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Playing for Keeps

The empire was built on the belief in racial superiority. Just as the Germans did later, British sports enthusiasts often identified themselves as the true heirs of the ancient Greeks. And just as the Greeks confined their Olympics to athletes of pure Greek blood, Englishmen in the 1890s talked of holding an “Anglo-Saxon Olympiad.” This scheme, wrote the main promoter, J. Astley Cooper, “ought to act as an antidote to the debilitating effects of luxury, wealth and civilisation, for, should it be carried out in its full conception, the honors which it affords should be those for which the flower of the Race would chiefly strive.”5

The seminal work on Victorian English sports was Tom Brown’s School Days, written by Thomas Hughes, a worshiper of Dr. Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby and father of Matthew. The book begins with a description of Tom’s native village in Berkshire. In an aside, Hughes laments the loss of native village loyalties: “We were Berkshire, or Gloucestershire, or Yorkshire boys,” he writes, addressing his young readers,

and you’re young cosmopolites, belonging to all counties and no countries. No doubt it’s all right, I dare say it is. This is the day of large views and glorious humanity, and all that; but I wish backsword play hadn’t gone out in the Vale of White Horse, and that that confounded Great Western hadn’t carried away Alfred’s Hill to make an embankment.

Here we have a quintessentially nineteenth-century sentiment. Railways, empire, cosmopolitanism, large views, and glorious humanity—I dare say it’s all right, but…what about native values? What about moral discipline? How about community spirit? This is where sports came in, to restore such morals and values. When Tom first goes to Rugby, alma mater of many a moralist from Hughes himself to Salman Rushdie, he helps to win a football match for his house against “the School.” The hero is a sixth form boy known as Old Brooke. On the day of victory Brooke gets up to give a speech to the boys of the house. His theme is why the much smaller house beat the school:

It’s because we’ve more reliance on one another, more of a house feeling, more fellowship than the school can have…. We’ve union, they’ve division—there’s the secret—(cheers). But how’s this to be kept up? How’s it to be improved? That’s the question. For I take it, we’re all in earnest about beating the school, whatever else we care about. I know I’d sooner win two School-house matches running than get the Balliol scholarship any day—(frantic cheers).

Union versus division: this was the overriding obsession of nineteenth-century pedagogues—and authoritarian leaders. The Germans turned to turning, the British to the public-school spirit, and the French…? They were of two minds. Some admired the German spirit. But after the bitter defeat by the Prussian armies in 1871, this became a rather indefensible position, and so a large number of Frenchmen, including Pierre de Coubertin, turned to England, in the baron’s case specifically to Tom Brown’s school.

Coubertin, a restless aristocrat in search of good deeds, was deeply shaken by the French debacle in 1871 and sought to put some backbone into the French, or, as he put it, to “rebronze” them. Following the ideas of Hippolyte Taine, another Anglophile, Coubertin believed in Progress, the kind of progress celebrated in world’s fairs, the ethos of which was akin to that of the Olympics. The conditions for Progress were Harmony and Patriotism. These values, so essential to rebronzing the demoralized and enervated French, were to be found in British public schools, particularly at Rugby, where Coubertin literally worshiped at Dr. Arnold’s tomb. Coubertin, himself a product of a strict Jesuit college, where sports would have been the last thing on the curriculum, admired the likes of Old Brooke, who would rather win a football match than get a Balliol scholarship. Thus the sporting baron began his crusade for la pédagogie sportive. And thus the Olympic idea was born.

In fact, Dr. Arnold’s muscular Christianity stressed Christianity more than muscles. Coubertin’s patriotism was more secular. Olympia, he said, was “consecrated to a task strictly human and material in form, but purified and elevated by the idea of patriotism.”6 Like many nineteenth-century men, he loved ceremonies and hated politics. Olympia, to him, was a “cult center.” Men who dream of perfect harmony always hate politics. (But they are usually deeply moved by pagan rites and torchlight parades.) Ever the true aristocrat, Coubertin believed in patronage, dispensed by a noble elite, which chose its own members, not for their politics or the interests they might represent but for their devotion to the “idea” of Peace, Harmony, and Progress. Voting, interests, ideology—these divide men; religious or pseudoreligious ceremonies, service to common ideals, and great rallies—not to mention great leaders—bind them together. What Coubertin hoped to achieve with his Olympic idea was to emulate the union of Old Brooke’s house on a massive scale, first in France and then the world.

It is of course a deeply antidemocratic idea. And there are few less democratic institutions than the International Olympic Committee, which appears to operate a bit like a Freemasonry lodge—there is the same addiction to ritual, the same secretiveness, self-righteousness, and humorless pomposity. This is not to say that Coubertin himself was a proto-fascist. He was no doubt a genuine idealist. But antidemocratic ideas, however well-intentioned, are ripe for the plucking by more cynical manipulators. Coubertin believed that pseudoreligious incantations about Peace and the Brotherhood of Man could solve political conflicts. He took his own slogans about sports transcending politics seriously. He really thought that by holding vast jamborees we would all learn to understand and respect one another, and that this would lead to world peace.

Coubertin was an internationalist, under attack from French nativists, who were equally interested in staging jamborees, but they favored pageants involving French games, French ceremonies, and French traditions such as revived medieval French student festivals. Coubertin’s enemy was Charles Maurras, a reactionary royalist who loathed Dreyfus, democracy, and all foreigners, though not necessarily in that order. While Coubertin saw no contradiction between promoting patriotism through the competition of nations and the ideal of international brotherhood, Maurras saw the contradiction all too well. But he was all for it. Let the races mix at international competitions, he thought, and they will learn to hate each other. True Frenchmen, when confronted by the barbarian Americans and other unspeakable peoples, would recognize the superiority of France.

So while Coubertin was an enemy of the Action Française, Brown Shirts, and analogous fascist movements, his political naiveté contributed to their cause. The removal of politics can be the first step toward totalitarianism. Those that seek to solve political problems by turning to cults or romantic ideals of harmony are the first to end up as victims of tyranny. There is an interesting link between Coubertin and Marxism-Leninism. Communist countries are the most successful Olympic contenders and the true heirs of Coubertin’s ideals of Patriotism, Peace, and International Brotherhood. In this, as in so many other ways, Communists are the last Victorians.

The baron’s saddest defeat was perhaps perceived by himself as a victory. He was too ill to attend the Berlin Olympics in 1936. But he had praised Germany’s efforts in staging the grandiose games, and the Nazi organizers praised the old baron in return.7 After the German team had entered the stadium for the opening ceremony and 100,000 arms were raised in the Hitler salute, after the last words of “Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles” and the Horst Wessel Song had been sung, silence was requested, and the frail voice of the baron spoke his recorded message: “The most important thing at the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not to conquer, but to struggle well.” Hitler in his uniform, Goering in a flamboyant white outfit, Speer in an impeccable suit, and Goebbels, grinning grotesquely, applauded these sentiments with glee.


In Seoul I visited a man who had won glory at Hitler’s games, a bluff Korean called Sohn Kee Chung, gold medalist in the marathon. Sohn remembers Hitler as seeming “hard as a rock.” His handshake “was like an iron fist and his eyes were very clear. He seemed to stare through me and seemed very powerful and strong.” Those being the days of Japanese empire, Sohn ran as a subject of the Japanese emperor. When he received his gold medal, the Japanese national anthem was played. Sohn bowed his head. In respect? Or, as he now claims, in shame? Sohn, said a young Korean interpreter at the Seoul games, is not a sincere patriot. Perhaps that is why he was allowed to enter the Seoul stadium carrying the Olympic flame, but not to complete the final lap: Sohn may be a great Korean, but he had run for the Japanese.

Sohn struck me as a sad figure, the perfect example perhaps of a pure athlete, manipulated by political forces beyond his control. And yet, in his apartment, cluttered with trophies, this hero of the Berlin Olympics still insisted, more than once, each time more vehemently, that without the Olympics we would have wars. But what about Hitler and World War II, I asked. “That,” he answered, “was the fault of politicians.”

The greatest promoter before the war of Japanese marathon running was an odd professor called Hibino Yutaka. In his photograph he looks a stern moralist, dressed in a kimono, Japanase fan in the right hand, homburg hat in the left. Like Coubertin, Hibino believed in sports as a national tonic. After the Olympic games in Paris in 1924, he traveled all over Europe demonstrating his own new concept of the marathon. Hibino also wrote a book, Nippon Shindo Ron, or the National Ideals of the Japanese People, published in English in 1928,8 just as he was attending the Amsterdam Olympics. The professor was either terribly misguided or a thoroughly nasty piece of work. His book is one long hysterical paean to the Japanese emperor, whose power is unique in the world, divine and always benevolent; only absolute obedience to this sacred power will lead to perfect harmony and peace. Hibino, as did many men in his time (and as do many Japanese and Koreans still today), saw the family of nations in terms of a permanent Darwinist struggle:

National success in this contest waits upon unity of purpose in the hearts of the people. If unity of purpose in the hearts of the people is strong and vigorous the nation may face a myriad of foes without anxiety. The subjects of our Empire have never been lacking in this respect. May this immemorial jewel of our national glory be ever exalted in unparalleled effulgence, a lasting wonder to the startled gaze of foreign peoples.

  1. 5

    The First Modern Olympics, p. 33.

  2. 6

    This Great Symbol, p. 141.

  3. 7

    Hitler’s games should of course never have been held at all, but the president of the IOC, a Belgian aristocrat in Coubertin’s mold called Henri Baillet-Latour, insisted that Nazi policies were a domestic matter of no concern to the IOC. When the subject of the Nazi persecution of Jews was raised, the Belgian remarked that “the IOC does not go into such details.” Baillet-Latour was recently praised in The New York Times by George Plimpton as “one of the great heroes of Olympic history.” Well, no doubt he is.

  4. 8

    Cambridge University Press.

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