JULY 22, 1996
The Olympic games have changed a lot over the years; from amateur athletes to multimillionaire "dream teams." They have survived a lot too; boycotts, terrorism and Cold War nationalism. The NewsHour's regular panel of historians are joined by an Olympic specialist to look at the century-long legacy of the modern Olympic games.
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a historical look at the Olympics now underway in Atlanta. For the last 100 years this competition between and among athletes has come to mean and stand for much more . We get a sense of that now from three NewsHour regulars, presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist/author Haynes Johnson. They're joined tonight by David Wallechinsky, a founding member of the International Society of Olympic Historians, author of "The Complete Book of the Olympics." I talked with them earlier today. Haynes, the Olympic games are much more than a sporting event.
Join our Online NewsHour Forum on commercialism and the changing face of the Olympic games.
July 18, 1996:
Olympic historian Mark MacDonald discusses how the games have evolved over the past 100 years.
July 17, 1996:
A group of former U.S. Olympians explain the thrill of competing at the games.
HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: They were supposed to be this Olympic ideal of peace and brotherhood and international goodwill going back to the Greeks 2,000 years ago, and even in our time, Jim, you go back and look at what the rules were, it was for amateurs only, and it was not to make money. You couldn't have profit. It was for pleasure of sports and all that, and it's become now international competition. It's become a fear of terrorism. It's become a commercial exploitation of a huge, massive number of commercials all over the place, and yet, at the same time, I have to confess--this is just watching it--I love the opening ceremonies. You see all those people coming in with those banners and flags and the countries, so I'm still a hopeless romantic in the idea maybe despite all the commercialization and terror that has existed at these things and fear, something still may come good of getting together and hoping to celebrate athletics and not international rivalry.
JIM LEHRER: Looking back through history, Michael, have they always been the potential for good that Haynes was talking about and result as a good--have they had good results for the world as a whole?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Not consistently over this last century. You know, Jim, 1896 when the modern Olympic games revived, that was a time when we had very few international organizations, no League of Nations, no United Nations, and the idea was that you would have these games that would override national rivalries, and to an extent they have. Many times during the century you've had that Olympic ideal. But at the same time, you've seen moments during the century in which participants were about as nationalistic as they could have gotten. 1936, Adolf Hitler, when the Olympics were in Berlin, sought to use them as a demonstration of Aryan superiority, very much part of his philosophy. That was when the great African-American Jesse Owens succeeded, won some medals, was able to flout that. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union spent an awful lot of money and other resources developing Olympic athletes because they felt that if they won at the Olympics, that was a demonstration, particularly to the third world, that the Soviet Union was a rising power. So here are some examples of nationalism. I think in a way the amazing thing is that for so much of this century you've really had gains that did in many ways exemplify the Olympic ideal.
JIM LEHRER: But Doris, politics has always been a part of it, has it not? I mean--
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: No question. I mean, the ideal and the reality I think have lived side by side right from the beginning. Even the baron who created the modern games in the 1890's wanted it to be an exemplar of French loyalty, French sportsmanship, French character that would show itself through Olympic sports. But that doesn't mean to say that the ideal doesn't still plunge itself in as much as possible, even in the 36 games that Michael mentioned. It wasn't just the Jesse Owens and the black Americans flouting Hitler's hope for the white supremacy, but there was an incredible moment there where the Germans' long jumper saw that Jesse Owens had missed his first two jumps because of foul, and he put a white towel on the foul line, so Jesse Owens would get a better look at where the foul line was. He then saw--he made that jump. He wins the long jump, and at the end of it, they walk off arm in arm much to Hitler's great dismay. So every now and then you're going to have nation states. They're going to be competing. You've got team sports which even intensifies the emotion. You've got medals being counted on both sides of the Cold War. But every now and then that spirit of what the Olympics was supposed to stand for really comes out. So I think they'll always be side by side. Nothing we can do about it.
JIM LEHRER: David Wallechinsky, how do you read the whole history in terms of balancing the ideal, the Olympic ideal, with all the politics that has always been part of it as well?
DAVID WALLECHINSKY, Olympic Historian: I think most of what everybody else has said is right. I would like to correct one thing. The ancient Greek athletes were not amateurs. Although they might only get a laurel wreath at the Olympics, when they went home, they were feted for life. And even the ancient Greek medical colleges had scholarships in a way to support their athletes.
JIM LEHRER: And they never had to work again, right?
DAVID WALLECHINSKY: That's right. They never had to work again.
JIM LEHRER: All right.
DAVID WALLECHINSKY: And the code of amateurism was really created by upper class English to stop the working class from being able to compete against them because if you couldn't afford to--if you weren't a rich person, then you had to take time off from your training to work, or you had to become a professional, and, thus, not allowed to be in the Olympics.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. David, what about the--of course, we're all familiar with then President Jimmy Carter's decision in 1980 to boycott the Olympics because of the Russians and all of that. How common has that been through history, where a nation would use the Olympics to make a national statement of some kind?
DAVID WALLECHINSKY: Well, the first--there are actually boycotts in the ancient Greek games, but the first boycott in the modern games happened in 1956. There were three countries that boycotted to protest the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and three countries that boycotted to oppose Israel and the Suez Canal. So it really goes back to 1956. Then in 1976, you had the black African boycott and Jimmy Carter got the idea from that in 1980.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. As a practical matter, Haynes, does boycott using the Olympics that way, does it work? Has it been successful?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Oh, South Africa is a good example, and I think they took a terrible price by actually because of apartheid, the policy of racism down there, and then they were banned from the games, and now they wanted to get back, and now you see--you're seeing on the street again that they are back in the Olympics. So nations pay a price if they don't participate in these things. The other thing I think we haven't talked about yet, Jim, is the one moment in 1972 that cast a pall over everything that's so ominous now with the Atlanta games, and that was the terrorism of the Israeli athletes--
JIM LEHRER: All right.
HAYNES JOHNSON: --being slain, the 11 where you had on the screen--the first time--I think it was the first time we actually saw as a world the hooded figure of the spectral figure of terror--could penetrate the Olympic games--supposedly pure as that.
JIM LEHRER: But that also goes to the idea that if you really wanted to strike at the heart of something politically --
HAYNES JOHNSON: Right.
JIM LEHRER: --that was the symbolic way to do it, with something in the Olympic games.
HAYNES JOHNSON: The whole world was there.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And you had this audience, and everybody--what 3 billion--billion people were supposed to be watching these things--what better place if you have this in your mind to want to make a horrifying statement that we can blow you all up than taking on the Olympic games.
JIM LEHRER: You mentioned commercialism at the very beginning, Haynes. Does that offend you? Is that--does that run counter to--to the ideal of the Olympics?
HAYNES JOHNSON: It does to me, Jim. I mean, I know that we have sponsors, we all are paid by advertisers in one way or another in our lives as journalists or whatever, but I, I must say the overwhelming sense that you--everything you see on there--uniforms are decals for this and for that commercial and their shoes and so forth. I'd feel a little better if it weren't quite so much, frankly.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Doris, how do you feel about that?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I don't know. I agree with what David said earlier. I think the problem with undoing commercialism is it might mean that only people who have the wherewithal to run for these sports on their own are going to be able to participate. Avery Brundage, as I understand it, wanted commercialism out so much that he didn't even want skiers who were coaches in the wintertime to be able to participate and undid an--
JIM LEHRER: Brundage was head of the Olympics for years and years.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: He was head of the Olympics for years and years and years.
JIM LEHRER: And years.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And here's this guy who was a skier and he was coaching to make some money. He was kicked off the team, went back to Austria as a hero. That doesn't seem fair because winter sports cost so much money. Something's going to have to support them. But I think once the foot got in the door where they agree that you needed some support, I agree with Haynes on the other end, that it's become so overwhelmingly commercial right now that you feel like it's even taken the place of the politics in a certain sense.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: But the only thing--I'd like to just go back--
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think there's a distinction in the boycott. Maybe I'm not being fair with this, but it seems to me the Africans had a right to boycott against those countries who would not allow South Africa in, because South Africa had apartheid. It was discriminating against any kind of black athletes who couldn't participate in equal basis, and so the other African nations were supporting the IOC should not allow such a country to be allowed in when it was discriminating against its own athletes. That's different from using the boycott against the invasion of Afghanistan or even Hungary as a political gesture because there's a charter, a clause in the charter that says that these countries should not be allowed to discriminate. If they violate that charter, they should not be allowed in the Olympics, in my judgment.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, politics and, and commercialism, though, they are, they are--it doesn't matter what any of us or anybody else says, they are essential--an essential part of the Olympics, are they not, whether they're in Atlanta this year or four years from now, or four years go or whatever?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They're always going to be, and the poignant thing even above and beyond the tragedy that Haynes mentioned of 1972, the killing of those 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorism, that was an effort by the West Germans at the time in holding those Olympics in Munich to have an Olympics that overcame the memory of 1936 and Hitler, and the poignant thing is that what it is now remembered for is something that is extremely tragic. Another point I think that Haynes touched on I think is very important, and that is that in a way, the idea of 1896 was that you would have the entire world's attention on these athletes honoring them. That's happened largely because of television in a way that they never could have dreamt in 1896, but at the same time, the down side of all that is that it is a horrible temptation for some terrorist or someone else who wants attention for his or her political cause to use this as an enormous backdrop to make that message.
JIM LEHRER: David, the politics of it aside, has there ever been a time in history where it mattered in terms of the end result of a given athletic contest, or had they always been more or less pure? The best athlete--the best swimmer won--the best basketball team won--the best sprinter won, et cetera, et cetera.
DAVID WALLECHINSKY: Well, sometimes. Again, when you use the Nazi example, there was an incident in 1936 where the Germans, the Nazis, so desperate to win a gold medal, removed the Jewish--the best high jumper in Germany in the woman's event was a Jewish woman--they did not allow her to compete--and instead, they substituted for her a woman named Dora Ratchin, who finished fourth. Well, years later, it turned out that Dora Ratchin was really Herman Ratchin, yes, really a man, yes, and the Nazi youth organization had convinced him to be dressed up as a woman. That's how desperate they were for a gold medal. I'd like to point out one other good that came out of the, the Olympics in terms of politics, sometimes forgotten, is the 1988 games were given to Seoul, South Korea, which at the time was a very stern dictatorship. There was so much pressure from the world and really threats to take the Olympics away that South Korea became a democracy because of the Olympics and is still a democracy today.
JIM LEHRER: And speaking of democracy, Haynes, this point that you were talking about, what ever you may think about some parts of it, there are still athletes competing at the peak--the finest athletes in the world--and nobody can take that away.
HAYNES JOHNSON: I don't think the commercialization, no matter how bad it may be, can detract from that, and something else--it's just subliminally--I went back and looked up and maybe I'm wrong about this, but I think in 1900 in Paris, the games there were the first time women were admitted into the games to play at all, six women, six women, only six, and now, you're looking at the screen, there are women and races of all kinds together. It seems to me that's a positive.
JIM LEHRER: David, did the progress of women athletics, did it come out of the Olympics? Did the Olympics leave that, or did it follow?
DAVID WALLECHINSKY: Well, first of all, Baron DuKubertand was absolutely opposed--the founder of the modern Olympics--was absolutely opposed to having women in the Olympics. He felt that this was for the good of males. But yes, they slipped in, in croquet, in tennis, and golf, and eventually in all the sports this year we're seeing about 36 percent of the athletes are women. There were women sports before that. Wimbledon was already--
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
DAVID WALLECHINSKY: The Wimbledon Tennis Tournament was already taking place.
JIM LEHRER: But what I was saying, have the Olympics been a leader of, of the growth in women athletics, or have they been following just what's already happened?
DAVID WALLECHINSKY: Slowly it's been a leader. Recently it's definitely been a leader, and you know, we're now seeing athletes starting to compete from the Arab nations, and I think that's mostly because of pressure from the Olympics. For example, Pakistan has been in the Olympics since 1948. This is the first time they have ever entered a woman, and if there wasn't pressure from the Olympics in--the international movement, I don't think that they ever would have allowed women's sports.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. All right. Well, David and Doris, Michael and Haynes, thank you all very much.