s, and so forth—is just right for the old “thrill of victory” sensation. The downside is that, since God already knows how everything turns out, He never gets too excited about any particular event. You miss the animation of live play-by-play. Still, for people who have seen these documentaries on television, where they often turn up, many Olympic moments are really Bud Greenspan moments.
Just about any contemporary sport has corollaries in competitions in the ancient world, or a pedigree in folk games or aristocratic recreations. Competition is natural and spontaneous. Once there were boats, people would race them. Given fists, people will box. Kids contrive all sorts of ad-hoc “sports” based on the shape of their garage roof or the length of the hallway in their apartment or the number of manhole covers on the street outside.
We call these ad-hoc contests games, and one of the ways games get turned into sports is standardization. A sport is a game that, no matter where it takes place, is always played by the same rules. This is not a prerequisite for competition. When someone says, “I’ll race you to that tree,” the person who reaches the tree first is the winner. The loser does not complain that the race was not run at regulation distance. Regulation and standardization insure that, when competitors meet, everyone will have trained for the same event, and the results can be compared across competitions. Standardization is what makes it possible to have world records.
The place where most modern sports were standardized was nineteenth-century Britain. The Duke of Wellington probably did not really say, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” (for one thing, he hated Eton), but athletic competition was a prominent feature of British public-school life. Before the nineteenth century, school games were often idiosyncratic, because of local traditions and conditions. A classic case is the Eton Wall Game, which dates to the eighteenth century, and which can be played only at Eton, since that is where the eponymous wall is. But when schoolboys went on to university they wanted to play the same games they had enjoyed in school, and this was one of the things behind the movement to standardize. Soon, men were not simply competing in games with their classmates according to whatever rules came to hand; they were training themselves in a sport that was transportable.
And the great means of transportation was the British Navy. Everywhere Englishmen went, they took their games along and taught them to the locals. The British brought modern tennis to the French. Table tennis, a sport now commonly associated with East Asia, is supposed to have started when British officials shaved the corks of their champagne bottles into balls and played the game on the dinner table. It is because of Britain that West Indians play cricket, South Africans play rugby, and Pakistanis play squash. It is because of Britain that the world plays soccer.
The other thing necessary for creating a sport out of a game is organization. Sports have bureaucratic structures: national and international associations, which have police powers to insure standardization, and which organize competitions and tournaments in order to produce No. 1 teams and world champions. Britain was also the leader in this area.
Leagues and tournaments draw larger audiences to a sport, as athletes and teams start to be imagined as representing cities and, on a bigger stage, nations. The Olympics are the biggest stage, and have the largest audience of any sporting event in the world, including the World Cup. According to How to Watch the Olympics, 4.7 billion people, or seventy per cent of humanity, watched some portion of the Beijing Games. That figure seems hyperbolic, but the Olympics do command a gigantic audience.
It was from Victorian Britain that the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, took his inspiration. Coubertin was a French aristocrat with a passionate interest in education. He wanted the French to be more manly, meaning more disciplined and self-reliant (he was reacting partly to the country’s defeat, in 1870, in the Franco-Prussian War), and he believed that introducing sports into education could be the basis for this transformation in the national character. In other words, he wanted the French to be more like the British. He made his first trip to England in 1883, when he was twenty, after reading about British public schools in Hippolyte Taine’s Notes on England (1872), and he returned frequently.
Around 1890, he heard about an annual event in the town of Much Wenlock, in Shropshire, called the Wenlock Olympian Games. These had been established, in 1850, by a physician named William Penny Brookes, as a means of fortifying British manhood. Coubertin arranged a visit, and Brookes mounted a special Wenlock Games for his guest. They discussed Brookes’s efforts to persuade the government of Greece to revive the ancient Games, which were held in Greece from 776 B.C.E. to 393 C.E. or thereabouts—something that Coubertin had also been contemplating.
When Coubertin returned to France, he published an article about the Wenlock Games. If the Olympic idea still survives, he wrote, “it is due not to a Hellene but to Dr. W. P. Brookes.” Britain’s culture of sports, he explained, is the reason for its empire, and he quoted from a speech that Brookes had delivered: “If the time should ever come when the youth of this country once again abandons the fortifying exercises of the gymnasium, the manly games, the outdoor sports that give health and life, in favor of effeminate and pacific amusements, know that that will mean the end of freedom, influence, strength, and prosperity for the whole empire.”
Brookes died in 1895, at the age of eighty-six; less than a year later, Coubertin was finally able to launch, in Athens, the modern Games. He rarely referred to Brookes and his Olympian Games again, but the mascot for this year’s London Games is named Wenlock.
The modern Games could be international from the start because the British had spread standardized versions of most of the Olympic sports around the world. And the Olympics themselves became agents of standardization. In the first modern Olympiads, for example, the length of the marathon was inconsistent. Each marathon course was approximately twenty-five miles, believed to be the length of the route from Marathon to Athens run by Pheidippides in 490 B.C.E. As long as every competitor ran the same distance, it didn’t matter what the precise measurement was. Those first Olympic marathons were essentially “I’ll race you to that tree” events. But, at the 1908 Games, held in London, the course was designed to start at Queen Victoria’s statue at Windsor Castle and to finish in front of the Royal Box in the Olympic stadium. This turned out to be a distance of twenty-six miles three hundred and eighty-five yards. In 1921, that became the regulation length of the marathon.
Standardization was also a way of reprogramming life elsewhere in the default settings of the metropole. In 1896, the European imperial powers governed a large portion of the planet, and the Games were a tribute to their success in spreading their way of life—from the idea that life is essentially competition right down to the unit of measurement—throughout the world. For the first sixty years of the modern Olympics, people from around the globe came to mostly European capitals (two Summer Games were held in the United States) to play European games. You can see residues of the imperial reprogramming in the anomalous-seeming distances in track. The four-hundred-metre race is a descendant of the 440—four hundred and forty yards, or two furlongs—which was run at almost every Olympics until 1952. Fifteen hundred metres is the “metric equivalent” of the mile.
Today, the agents of standardization are not empires but industries, like financial services and telecommunications, that need everyone everywhere to be on the same frequency, so that they can use their products. These businesses are happy to have the old nationalisms as a beard. That’s why we have Team U.S.A., and not Team Visa—even though, in certain respects, Team Visa is what it is.
Twenty-six sports will be played in London this summer, with medals awarded in three hundred and two events. The majority of those medals will be given in sports that originated, in their modern form, in Britain: archery, athletics (track and field), boxing, badminton, field hockey, football (soccer), rowing, sailing, swimming, water polo, table tennis, and tennis. Britain is also the birthplace of curling, cross-country, cricket, croquet, golf, squash, and rugby—which is scheduled to become an Olympic sport in 2016. No other country comes close. Three Olympic sports originated in the United States: basketball, volleyball, and the triathlon, which was invented in 1974. Two originated in Germany: handball and gymnastics.
The modern Olympics are a model example of what the historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger have called invented traditions—ritualized official or quasi-official events, often presented as revivals of ancient practices or in other ways designed to imply continuity with the distant past. In the Wenlock Games, for example, the winners knelt and a wreath was placed on their head by a lady.
The late nineteenth century was an inventive time for tradition-making. That’s when many national holidays were created: Independence Day (1870), Bastille Day (1880), May Day (1890), Columbus Day (1892), Labor Day (1894). Many annual sports championships date from that period, too. The British Open Championship in golf began in 1860, Association football championships in 1871, cricket championships in 1873. Lawn tennis was invented in 1873; Wimbledon started in 1877. The practice of commemorating the fiftieth and hundredth anniversaries of notable persons and events also dates from the late nineteenth century. The celebration throughout the Empire of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, in 1887, the fiftieth year of her reign, was so successful that it inspired similar anniversary celebrations in other monarchies, and led the British to celebrate, in 1897, her Diamond Jubilee.
Modern societies are still obsessed with these secular rituals, in part because almost all of them have become successfully commercialized. Maybe they offer an illusion of permanence and continuity in a world characterized mainly by mobility, change, and uncertainty. No matter what happens to us next year, there will be a Super Bowl. Or maybe they feed our tribal instincts, stimulate the irrational basis of loyalty to our community or our country. Even the most cosmopolitan American viewer of the Olympics has a hard time not rooting for the American. If you watch, you don’t just want to see how it comes out. You care who wins.
And, despite the virtuous talk about the honor of competing and the comity of sport—and the talk is virtuous, and fine as far as it goes—winning really is what the spectacle is all about. Athletes settle for silver; they win the gold. Is there a hope (though whose hope would it be, exactly?) that watching the Games will recharge our competitive energies, and that we will go back and “win” at our jobs? And are we meant to be reassured, by the closing ceremony, where the athletes commingle without regard to who won medals or what nations they represent, that those we have “defeated” in the Game of Life have no hard feelings? Are we supposed to believe that the reason we honor winners is that competition is the lifeblood of community? Probably. So what? We have the Games, however we got them, whatever they mean. Let them begin! Ω
[Louis Menand has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1991. He became a staff writer in 2001. His best book (thus far), The Metaphysical Club, was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for History and the Francis Parkman Prize from the Organization of American Historians (OAH). He was an associate editor at The New Republic from 1986 to 1987, and was a contributing editor at The New York Review of Books from 1994 to 2001. Menand is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. He has also taught at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Princeton, Columbia, and the University of Virginia School of Law. A graduate of Pomona College, Menand attended Harvard Law School for one year (1973-1974) before he received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1980 Menand's most recent book is The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (2010).]
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