Why Usain Bolt is the new Jesse Owens
Unfortunately for Hitler, an African American named Jesse Owens left the athletes of the 'master race' in the dust, winning four gold medals in the Berlin Olmpic stadium. Hitler was infuriated, and Owens became a hero to anti-fascists. Are Hitler's Olympics merely a dark chapter in the history of sport, or do they have some parrallels in the present? Scottish socialist blogger Andy Newman has some relevant thoughts:
It is instructive that the sports which exemplify the Olympics are those based upon direct comparative measurement: for example, athletics, swimming, weightlifting, cycling, skiing and boxing. The competition is between those who can best sublimate their human individuality and transform their body into a machine for producing the most efficient performance...human beings are subordinated to maximising the outputs of their own bodies, even at the cost of their long term health or mental well being...
The Olympics - and even more so the Tour de France – are dominated by performance enhancing drugs, and the effective collusion by the sports’ governing bodies.
What is more, the training infrastructure and the development of sports science is much more advanced in the developed economies of the imperialist powers. So every four years the Olympics gives an opportunity for the great powers to ideologically demonstrate that their world dominance is underpinned by an implicit biological and racial superiority. This is one of the impetuses behind the prestige of holding the games – an orgy of conspicuous consumption that validates the host nation as a major power.
For me, the dehumanisation of the sportsman - his or her conversion into a mere machine designed to turn out records - is symbolised by the case of Michael Phelps. Like the hulking blond monsters that raced for Hitler in 1936, Phelps seems more like an ideal type than a real human being. Phelps was born with an unusual body - he has an exceptionally long torso, and very short legs - which enables him to move quickly in the water, and for a decade now he has devoted himself obsessively to exploiting his natural advantage. 'All I'm doing is eating, swimming, and sleeping', he admitted in one poolside interview. Phelps' enormous diet has attracted a great deal of amused interest in the media, but few journalists have noted the sheer joylessness with which the man chomps down his daily intake of toasties, omletes, and pizzas. For Phelps, food is simply fuel. To enjoy a meal would be to lose focus and training time. The body is a machine which must be maintained with the maximum efficiency. Phelps' progress towards a record eight gold medals has been as well-planned and relentless as a military campaign. Unsurprisingly, it has failed to move many observers.
Over the last week, a very different athlete has grabbed a lot of attention that might have gone to Phelps. The young Jamaican Usain Bolt has won the one hundred and two hundred metres sprints, and set world record times in both. It is not only Bolt's results but the way they were achieved which has caused excitement. Bolt laughed, joked and even danced about before his races, and he began to celebrate his victories even before he reached the finishing line. A full twenty metres before the end of the final of the one hundred metre sprint, for instance, Bolt slowed down, dropped his arms, looked around and smiled. It was as though he was mocking the solemn sports coaches and commentators who urge athletes to extract every last fraction of effort from their bodies.
Bolt appears to have little time for the sports world that produced the monster that is Michael Phelps. As a teenager, he was offered a lucrative scholarship by a number of US universities impressed by his natural abilities. It is common, of course, for schools, universities, and professional sports franchises in wealthy countries to poach talented youngsters from poorer countries. New Zealand rugby relies increasingly for its health on young men lured from Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji by the promise of education, money, and a career path.
Bolt refused every offer of a scholarship, saying that he was happy living in Jamaica. He has also resisted attempts by sports coaches to make his approach to training and running more 'scientific'. The Guardian offered an account of Bolt's race day 'preparation' for the one metres final:
Fast man, fast food. "I never had breakfast," said the Jamaican as he recalled the start of his greatest day. "I woke up around eleven, I watched television and then I had some [chicken] nuggets for lunch. I went back to my room, I slept for two hours, I went back for some more nuggets and came to the track."
Bolt's attitude to his sport has horrified all the right people. They sputter about 'indiscipline' and wonder wistfully how fast Bolt could go 'if he really tried'. Bolt himself, though, doesn't seem to care. 'I just wanted to win, I didn't care about the time', he said after the hundred metres final. Like Jesse Owens in 1936, Usain Bolt offers a two-fingered salute to those who want to dehumanise sport.