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How the Olympics became a vehicle for European supremacy

Despite all the pomp of universal friendship, the Olympics continue to be an occasion of chauvinistic nationalism
The closing ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, on 8 August 2021 (AFP)

Much of the theatrical staging surrounding the Olympic Games presents them as a global occasion of friendship and peace among nations, rather than a European chauvinistic and imperial event that expanded gradually to include the rest of the world.

With few major exceptions, Europeans and their offshore settler colonies continue to amass most of the Olympic medals

The condition of inclusion is that the rest of the world be represented by the countries and nations that European colonialism carved up over the centuries. It is to these countries which Europe claims to have bequeathed the legacy of ancient Greece, which the newly invented "Europe", since the Renaissance, but especially since the 18th-century rise of German philhellenism, appropriated as its own. 

Despite all the pomp of universal friendship, the Olympics continue to be, and cannot but be, an occasion of chauvinistic nationalism. The multiple political boycotts of the games over the decades attest to this plainly, as does the ongoing boycott campaign of the upcoming Winter Olympics in China.

At the recent Tokyo Olympics, Arab athletes refused to compete against Israeli athletes who proudly represented their apartheid settler-colony. As did the Algerian judoka Fethi Nourine and the Sudanese judoka Mohamed Abdalrasool, who preferred to withdraw despite popular Arab condemnation of him and his country, which has been increasingly normalising relations with Israel. A Saudi judoka agreed to play against an Israeli athlete who, to the delight of anti-Israel Arabs, trounced her Saudi rival. 

An imagined Europe

In Tokyo, a moment of silence was observed during the opening ceremony to remember athletes who had died during previous Olympic Games. Special mention was made of the 11 Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Not remembered or commemorated were the hundreds of Palestinian civilians Israel killed in revenge days after the Munich killings, when it bombed Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria.

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The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had previously refused to commemorate the Israeli athletes despite a decades-long Israeli-led campaign to pressure it. At the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the IOC inaugurated the "Place of Mourning" at the Olympic village to commemorate those who died at previous Olympics. It featured two stones from ancient Olympia encased in glass. 

The abduction of ancient Greece from the eastern Mediterranean into this imagined Europe would be challenged by Greek nationalists, especially when it came to the revival of the Olympic Games and the cult of the body in the 19th century, as the newly invented Europe claimed that Europeans, not modern Greeks, were the heirs of ancient Greece.

Greek nationalism’s commitment to German and European philhellenism was such that the new project of "reviving" the ancient Games soon took on practical implications. The fact that diaspora Greeks, Germans, Englishmen and Frenchmen were involved in the project was hardly coincidental. 

It was the Constantinople-born Panagiotis Soutsos (1806-1868) who first pushed the revival of the “Olympic Games”. His proposals, however, were unsuccessful. European philhellenes were already reviving the idea of the Olympics, mainly in Britain, where William Brookes established in 1850 the Wenlock Olympian Class for the “moral, physical and intellectual improvement” of the people of Wenlock in Shropshire.

A woman holds a Olympic flag during the IOC announcement that Pyeongchang in South Korea will host the 2018 Winter Olympics at Marienplatz in Munich, southern Germanyon July 6, 2011 Munich
A woman holds an Olympic flag at Marienplatz in Munich, southern Germany on 6 July 2011 (AFP)

The Wenlock Olympic Games (including cricket, football and quoits) began to be held in 1850. But if Soutsos was interested in a Greek nationalist project, Brookes saw western Europe as the heir to ancient Greece, and not, as some Europeans claimed, degraded “Christianized Slavs” who moved to Greece in later centuries.

'Muscular Christianity'

As David C Young explains in his informative history of The Modern Olympics, Soutsos’s proposals intrigued Evangelos Zappas, one of the wealthiest men in eastern Europe. Zappas proposed in 1856 to fund what he called "Olympiads of Zappas".

The Greek government tried to convince Zappas that the Olympics should be for competitions in industrial and agricultural goods, and animal husbandry; not in sports. Finally, a royal decree was issued in 1858 to hold the Olympics in 1859, including one day dedicated to athletic competitions. 

After some delays, the Athens Olympic Committee held the games at the end of 1859, and included athletic contests. The games were nationalist in character and Greek athletes from inside and outside Greece competed. 

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As a result of the Athens Olympics, the Olympics movement expanded in Britain, propelled by Brookes, with more Olympic Games held in Shropshire and Liverpool. Around the same time, the rise of the movement of “muscular Christianity” in Britain was hardly coincidental. 

The cult of the body had become increasingly entrenched in western Europe with the rise of the biological and racial sciences, and Protestant Christianity wanted a role. “Muscular Christianity” insisted that sports and physical exercise were good for the cultivation of manly physical and spiritual health, including good morals. 

In 1866, a British National Olympian Association held its first Olympic Games in London, and the following year in Birmingham. In Greece itself, however, the second Olympics would not take place until 1870. Before he died in 1865, Zappas left his entire fortune to the modern Greek Olympics. The 1870 contests followed the 1859 contests in having agricultural and industrial competitions.

For the athletic games, Greek athletes came from Greece - and from across the Ottoman Empire, Crete, Cyprus, Asia Minor - fully imbued with pan-Hellenistic nationalism. Their coach was, not surprisingly, a German schoolteacher. Many of the winners were working-class Greek men, which enraged elitist Greeks who sought to institute athletic education in Greek schools for the cultivation of an athletic elite. 

During the next Greek Olympics, in 1875, only university students competed. The Games were a fiasco. The fourth Athens Olympics were held in 1888, where a new building named the Zappeion was built in honour of Zappas, whose head was decapitated from his buried body in Romania and brought to be buried on the site in Athens, where it remains today.

These Games did not include any athletic competitions. 

Physical education

Obsession with athletic and male muscularity was already part of German and English education in the 19th century, so much so that many attributed German victory over France in the war of 1871 to the alleged muscularity of Prussian soldiers and the physical weakness of the French.

Physical weakness was associated with national degeneration, a notion that was increasingly acquiring scientific value

Physical weakness was associated with national degeneration, a notion that was increasingly acquiring scientific value. As Young explains in his book, Brookes himself wrote an article in 1888 on the consequences of France’s neglect of physical education compared to German muscularity.

This theme would be picked up by a Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, who became obsessed with France’s 1871 defeat. Influenced by Brookes, de Coubertin announced his project of an international competition at a revived Olympic Games in November 1892 as also serving the cause of “peace” between nations.

He sent out mailings across Europe and its settler-colonies, including New Zealand, to hold the "Paris International Congress for the Re-Establishment of the Olympic Games", in June 1894. For de Coubertin, as for Brookes, the Olympics were a European legacy, even a world legacy, and should not be left to the modern Greeks. 

The first location for the projected 1896 international Olympic Games was supposed to be London, but de Coubertin insisted on Athens. An Olympic stadium was built for the occasion, funded by a financial gift donated by the wealthy merchant George Averoff, a Vlach from the same Albanian region as Zappas who lived and worked in Egypt. 

The number of participants in the 1896 Athens Olympics was 280 male athletes, hailing from nine European countries - Britain, Germany, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Denmark, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Switzerland - and three European settler-colonies - the United States, Chile and Australia. 

Gold medallists Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi celebrate on the track after winning the men's high jump competition (AFP)
Gold medallists Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi celebrate after winning the men's high jump competition in Tokyo (AFP)

The Games opened on Easter Monday on 25 March 1896, also Independence Day (as Zappas wanted) according to the Greek calendar, wherein Christ, ancient Greece and the Olympic Games were resurrected in succession on that day. Despite the white European character of the Games, Greek nationalist pomp and celebrations marked the opening festivities, with Greece’s King George, a Dane, no less, opening the Games with a nationally appropriative declaration: “Long Live the Nation! Long Live the Greek people!” 

A Greek legacy

The Olympics did not return to Athens again until 2004. Meanwhile, they had become institutionalised as a masculine Greek national legacy (all the athletes at the time were men), and more importantly as a white male European legacy to be internationalised across Europe and its settler-colonies. 

Zionists, who also wanted to transform European Jews into white colonial settlers in Palestine, also adopted the cult of the male body as a tenet

Zionists, who sought to transform European Jews into white colonial settlers in Palestine, also adopted the cult of the male body as a tenet. As early as 1898, at the Second Zionist Congress, the Zionist leader Max Nordau established Zionist Gymnastic Societies and gymnastic clubs to regenerate the bodies of "degenerated" male Jews in preparation for the colonisation of Palestine.

Nordau declared that “all we lack is muscle, and that can be developed through the use of physical exercise … the more Jews achieve in the various branches of sports, the greater will be their self-confidence and self-respect."

Two months after Nordau proposed a "muscular Judaism", an echo of "muscular Christianity", the Bar Kochba gymnastic clubs were established in Berlin and soon after across Europe. In 1903, at the fourth Zionist Congress, plans to found the union of Jewish Gymnastic clubs were laid to unify all these clubs, which became known as the Maccabi Union. Nordau was the acclaimed author of the 1891 book Degeneration and was most concerned about Jewish physical degeneration.

European entitlement

In 1921, the idea of a racially separatist "Jewish Olympics" was proposed by the Jewish colonist Joseph Yekutieli, born in Byelorussia, who arrived in 1909 with his family to colonise Palestine, and was approved by the IOC. He proposed the plan which was approved by the Maccabi World Congress meeting in Czechoslovakia, in 1929.

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The first "Maccabiah" was held in Palestine in 1932, in the racially separatist Jewish colony of Tel Aviv, with 500 Jewish athletes from 23 countries. The Jewish colonists carried their apartheid system in as strict a fashion as Israel does today. In 1933, a National Olympic Committee was formed by the colonists to only represent Jews and exclude the indigenous Palestinians, but they did not compete in the Olympics until 1952, after Israel was established.

In 1994, Israel appropriately became a member of the European Olympic Committees. Israel and Greece both amassed no more than four medals each at the Tokyo Olympics.

With few major exceptions, Europeans and their offshore settler colonies continue to amass most of the Olympic medals, although China has become a threatening non-European contender, eliciting utter jealousy and resentment from the New York Times, which ran a vituperative screed against China’s Olympic achievement that surpassed the historic US envy of Soviet achievements.

What continues to mobilise such base sentiments is nothing less than the white European supremacist appropriation of the ancient Greeks as an exclusive European entitlement, which can be imparted but certainly not appropriated by the non-European world. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Joseph Massad
Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated into a dozen languages.