Scandal and the Olympics

Controversy was in the air back in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, much like it is today, with questions of national unity and political allegiances overshadowing athletics.

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The 2016 Rio Olympics is off to a bumpy beginning, and not a single starting line has been crossed yet: Zika virus, doping scandals, political corruption, and construction delays. In short, it’s just another year at the Olympics.

Today, we’re taking a peek at the history of controversy in the Games. In October 1964, sports writer Roger Kahn argued in the Post that America should not only resist the political controversies of the Olympics with protest, but quit them altogether in defiance of “dictators, propagandists, and manipulators.”


Let’s Pull Out of the Olympics 

Excerpt from article originally published October 10, 1964

By Roger Kahn

It is the theory of certain somber sportsmen that World War III will begin at an Olympiad. This is not so much hysterical as extreme. The brutal quality of Olympic events brings out the worst in most nations and the combative in all, but the games have been with us, on and off, since 776 BC, and all that happens in the end is that everybody goes home sullen. We should quit this corruptive mess, this sweaty hypocrisy, before the damage to our spirit becomes irremediable.

History teaches that civilization and Tokyo will both survive the forthcoming Olympics. It also indicates that these games, like so many in the past, will be ludicrous, wasteful, filled with petty feuding, small cruelties, and overlaid with a patina of pomposity.

“The Olympic ideal.” We shall have to hear that phrase, played and replayed as if it were a chord from heaven, even though the original Olympic ideal involved pagan worship, commercialism, and the casual murder of women. (Only men were allowed to observe the ancient games. Intruding women were hurled over a nearby cliff.) …

If the Olympics were merely ludicrous, merely anachronistic, there would be no point in urging American withdrawal. It is the right of every American to be as ludicrous and anachronistic as he wants, provided that he violates no laws. But the Olympics ultimately are something more. Inevitably they become a political tool.

In antiquity, Nero crashed the Olympics of 66 AD, accompanied by 5,000 personal bodyguards. Oddly enough, whatever event the emperor entered, he won. As the bodyguards cheered, Nero was acclaimed best singer, best musician, best herald and winner of the chariot race. This was simply crude. Refined manipulation of the Olympic Games was splendidly demonstrated in 1936.

Then, as you may remember, the barbarity called Nazism was generally recognized. So to whom were the 1936 games awarded by the International Olympic Committee? Why, to that dandy little sportsman from Austria, wearing brown shirt and black moustache, the crowd-pleasing Adolf Hitler. …

Did freedom-loving Olympians protest? The president of the American Olympic Committee stated: “Certain Jews must now realize that they cannot use these games as a weapon in their boycott against the Nazis.” Placards advocating murder of Jews were banned in Berlin while the Olympic Games were going on. But at the very least, the games sanctioned Hitler as a member of the civilized community, which he was not.

The years since World War II have been filled with competition for so-called uncommitted nations and struggles for international prestige. Who has found Olympic fields a perfect stage for propaganda? The North and South Koreans, the East and West Germans, the Formosan and mainland Chinese, and that gentleman from Georgia, Josef Stalin and, later, the ubiquitous butterball from the Ukraine, Nikita Khrushchev. …

To what purpose, then, do we continue to compete? Unlike Communist society, we have a free and vibrant literature, complex art, unsubsidized music. These things are functions of the human spirit brave and free. Muscle? Any anemic elephant can lift more than a half dozen men. Marathons? My money would be on stampeding buffalo.

In 393 AD the Roman emperor Theodosius considered the ancient Olympic mess briefly. “Unchristian,” remarked the emperor, a newcomer to the faith, and ordered the games abolished. Presently earthquakes and floods all but abolished the Olympic site in Greece. Zeus was on the wane but he still got across a message from which we can profit.


For Kahn’s predictions of the 1964 Olympics and more on political corruption throughout Olympic history, read the entire article “Let’s Pull Out of the Olympics.”

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