Perhaps most of us have carried a burning ambition, which has pushed and driven us to rise from our beds in meeting demands that challenge who we are. Maybe attainment looked impossible as circumstances drove us back like the heat of the wildfires burning in America, China, Russia and Spain. Or perhaps the goal was in sight and sheer persistence brought the finishing line closer in time. The weight of the task establishes a great deal of course, but in the final analysis; who you are possibly determines far more than anything else. Whatever the path, dreams have sometimes changed more than people; they have often influenced entire philosophies.
In 1931, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) settled on Berlin to play host to the eleventh Olympiad, which was just five years away. Two years later as Hitler and the Nazi regime came to power; Europe began to change decidedly and forever. With far-reaching plans in mind, the importance of the games seemed lost on ‘The Fuhrer’ and unimpressed with the prospect, his subsequent description demonstrated both his apathy and the Reich’s baleful mind-set. As Guy Walker, the historian and journalist, recounted in the American Experience documentary, ‘Jesse Owens’; by 1936, after deriding the forthcoming sporting event as a “Jewish, Nigger-fest”; Hitler soon embraced the idea at the behest of Joseph Goebbels, his Minister of Propaganda who made the case for putting Germany on show to the rest of the world.
On the day however, when Goebbels saw the athletic frame of Owens preparing for the 100m sprint, he apparently remarked, “I think it’s unfair to have people like Jesse Owens competing because you might as well have deer or gazelle on your team”. Hitler nevertheless believed that Germany would run amok with the other countries, which in a sense proved to be true, but on the track his fury was set to explode as the Aryan ideal was shattered in front of the world.
Owens scooped four gold medals, but in true Olympic fashion it was not the main event.
This was reserved for an astonishing piece of sportsmanship and humanity. As Owens struggled to find form in the long-jump qualifiers, he faulted during the first two attempts, which left the third and final jump as his only chance of proceeding. Lutz Long, his main rival and an image-ideal for Hitler’s programme, suddenly offered advice in what would now be called visualisation. As Donald McRae wrote in the biography, ‘In Black & White’: the story of the lifelong friendship between Owens and Joe Louis: ‘In front of Hitler, the German offered advice as rudimentary as his English. Jesse was such a great jumper, Long said, that he would easily clear the required distance if he took off even six or seven inches short of the board’. Owens qualified before going on to repeatedly exchange the lead with Long in a gripping final contest.
As the American prepared to collect his second gold medal, Long embraced him in the long-jump pit and in full view of the Nazi hierarchy before the two men walked arm-in-arm around the stadium and posed for photographs. As William C Rhoden, a sports columnist for the New York Times observed in the American Experience, “That was extraordinary when you think about it. There are these moments in history when the actors understand that moment and they just do the right thing. Lutz Long did the right thing. That was a very humanising moment for Owens and for Germany”.
These Olympic-sized dreams and rare occasions of awe, that are as removed from financial motivation as it is possible to be, remind us of a proverbially forgotten aspect of being human. Between these infrequencies however, we often end up drawn to the more commercial aspects of the games.
Prior to the spectacular opening ceremony, the 2012 London Olympic Games were perhaps lauded and criticised in almost equal measure. The build-up was monumental with a large digital ‘Olympic clock’ in London’s Trafalgar Square providing the temporal rhythm to the constant preparations; whilst contractors put the final touches to the athlete’s village six months ahead of schedule. The meticulous arrangements have included surface-to-air missiles being placed on rooftops; adopted road lanes for the so-called ‘Olympic family’ to use alone and to the outrage of London’s taxi drivers; and G4S, the multi-national security organisation failing in its contract to supply adequate personnel.
Unfortunately, the digital clock also stopped less than a day after it had started and it remained motionless for over five hours; an omen perhaps for those who believe in such things, but in truth nothing more than a technical glitch. These things happen, although admittedly not always in front of the world’s media.
Some have argued that the games might be a vast waste of money. A year ago for instance, the Guardian online reported that, ‘The Economist’ magazine had launched an advertising campaign in its ‘Where Do You Stand’ question that looked at the viability of the event. Underground posters stated that firstly: the games would cost around £9-billion, which amounted to approximately £350 per household. Secondly that: only a fifth of Olympic jobs would in fact go to local people, and thirdly that: past hosts such as Athens and Montreal had been left with substantial debt problems and white elephants. Contrasting posters in the same campaign suggested that the games might in fact be of great benefit to London and its inhabitants. As it happens, London’s Olympic village may become more of an oasis than a pale pachyderm; because as Edna Fernandes reported from Doha, the capital of Qatar, in the Mail Online in March of this year, the Qatar Investment Authority, which is successfully running areas of Canary Wharf, Camden Market and Sainsbury’s, takes ownership after the final ceremony.
Of course, the potential failure of any games is always an underlying anxiety and concerns over its success were heightened after threats of a union strike by UK immigration officials, for which the government sought an injunction. Fortunately it was averted, unlike the diplomatically disastrous mix-up over the flags of North and South Korea.
Salvation for the London Olympics nevertheless arrived two days later when during the opening ceremony, the world received notice of what the islands remain capable of. The historical tour de force mesmerised the senses as Isambard Kingdom Brunel surveyed the industrial revolution to the backbeat of almost a thousand drummers. As the proletariat forged Olympic rings and the audience rode through The Great War, women’s rights, modern immigration and the NHS, the islands of the UK swelled with pride. The world was watching.
So it is perhaps that the enduring appeal of the Olympic Games lies in all that is produced by the human spirit, for the human spirit. Of course the commercial aspect, with the growing annoyance over empty seats, is never far away and writ large in that opening ceremony was the success or failure of the games.
Having said so, there are memories of past Olympiads that will simply live on forever. Moments such as Anton Josipovic, the Yugoslavian boxer, pulling Evander Holyfield to the Gold medal podium in 1984 after a banal, but technically correct decision had disqualified the American. Or the 1992 games in which Derek Redmond, crippled by a hamstring injury and hopping the final bend of the 400m semi-final in agony, was suddenly helped by his father who had run on to the track. Then of course, the sight of Muhammed Ali lighting the flame in Atlanta in 1996 as he braved Parkinson’s disease moved those watching beyond definition.
These are the moments that we crave as social animals. Not in the sense of gratuitous viewing; although by definition the expense of injury and or disappointment to those competing is how these moments invariably arise. Instead, it is through empathy as a result of our shared experience in being human.
- Harry George