From the archive – Glass talks to four of the greatest Olympic athletes

Nationality, Identity, and Humanity: Reflections on the OlympicsGlass asks four of the greatest Olympic athletes and an anthropologist for their views on the social impact of the world’s greatest show

EVERY four years, scores of nations select a group of their most athletically skilled natives and, bestowing upon them their blessings, send them off to compete in what can be considered the most reputable sporting event on the globe. This event is known as the Olympic Games. To most, the Olympics represent a form of entertainment in which citizens everywhere tune into their television sets and cheer on their particular countries; but for the selected few who actually get to live the experience of participating in the Games, the Olympics can represent a venue to showcase their talents, a stage to manifest new levels of drive and determination, and for all, a podium for their dreams.

From the triumph of African-American Jesse Owens’ four gold medals during a time when Hitler wished to aggrandise the Aryan race’s dominion over other cultures; to North and South Korea marching under the same flag in 2000. For hundreds of years the Olympics have been challenging the constraints of anthropologic limitations, providing a venue for hundreds of countries and millions of people to unite in one global spirit. As a cultural phenomenon, these Games have come a long way not only in size and participation – with only 14 countries taking part in 1896, contrasting to the 205 nations participating in London this summer – but also in the humanitarian discourse for equality for all.


Alice Coachman’s record-breaking jump at the 1948 Olympic Games in London

Alice Coachman
Born in 1923, Coachman made history in the 1948 Olympics, where she was not only the sole gold medallist for the United States but was also the first black woman ever to win the gold, doing so in the high jump event. The 1948 Games were of particular social, cultural, and political importance because they marked the end of the Olympic hiatus caused by the Second World War, and having been held in London they provide a suitable contrast to how far the Games will prove to have come when they revisit the same city.

You are the first African American ever to win a gold medal in the Olympics, becoming an inspiration to young African American athletes. Not having any Olympic precedents, who was your inspiration before setting the world record?

The IOC (International Olympic Committee) does not keep track of winners by race. My gold medal was highlighted more in the U.S. where race is a bigger issue. However, if you look at the records of the Olympics, no women of colour had won a gold medal in the modern day Olympics until my 1948 win. The women that inspired me were all from Tuskegee, Lula Hymes and Lucy Newell. (Coachman’s field mates from Tuskegee University, Alabama)

Do you stay in tune to Olympic Games today? Will you be tuning in to the 2012 Olympics, which will be held in the same city where you first won the gold?

I still love the Olympics and the United States Olympic Committee is working with Jeremy Bloom Foundation and an Olympic sponsor to try and take me back to the London Games.

It has been more than six decades since your ground-breaking performance, and thus you are one of the few people today who may answer this question through an athlete’s, as well as a philanthropist’s perspective: in terms of the social significance of the Olympic Games, how do you think 2012 compares with 1948?

The entire system is better now. The equipment, the training, the coaches, the food and nutrition, the travel, the treatment of the athletes, the ability to earn a living and the media coverage are all better. We ran on dirt, gravel and grass tracks with hazardous wood hurdles. Today there are high tech facilities with medical staff, etc. Our coach, Cleve Abbott, was the best coach in the 20th century. His record will reflect that. However, now coaches have access to so much more information to make athletes better. Before, as an Olympic winner and a woman, you had pride and some medal. Today you can develop a lifestyle for you and your family for ever. The training is worth the effort.


Luz Long from Germany and Jesse Owens from USA in the 1936 Berlin Olympics,
taking second and third place respectively

John Carlos

In 1968, John Carlos and teammate Tommie Smith won the bronze and gold medals respectively in the 200 metre dash. However, what changed the world wasn’t that these two black men had met Olympic success, it was the famous solidarity gesture they gave on the victory stand, the – back then – notoriously misinterpreted ‘black power salute’ while the U.S. national anthem played. The gesture, which aimed to represent poverty and inequality for blacks, was widely misinterpreted by the media and started a frenzy of accusations and threats against both athletes – an act which in itself was a sign of inequality and prejudice against blacks in the late ’60s.

When did you first start becoming lured by the thought of competing in the Olympics?
I must have been about maybe nine or ten years old. Back when I was a kid, radio was the TV for kids, and when I heard about someone swimming the English Channel I was very enthused about that, although I didn’t know what the English Channel was. I wanted to ask my father, you know, “what’s the English Channel?”, “Why would he swim the English Channel?”, “How did he swim with a knife in his mouth, what about the sharks?”, “What does he do when he has to go to the bathroom?”

My old man said “You know, son, I swim like a rock: right down to the bottom, so I’m gonna have to go research this.” While he was in the process of researching it, before he got back to me, the news started talking about the Olympics. “Wow, Pop, what’s the Olympics?” And he told me the Olympics, that’s where the greatest athletes in the world come together to represent their nations, at this one event called ‘The Olympics’. I said, “Wow, Pops, well how many black swimmers does the United States have?” He said, “None.” I said, “Well, I’ll be the first black to represent America.” And that’s how I got involved in the Olympic movement, thinking that I wanted to go.

Down the line, my father had to have a man-to-son talk, or a man-to-man talk, and told me that I would have to try and find another way out, because I would never be able to go to the Olympics as a swimmer: “I hate to rain on your parade, but just really because of the colour of your skin, that’s a dream you won’t be able to fulfil at this time.”

Could you tell me about the social context for blacks in the Olympics in the ‘60s?
Back in 1968 it was a revolutionary time. I think we had more blacks to come on the United States Olympic Team than we ever had in history, at that point. Everyone was excited, once we got by the Olympic Project for Human Rights proposal to potentially boycott the Olympics (in protest over racial segregation in the US and elsewhere), but once all that was said and done, those were individuals that had the opportunity to go to the Olympics. They felt very good about making the team, and then the adrenaline started to rush about the fact that you made the team, now you’re gonna get outfitted for the team, and you get this camaraderie amongst one another.

When we went into Mexico city it was an altogether different thing, because the same thing we were talking about, boycotting the Olympics, was based on human rights issues; and then we walk into Mexico City and, boom, there it is … so many Mexican students protesting against the political situation in Mexico. We wondered whether we did the right thing on not boycotting and going on to the Games. Then we were overtaken by just the raw energy of the spectatorship in terms of the chemistry on the stands versus the chemistry on the athletic field. There was just so much going on that particular time.

At the same time, while this is happening, we still had to prepare ourselves for our competition as well. So we had a tremendous amount of things going through our heads in terms of being threatened by the International Olympic Committee and the United States Olympic Committee, being somewhat intimidated by the United States government in terms of stepping out of the line, so we had a lot on our plate.

What did you and teammate Tommie Smith hope to encourage by giving the ‘black power salute’ while the national anthem played?
First of all, you have to take into account that we didn’t go at it in terms of a “black power movement”. We went there with a purpose of representing the ills of society, dealing with the human rights issues. We had the Olympic Project for Human Rights, and that’s been our theme all the time. Merely because we were black individuals, then the right wing media – I might add, that was the only media that was out there at that particular time – classified it as a “black power movement” more so to intimidate, to confuse, and to frustrate many individuals that couldn’t think for themselves.

I mean “black power”, if they were to say “black power” today they would think that would be the equivalent to the planes going into the Twin Towers; that we were out to try and destroy America, and that was so far from the truth. It wasn’t a “black power movement”, we just happened to be black people standing up for justice and equality for all people.

What repercussions did it bring, negative or otherwise?
The first thing I would have to say is that going in you got sunshine and clear skies. Coming out we had stormy weather, brother, and just horrific skies: thunder, lightning, fire, everything. To have money in the bank and then to realise that now you don’t have a job, no money’s coming in, everything that you saved over the years and the months is starting to dissipate, because you have to pay your bills.

Your kids go to school, now your kids are being abused because they have the last name “Carlos” or they have the last name “Smith.” Your friends – that you thought were your friends – have a tendency to clam up or tighten up, or denounce you and walk away from you. It took a while for me to figure that one out. I realised that all of them didn’t dislike me or didn’t not have love for me – they just had fear of reprisals for themselves based on association.

My first wife took her life as the result of the strain that was put on us. You know, to figure how you’re going to maintain your family as best you can, how you’re gonna pay your bills, how you’re gonna keep your family healthy and safe … all of these things were spinning around on a constant level – being followed by the FBI – all of these things were factors in terms of giving you a thought about “did you do the right thing or the wrong thing?” And my attitude is, if I had all of these things going on, obviously I did the right thing, because if I did something wrong nobody would give a shit.

Your victory stand brought a great deal of negative consequences, but it also gave you an immediate voice within society. How has it changed the Olympic games and society?
The only way the Olympic Games changed, from my estimation, is that they let these kids go out there and make some money. They can go make some money and they can go to the Olympic Games, but relative to the Olympic Games changing, they haven’t given me any indication that it’s changed in terms of saying, “we’re a little more sympathetic than we’ve been in the past relative to what individuals have sacrificed – over-sacrifices – to go and represent the United States.”

For instance, so many kids back when I went to the Olympic Games, we didn’t have an easy vehicle to go to the parks and train; we didn’t have accessibility to get into the stadiums to prepare ourselves. A lot of the guys had to climb a 30-foot fence to get into a stadium to train, and if it snowed you had to use a shovel to try to shovel out the snow and hope that it didn’t snow the next day. But America acted like they did us a favour by allowing us to be there. They didn’t do us a favour by allowing us to be there, we went there and fought just like the Tuskegee airmen to represent our nation, to be proud to represent our nation.

Do you feel that the salute made a difference in the way that blacks are seen in the Olympics or the voice they have within the Olympics?
I feel, first of all, that the demonstration was like a beacon for society. It wasn’t just for the Olympics, it was for society in terms of us resurrecting our conscience. Many people, regardless of what their ethnic background was, still had gone through suffering and tyranny and prejudice and bias. So many people were able to grab on to that particular demonstration and say, “Hey, man, I understand, I feel what you feel; I’ve gone through the fires that you’ve gone through.”

So, yes, we feel very strongly that we had committed ourselves to the world. This is why this particular demonstration hasn’t dissipated in the last 43 years; it gets bigger and stronger every year.

What minority or marginalised groups competing in the Olympics nowadays do you think need a voice and gesture to shake the world into acknowledging their equality and rights?
It’s difficult to pull any one or two groups in the Olympics. I have seen Steve Nash step up for the Hispanic people in the state of Arizona, where they’ve been prejudiced or biased against. I’ve seen Michael Strahan step up based on people’s preference in who they choose to fall in love with.

Charles Woodson spoke on the fact that they were trying to knock all the blue-collar workers out in the United States. So these individuals stepped up to the plate. (Woodson is a defensive back with the Green Bay Packers. Michael Strahan played for the New York Giants).

As far as young individuals going to the Olympic Games, they have little clauses that they make them sign a statement that, “I will not do x, y, z,” and they make them sign a statement saying that, “if you cross the line we can eject you from the Games.”

Do you feel that the Olympics as a social event has played an important role in greater dialogue and respect between ethnicities?
I don’t really think they take a vested interest in that. I think they just look at it in terms of an athletic endeavour. Relative as to whether they’re doing something to bring ethnicities together, to have a better understanding, and foster more love amongst one another, I don’t think the Olympic committee is doing that as much as I think individual Olympians are doing it amongst themselves.

That’s a very good point that you make, because you would think that after 40-something odd years, and relative to my history with the Olympics, you would think that would be one of the things that they would really like to take some time and bridge some gaps among the various ethnic groups.


Untitled10Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Montreal Olympics

Nadia Comaneci
At a mere 14 years of age, Comaneci was the first Olympic gymnast ever to score a perfect 10. The 1976 Olympics, held at Montreal, awarded her three gold medals for accomplishing a feat which was not only unheard of, but was also virtually impossible, as the scoreboard – limited to a single digit with two decimal points, thus displaying a score of “1.00” – wasn’t even designed to display the number 10.

At the time, were you able to fully realise the impact of what you had just accomplished at that age, or did it take time?
Oh, I didn’t realise, and I didn’t realise even after, I mean, a long time after. Even after the Olympics were done I went back to Romania and I had three days of holiday, and then we went back to the gym to prepare. There was no time to, I don’t know, go to Disneyland or any other things like that, and I didn’t realise what happened in a big picture, because I was too young to understand that I made history and what that meant.

Do you feel the Olympics have served as a useful social tool to enhance greater equality between sexes?
The fact that women were able to win and be successful in such a big competition, which is the Olympic Games, opens opportunities. You know, we are all made from the same material if we’re women or guys. We have the same opportunities and possibilities, and through sports you could prove that the best, I think.

Do you think your Olympic success helped establish dialogues between Romania and other countries and grant it further visibility within a global social scale?
Probably. In the ‘70s, after I won the Olympics in Montreal, a lot of people – maybe they still don’t know now, but probably it’s better now – didn’t know where Romania is on the map, so I probably helped a little bit with that. I just think that sport has no language or barrier, it’s the easiest way to communicate in general, and I think it’s the best tool for people to create opportunities, friendships, peace, and everything else.

Untitled11Greg Louganis at the 1988 Seoul Olympics

Greg Louganis
The 1988 Seoul Olympics were the venue for the performances that forever changed the life of this world-renowned diver. While Louganis attempted a reverse 2-and-a-half somersault pike, his head collided with the springboard, but after having stitches he went on to win gold. Though remarkable as his performance was, Louganis’s story went beyond Olympic medals, and the severity of his accident surfaced when he made his HIV-positive status public to the world.

I presume that as an athlete your biggest aspiration at the Olympics was to win the gold, but what did you want to get out of it personally?
I was one of the athlete representatives that was pushing to have trust funds put into place for the younger divers coming up, so they’d have an easier time, because at one point in my diving career, early on, I was working three part-time jobs, because no one would hire me full time because of my training and travel schedule for competitions, all that whilst trying to stay in world-class shape. That was very challenging.

With trust funds you can do the commercials, endorsements, the speaking, exhibitions, and still remain an eligible athlete, so when I was planning on retiring and went to the president of the USA diving at that time, I asked him what was going on with the trust funds for the kids. He said that the only one it affected was me, and since I was retiring [that year] they don’t have to spend the money to get them put into place. So my response to him was, “Okay, fine I’m not retiring; do your homework.”

My thought was to make sure the trust funds are in place for the younger divers coming up. What happened was it took two years to for them to get the trust funds put into place, and for two years I found myself at the world championships, and I was successful there, so I decided to continue on and go to ’88.

Take us back to the morning of September 19, 1988. What was going through your mind when you realised your dive had resulted in an accident?
When I took off the board I knew I was close, but usually when you’re close you have to worry about hitting your hands, so when I heard this big, hollow thud I realised it was my head. My first feeling was I was embarrassed, because I did that in front of the entire world. I was trying to figure out how to get out of the pool without anybody seeing me, but then there was a concern because of my HIV status.

I wrote in my book that I was paralysed by fear about what my responsibility was, because at that time I was in a country that I wouldn’t have been allowed to be in, had they known my HIV status. They wouldn’t have granted me a visa to be in Seoul and it was such a big secret. I didn’t have time to figure out what I did wrong, they just put me aside and sewed my head up. I think there was only 20 minutes until I had to do my next dive.

What was the context like for a gay Olympic athlete in 1988?
It was funny when my book came out, because we spent five weeks #1 New York Times Best Seller. We kind of laughed, my co-author and I, “the sissy beat the football player” in ratings, because I think it was OJ Simpson who had his book come out at around the same time.

It was my policy not to discuss my sexuality with members of the media, and I had befriended so many of the reporters. They saw me grow up, and I think there was a mutual respect there. I tried to be as accommodating as I could, because one thing that I was taught early on is that diving is a minor sport, and it’s my responsibility as an ambassador of diving to educate, especially the reporters. There was plenty that was written in the media that you could read between the lines that I was gay.

Were there other athletes who had been out in the Olympics?
It’s not something that happened at that time, that’s for sure.

What barriers do you consider were broken by your performance in Seoul and in the years that followed?
I think that it happened after my book when I had my interview with Barbara Walters in 1995. A lot of people across America felt that they didn’t know anybody with AIDS; their lives had not been touched by AIDS. In that interview with Barbara I said, “Anybody who cheered for me in the Olympic Games can no longer say that they have not been touched by HIV/AIDS.”

What has been your proudest moment?
Probably the publishing of my book, because on book tours I’ve had people say that I saved their lives, that they were in an abusive relationship, gave them the strength to leave an abusive relationship, gave them the strength to come out to their parents about their sexual identity. Some people said it gave them the strength to come out about their HIV status, you know… So I’m more proud of that than I am of the Olympic medals, but I wouldn’t have that, had I not had the Olympic medals.


Jesse Owen‘s performance at the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin

John MacAloon
John MacAloon is a professor of social sciences at the University of Chicago who has studied the Olympic Games for over forty years. His book Bearing Light: Flame Relays and the Struggle for the Olympic Movement is published by Routledge.

To a number of people, the Olympics are merely a major sporting event, but there’s much more to it in social terms. What does bringing together over 200 countries in one global event mean anthropologically?
The Olympics are sports events with a ritual surrounding them and an ideology permeating them. The largest Olympic audience – which is also the highest concentration of attention to a single event in the history of our species – is for the Summer Games Opening Ceremony, not for any particular sports contest. The Opening Ceremonies are the ritual performance of the world system of nation-states.

Being a fully recognised nation among nations in our world requires membership in the United Nations and marching in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. More countries qualify for the latter than the former. The Olympic procession of nations is a moving tableau of the peoples of the earth and of how they choose to present themselves ceremonially to both domestic and world audiences through the persons of their athletes and sports officials. The host nation’s reward is an extended presentation of its own heritage and self-image.

 The Olympic Flame Relay and the Opening Ceremonies begin a process of interrogating possible and desirable relations among three abstract identities: individuality, nationality, and common humanity. The athlete’s body is the chief icon of the first identity. The national placards, uniforms, flags, anthems and officials represent the second. The Olympic flame, emblem, anthem, medals and officials represent the third identity. These symbolic sets are differentially deployed, emphasised, and rearranged in the sports contests, the medal ceremonies, the surrounding public festival, and finally in the Closing Ceremonies. The Games are an argument that individuality, nationality, and humanity need not be contradictory in our modern and now globalising world.

The great champion, as we say, transcends her nationality and expands the limits of our common humanity. In the medal ceremony, national flags and anthems honour victorious citizens but only after they have been claimed for all humanity by the application of the Olympic symbols to their bodies. In the Closing Ceremonies, the athletes are separated from their national flags and pour into the stadium in a joyous, unruly community. Such evocative representations teach that patriotism can be distinguished from nationalism and the latter defanged as the greatest source of danger in the modern world.

But, of course, to make these representations dramatic and compelling, national passions have to be aroused and engaged in the first place. Even when they don’t know the term, people have a sense of “Olympism” as an ideology of détente and mutual respect and cooperation.

What have been some of the most significant social changes and breakthroughs that have occurred because of the Olympics?
If cultural differences are as thoroughgoing and constitutive as we anthropologists insist, how is it that 205 different national cultures and literally uncountable sub-national cultural formations come together to participate, in some way or degree, in the same phenomenon? This is a real puzzle. To assert that “everyone loves sport” is merely to acknowledge ignorance of the world’s cultural diversity, not to mention the fact that scores of nations will have all their athletes eliminated in their first moments of competition.

But the human body is what we universally share and sport is a largely non-verbal art form with clear criteria of success (or failure). The Olympics are multi-sport and they incorporate rituals, festivals, spectacles, congresses, exhibitions, as well as games; the Olympic net of performance genres is cast widely. Moreover, the Olympics are sport with an ideology. Even where sport itself is little cultivated, people care about peace and intercultural education. These things said, I don’t assume that various audiences are necessarily paying attention to the “same” things at all.

It’s perhaps generally thought that the advantages of hosting the Olympic Games lie in boosting the economy and real estate value, increasing tourism, and improving the international profile of that city. How accurate is this?
I honestly wouldn’t know where to begin: the Olympic Movement’s contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa; the rise of the Paralympic Movement and its impact on the treatment of the disabled in places like Greece, Korea, the United States and China; the confrontation of Australians with their history of treatment of Aboriginal citizens; India’s Olympic recognition of how regionalism impedes national development; the Olympic Truce Foundation; and the global anti-doping campaign? I think it best to suggest that everyone might well ask themselves how their own social worlds might be different had the modern Olympics never existed.

What is the primary benefit for a city to host the Olympics, and who actually benefits from these Games?
My long experience with many host cities leaves me with a different answer than most people: political mobilisation. If you host an Olympics, you’ll have seven years of intense conversation and often confrontation about any and every challenge the city faces. And the entrenched authorities have to make at least an effort to listen and negotiate because of the pressure on them to deliver a “successful” Olympics. At least temporarily, that puts a measure of political capital in the hands of those typically without it and the effects can be substantial.

The Olympics have served as a stage for the manifestation of equality within different cultures, subcultures, and genders. What minority or marginalised groups competing in Olympics nowadays do you think need a voice in the equality and rights discourse?
Another long list, if you take a truly global perspective. The IOC bans discrimination of any sort, but has limited capacity to intervene all around the world on the national level. In certain areas of the world, access to sport has never reached down into the poorer or culturally marginalised communities, and many believe that under various “neoliberal” regimes in the wealthier countries today access to sport is once again narrowing to those of private means. Elite talent will probably always be found and cultivated, but it’s the general public health and social education functions of sport that we ought to care about.

As far as the London Olympics go, the long struggle for gender equality in sport has reached an important crossroads. Saudi Arabia has just announced that it will refuse to join Qatar and Brunei in sending women athletes to the Games for the first time. It appears that the Saudis will be the last holdouts in the world, and many are calling for the IOC to ban them from London on this account.

Do you feel that the Olympics as a social event has played an important role in greater dialogue and respect between ethnicities?
This is the important question, isn’t it, given the stated aims of the Olympic Movement. On the most foundational level, the insistence that everyone is equally human, the answer has got to be yes, of course. And my experience tells me that the Games have done their part in “making the world a little safer for differences”, as a great anthropologist once put it. But when we really begin to probe the quality of the information communicated in the Olympics about the “others” in our worlds, things get very complicated and uncertain. Olympic intercultural education is largely at the mercy of mass media, and too often mere reproduction of uneducated and unreflective stereotypes about other cultures and superficial “national character” discourses masquerade as real encounter and learning.

Each Olympic Games attempts to be better than the last, whether in their opening ceremonies, their physical manifestation in the form of buildings, or their athletic performances. What should future Olympics aspire to, in social terms?
Vancouver represented a watershed in the IOC’s attention to the “legacies” of an Olympic Games. For the first time, independent social scientists were empowered and properly funded to do the evaluation, focusing precisely on social development issues and metrics. We trust this innovation will continue in London. Your question identifies for me the biggest single challenge: the logic of the spectacle in my terms, “gigantism” in the IOC’s. In a nutshell, the notion that bigger is better.

I worked on the Chicago 2016 bid, and we’ve all come a very long way in getting a handle on the Olympic “edifice complex” and preventing – except in Beijing; no one was going to stop them – the multiplication of “white elephant” venues. But the IOC has shown no initiative in slowing the multiplication of accredited and unaccredited media and the onslaught of VIPs and celebrities now attending, all of whom demand their own retinues, services, and privileges, deflecting public and organising committee resources away from social and educational programmes. –

by Regner Ramos

More on the athletes can be found in their books, Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper by Ann Malaspina; The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World by Dave Zirin and John Carlos; and Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story by Greg Louganis and Eric Marcus.

From the Glass Archive – Issue 10








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