Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why Usain Bolt is the new Jesse Owens

In 1936, Adolf Hitler did everything he could to turn the Berlin Olympics into a celebration of Nazism. The architecture of the Olympic stadium and other events centres, the absurd Wagnerian opera of the opening ceremony, and the ubiquity of the swastika and other Nazi symbols were all intended to drive home the message that the Aryan race was physically and mentally superior to all other breeds of human. Hitler wanted the towering, blond-haired members of the German athletics team to confirm their superiority on the race track, by trouncing rivals from lesser races.

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.


Blogger Dave Brown said...

Nice one, subversive yes, but ...
Owens two fingers didnt stop fascism.
Bolter won't stop capitalism.
It's great but arent they supremely individual winners who didnt need the corporate build-up.
Jack Lovelock was not a corporate guy but he was 'corporatist'.
Our own 'GOlden Kiwi' Tom Ashley didnt try to win races, just make no mistakes.
But isnt the big mistake going to the Olympics in the first place?
To use Key's word it 'innoculates' the opposition.

1:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phelps is a big sweaty nightmare of a man.

4:04 pm  
Blogger John Edmundson said...

"Hitler didn't snub me—it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram." Jesse Owens.

The Jesse Owens story said more about the USA than it did about Nazism. I'm sure that, just as neo-Nazis do today, Hitler could have rationalised Owens' victory as due to some kind of savage power, while resting assured that he could never be the intellectual or cultural equal of the Aryan. The post-Olympic life of Owens speaks volumes about the "ordinary" capitalism of 30s USA.

4:15 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Hitler said that the Africans had an extra muscle in their legs etc

The Olympics - ever since when I was excited to see Halberg and Snell win (as I used to see them run in Auckland here) - have soured for me.

Phelps I don't know - it is all too much. The Chinese, The USSR (in the old days), The US and even morons in NZ like try to endlessly count deals as if some wonderful thing came form winning medals...

The USSR and the US were both in this imperialist competition.

Have a fun games instead - a gathering where games are played but no score is kept. Everyone invited to the games where a win is a loss and loss is a win!

An antidote to Phelpsism.

1:00 am  
Blogger Blaize said...

The horror with which The Uptight have greeted Bolt's enjoyment of his sport makes me laugh. The guy actually made it seem like running might be FUN. Oh, no! Shock! Dismay! He should have been stressed out and unsmiling, like the U.S. women gymnasts!

I'm glad he won. But more, I'm glad he's GLAD he won. His leaping and dancing made me smile, whilst little else in the Olympics has.

3:39 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

This post has got me reading a book about the 1936 Olympics - very revealing. It was of course a massive propaganda fest for Hitler - but has anything changed?

The Chinese, the (USSR esp in the old days) the US all medal counting -

The Age still demands an image of its "Accelerated grimace."

8:08 pm  
Blogger Nathaniel said...

Rogge hates the Bolt, of course, and in the most patronizing fashion.

5:54 am  
Blogger maps said...

Yeah! It's a great article!

'Rogge’s ripping of Usain Bolt’s supposed showboating in two of the most electrifying gold-medal performances of these Games has to be one of the most ill-timed and gutless acts in the modern history of the Olympics.

“That’s not the way we perceive being a champion,” Rogge said of the Jamaican sprinter. “I have no problem with him doing a show. I think he should show more respect for his competitors and shake hands, give a tap on the shoulder to the other ones immediately after the finish and not make gestures like the one he made in the 100 meters.”

Oh, this is richer than those bribes and kickbacks the IOC got caught taking.

All the powerful nations — including the United States — have carte blanche at the Games. They can pout and preen, cheat, throw bean balls, file wild complaints, break promises that got them a host bid, whatever they want. They can take turns slapping Rogge and his cronies around like rag dolls as long as the dinner with a good wine list gets paid.

A single individual sprinter? Even if you don’t like his manner, that’s whom Rogge deems it necessary to attack, to issue a worldwide condemnation?

“I understand the joy,” Rogge said. “He might have interpreted that in another way, but the way it was perceived was ‘catch me if you can.’ You don’t do that. But he’ll learn. He’s still a young man.”

Perceived by whom? Old fat cats making billions of Olympic dollars on the backs of athletes like Bolt for a century now? They get to define this? They get to lecture about learning?

Bolt is everything the Olympics are supposed to be about. He isn’t the product of some rich country, some elaborate training program that churns out gold medals by any means necessary.

He’s a breath of fresh air, a guy who came out of nowhere to enrapture the world with his athletic performance and colorful personality. This is no dead-eye product of some massive machine.

He was himself, and the world loved him for it.

On his own force of will, Bolt has become the break-out star of these Games. He saved the post-Michael Phelps Olympics. It wasn’t so much his world-record times, but the flair, the fun.

No one at the track had a problem with this guy; they understood he is everything the sport needs to recover from an era of extreme doping. The Lightning Bolt made people care about track again, something that seemed impossible two weeks ago.

“I don’t feel like he’s being disrespectful,” American Shawn Crawford told the Associated Press. “He deserves to dance.”

Apparently, Rogge would prefer 12-year-old gymnasts too frightened to crack a smile.'

10:33 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes Bolt and the Jamaicans are great - the Nigerians did well also. Too much focus also on how many Golds per country rather than the sheer enjoyment of matches and competitions, struggle, interaction with other peoples, etc

Did anyone know about the alternative games that were proposed and nearly happened in Spain (Barcelona) just before the Civil War? They were organised, as well as an "alternative", also as a protest against Hitler's Games.

Maps - that could be something to research and could become a Blog post sometime.

8:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andy Newman isn't Scottish, nor does he live in Scotland. He is a vicarious Scottish nationalist.

2:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andy Nwman isn't a nationalist. He supports Scottish independence in the belief it will weaken the UK state, making it less able to mount military adventures overseas - among other things.


8:17 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard - that reminds me - Hitler also thought that New Zealanders lived in trees.

12:40 pm  
Blogger Nathaniel said...

This post is now the second result on Google for the search: "New Zealanders" Hitler trees

And number one in my personalized search results because I visit the site a lot.

I had to check that claim because I wanted to see more about it. I can only imagine it being part of Hitler's image of the native people South Pacific, and one shared by a lot of European imagery of the place.

9:18 am  
Blogger Tom Barker said...

Regarding the 1936 "People's Olympics" in Barcelona - these attracted hundreds of progressive athletes from many countries, including some very impressive Black Americans. With the outbreak of the civil war, many stayed on to join the International Brigades. Auckland writer Dean Parker has written a play, staged in Wellington earlier this year, about Tommy Morehu, a NZ runner competing at Barcelona while Jack Lovelock was taking gold at Berlin in 1936.

10:00 am  
Blogger Richard said...

tom barker - thanks for that - as Chess player I was also interested that there was to be a big Chess tournament.

But there was less emphasis on "winning" and accumulating golds a competing than there is now. I believe it has possibility as an alternative idea to the Olympics - indeed a "Peoples' Games" - great there is a play on this topic. Interesting what is going down we don't here about...

8:08 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

At the games I liked watching the Chinese play table tennis, the marathon, some diving, some of the high or long jumping and running (I must admit I loved watching the women mostly!!) and the gymnastics to music except some bloody Pommy woman and some other bloke spoilt it with inane comments on how well they did or didn't do - who cares? Why cant people just enjoy life and activity etc

Who cares really - in the end - who wins what - I mean of course we all love to win (as well as we all love to participate in things) but who cares what country - I don't. I can only recall the Swindell twins as winning but I am not sure what they won a gold for and I am not really interested in what other kiwis won...I like to see a great event or contest or whatever but who wins (relative to what country isn't very interesting to me)...

8:19 pm  

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