Running the Gauntlet – The Olympic Torch Relay

The Olympic torch relay marking the countdown to the opening ceremony of the London games began in Cornwall on 19/05/2012 after arriving in the UK from Athens. The relay this year has been described as representing peace, unity and friendship and the 70 day procession will cover 8000 miles around the United Kingdom. In the popular imagination the torch relay is an intrinsic part of the Olympics, the vanguard marking the games arrival on new shores, but this is not the case.

The official website for the 2012 London games is quite vague when it comes to the history of the torch relay giving only a brief outline of the lighting of the flame in Greece and its transfer to the host nation. A factsheet available from the International Olympic Committee gives a little more detail describing in a single paragraph that the first torch relay was held at the XI Olympiad in 1936 marking the start of what would become an Olympic tradition. Oddly the factsheet does not mention the hosts and innovators that inaugurated such a venerated tradition but, as any student of the games will tell you, the 1936 host city was Berlin and the innovators who conceived the torch relay were the Nazi party.

The man tasked by the Nazi party with organising the Berlin Olympics was a sports administrator named Carl Diem. On a visit to Greece in 1934 to attend an Olympic conference Diem came up with the idea of a torch relay between Athens and Berlin as a means of linking the modern Berlin games to the ancient sporting ideals of the Greek Olympics. This idea had a great appeal for the Nazis who propagated the racial myth that a superior Germany was the heir of a classical Aryan culture. The ceremonial details of the relay remain almost identical to the Diem’s original; a parabolic mirror is used to light the flame by focusing the sun’s rays under the guidance of a ‘high priestess’, an actress in costume, and it is carried from there to the host city.

Media coverage of the first torch relay was overseen by Hitler’s chief propagandist Josef Goebbels. Regular radio broadcasts updated the German population on the torch’s progress to generate excitement and the relay was used to draw young people to the Nazi cause by holding rallies and pro Nazi demonstrations. Leni Riefenstahl filmed the relay for inclusion in her infamous propaganda film Olympia and was one of the officials who selected the final torch bearer to light the Olympic cauldron to open the games. This final bearer, Fritz Schilgen, was selected because of his grace and running style, a ‘superior’ German. The selection had the desired effect with one foreign correspondent declaring as he carried the torch into the stadium: “… he’s beautifully made, a very fine sight as an athlete.”

In the final days of the Second World War as the Red army closed on Berlin and the Nazi regime was crumbling Carl Diem staged one final Nazi event at the Olympic stadium. A rally of 2000 Hitler Youth was held and Diem addressed the massed crowd linking the plight of Germany once again to ideals of ancient Greece which had so inspired him in the creation of the torch relay. Refusing to acknowledge the inevitability of Germany’s defeat Diem evoked the spirit of the Spartans and demanded that the assembled teenagers be heroes and defend Berlin to the death. The young men did just that but Diem managed to survive the war and saw out his years as a sport historian watching his creation become established as a tradition.

The torch relay has evolved since its beginnings as a symbol of Nazi racial superiority and today is a highly valued brand attracting corporate sponsorship from blue chip organisations. Coca Cola, one of the Olympic Family of sponsors, has been associated with the Olympic torch relay since the 1992 Barcelona games and will be pushing Olympic iconography in its advertisements throughout this Olympic summer. On the Coca Cola website you can find a history of the company’s Olympic involvement and it proudly boasts that in 2008 the torch was carried over Mount Everest. This is a mostly forgotten fact of that years relay, however, and what the 2008 relay will be chiefly remembered for is the unprecedented level of protest that followed it on its 129 day tour of the globe. The torch relay protests were a legacy that the London organisers did not wish to see repeated and for 2012 made the decision to confine the event to the UK, forgoing the usual multi nation procession.

The decision to keep the relay in the UK dismayed at least one sponsor with a spokesperson from Samsung bemoaning the effect this will have on the firm’s market penetration: “We prefer international because we can contact more customers and people around the world. But that’s what we cannot decide. That’s the decision from the Olympic committee.” Considering what took place in 2008 the sponsors may be glad of the organisers’ decision if it limits their brands exposure to similar scenes.

In 2008 free Tibet and human rights groups used the Olympic Games and specifically the torch relay to highlight and to protest at the host China’s record on these issues. Almost immediately the protestors made themselves heard when at the torch lighting ceremony in Greece members of Reporters Without Borders breached security and disrupted a speech by the head of the Beijing organising committee, free Tibet banners were waved and 10 protesters were arrested. This set the tone for the rest of the relay and it became more of a gauntlet for the bearers to run than a celebratory and sedate procession.

The UK leg of the relay (dubbed the journey of harmony by the organisers) passed through London, host of the next games, and was beset by protestors the entire length of the route prompting several changes and the moving of the torch onto a bus for a period when the relay had to be halted. Accompanying the torch were track suited Chinese security personnel, sanctioned by UK authorities, who struck out and attacked protestors repeatedly and were later branded by Lord Coe as thugs. After London the torch moved on to Paris and even larger protests were witnessed resulting in the original 28km route being significantly shortened at the request of the Chinese and the relay being completed by bus instead of the torch being carried by athletes. Green party officials flew a Tibetan flag from city Hall and the National Assembly took a recess to allow MPs to go outside and join the protests with a banner reading ‘Respect for human rights in China’.

Mindful of the coverage these protests were receiving in the worlds media China began to mobilise its ex-patriot community around the world to stage pro-China protests to counter the human rights and free Tibet protestors. Chinese embassies bussed in Chinese nationals by the thousand to line the route beginning in San Francisco and this inevitably lead to violent clashes between the two groups as they came into contact.

Mindful of the example of 2008 and also smaller scale protests that followed the torch for the winter Games in 2010 protesting at Canadian cuts in healthcare and housing UK organisers have appealed to potential protestors not to disrupt the relay. While the UK is by any measure a free democracy and is unlikely to be subject to same type of protests aimed at the Chinese government labour leaders, like UNITE’s General Secretary Len McClusky, have called upon the British public to target the Olympics for a campaign of civil disobedience and protest at the Tory governments failed economic strategy of austerity that has plunged the UK into a double dip recession and seen living standards fall for the poorest. Scotland Yard has been issuing pre-emptive ASBOs to keep individuals marked as trouble makers away from the torch relay and the Olympic venues. In fact the UK Government takes security so seriously for these Olympics it has authorised the largest deployment of British military force on the globe to keep London safe during the games; 13,500 troops, 10,000 private security personnel, surface to air missiles installed in private residences, unmanned drones, an eleven mile electrified fence, fifty five teams of attack dogs and the Royal Navy’s largest warship moored on the Thames.

Let us hope this military might is only used to deter external security threats and is not turned on UK citizens exercising their democratic right to protest.


Football, Trade Unionism and the Labour Struggle

The Beginnings of Professionalism

In January 1884 Preston North End contested an FA Cup fixture versus London side Upton Park which ended in a 1-1 draw. After the game the London club protested to the FA that Preston were a professional team and therefore disqualified from entering the competition. Preston admitted they paid their players but claimed that this did not breach regulations. The FA disagreed and expelled them from the cup.

Organised football in this era had become a working mans game with success migrating from the playing fields of the public schools old boys teams in the south to factory and mill teams in the industrial north. To attract the best players and keep their teams successful owners made payments in the form of ‘boot’ money whereby cash was placed in a players boots before a game. The FA still saw football in its earlier form based on the public school model to be played by gentleman amateurs who had the financial means to pursue football without remuneration. The FA was a group of men from the upper strata of society and were described by author Percy Young as “Men of prejudice, seeing themselves as patricians, heirs to the doctrine of leadership and so law givers by at least semi-divine right.”

The rise of professionalism could not be stopped, however, and in 1885 the FA decided to allow teams to field professionals in FA Cup fixtures. This in turn led to an increase in clubs wage bills meaning clubs had to find a way to cover the cost. In 1888 twelve of the most prominent professional teams formed the Football League playing home and away fixtures each season in front of large paying crowds.

Football’s overseers were not about to allow professionalism to be introduced unchecked and announced it was “in the interests of Association Football, to legalise the employment of professional football players, but only under certain restrictions”. Professionals were barred from captaining a side (at a time when this held much greater responsibility than the ceremonial role it has become today) or holding any other position of influence in the game. The FA was not prepared cede its ‘divine right’ to run football to the men supporters actually paid to see play the game. Another measure to control players was a regulation introduced in 1893 that required all players to register annually with the FA; players could not play until they were registered or change clubs without the permission of the FA. The Football League club owners seeing this followed suit and also voted in a regulation to control player movement. This regulation prevented a player moving to a new club without the permission of his old club, effectively tying a player to his team from the day he signed his first contract to the day his team wished to dispose of him. This allowed one way bargaining over contracts permitting a club to offer lower wages to their players and the players being left with little choice to either sign on or leave the game.


It was the introduction of the player registration system that caused some of the early disputes between players and their clubs and led directly to the creation of the first players union. The Association Footballers Unions was formed in February 1889 and according to secretary John Cameron could boast 250 members. The stated aim of the AFU was that they “wanted any negotiations regarding transfers to be between the interested club and the player concerned – not between club and club with the player excluded”. A player’s right to control his own movement and negotiate with his employer was the only real focus of the AFU and they made it clear they would not tackle the issue of wages or consider strike action.

This first players union was largely ineffectual and was badly weakened the season after its inception. Many of the AFU’s core members, including Secretary John Cameron, left the football league in the 1898-99 season to seek higher wages in the Southern and Scottish Leagues. New Secretary Bob Holmes admitted the trouble “I am not quite sure that we shall succeed in attaining all the objects with which we set out; it is not a certainty that we shall carry any…” The first attempt at player organisation died quietly.


Billy Meredith, a Welsh international and considered one of the greatest players of his age, was not happy with how professional players were treated by club directors and owners describing them as “little shopkeepers who governed our destiny”. In his career he had seen many injustices befall players such as when a friend of his David Jones died after suffering an injury during a preseason game for Manchester City in 1902. The match was played in front of 20,000 paying spectators but Manchester City insisted Jones had not been working at the time of his death as the game was a friendly and his family received no compensation. A benefit match hastily arranged by teammates raised little money for the family.

Against this background of employer indifference to their workforce Meredith and some Manchester United colleagues decided to form a new players union with its main objective being to seek an increase in the maximum wage. The first meeting was held at the Imperial hotel Manchester in December 1907 and the Association Football Players Union was created.

The Union was not solely focused on wage concerns, however, and acted on behalf of players family’s in cases similar to David Jones. When Frank Levick of Sheffield United died in 1908 aged only 26 the AFPU began negotiations with his club over compensation to be paid to his family and also sent his wife the sum of £20 from union funds. To aid future instances the AFPU also explored if football players could make use of the Workers Compensation Act of 1906.

The FA was fearful of the AFPU and better organisation and perceived militancy of the players and moved to act against them. At the 1908 general meeting the FA decided to reaffirm the maximum wage. In a move designed to split opinion and weaken the union’s bargaining position the FA dangled a carrot of a possible bonus system paid as a percentage of club profits in front of the players without making any concrete offers.

With the players now divided by the possibility of bonus payments the FA struck at the AFPU. In April 1909 the FA broke off negotiations with the union and ordered all players to resign their membership in the AFPU by the first of July or have their registrations cancelled. The AFPU attempted the counter the FA by joining the general federation of trade unions but it had little impact.

The union began to haemorrhage members. The entire professional squad of 28 at Aston Villa resigned from the AFPU and signed a public declaration to that effect. Some players held fast though and refused to give into the FA. Billy Meredith and the entire Manchester United team along with 17 Sunderland players steadfastly remained members of the AFPU and were suspended by their clubs and had their careers threatened as a result.

Prominent AFPU figure Colin Veitch of Newcastle United negotiated with the FA on behalf of the suspended players but also had to resign his membership in order to do so. At a meeting in Birmingham 31st August 1909 the FA agreed that players could be union members and the dispute was over. However the damage was done. The FA tactics had split the players and weakened the union. By not standing together the players had shown the FA that their strong arm tactics were successful and impositions such as the maximum wage would become the norm.

Billy Meredith lamented the defeat and rued the lack of solidarity of the players “The unfortunate thing is so many players refuse to take things seriously but are content to live a kind of schoolboy life and do just what they are told… instead of thinking and acting for himself and his class.” Meredith’s Manchester United colleague Charlie Roberts, who lost out on a benefit match worth £500 for the stand he took in the dispute, was in agreement “As far as I am concerned I would have seen the FA in Jericho before I would have resigned membership of that body, because it was our strength and right arm, but I was only one member of the player’s union. To the shame of the majority they voted the only power they had away from themselves and the FA knew it.”


Maximum wage struggle

The introduction of a maximum wage for footballers was first proposed by Derby County in 1893 who suggested a player’s wage should be limited to £4 per week. At that time most players did not earn so much but a minority of players, the one the fans came to see, could earn as much as £10 per week.

In 1901 Liverpool won the first division championship and their players were earning £7 per week reaching £10 with bonus payments. At the FA AGM, after years of it being mooted, a maximum limit was placed on what a professional player was permitted to earn along with outlawing bonus payments. The limit was set at £4 per week effectively halving the pay of the league champions along with many of the games top players and biggest drawers of fans. The FA claimed it was introducing the maximum wage to prevent success becoming concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy clubs who were buying up the talent. This aim was achieved immediately, although not as the FA would have intended. They suppressed a player’s ability to negotiate with his club and sell his services for a price both parties deemed fair in favour of one way bargaining system that fixed a price on a man’s ability regardless of its true value. The Southern League lay outside of the FA’s jurisdiction and had no restrictions on wages. Their clubs began offering £100 signing on fees and the football leagues star players began to jump ship. This escape route for disaffected Football League players remained until the Southern League came under the FA’s umbrella agreeing to respect player registration in 1910 and in 1920 becoming a third tier of the league.

At the end of the First World War players were receiving a maximum of £10 per week. In 1920 (after the Southern League was incorporated to the FA) the Football League Management Committee, using the aftermath of the war and austerity measures as justification, proposed a reduction in the maximum wage to £9 per week. After the union was weakened in the dispute of 1909 the Football League was confident and once again many players resigned from the union afraid of strike action. The maximum wage decrease was imposed and the players had defeated themselves once again, weakening their earning power for years to come.

In 1921 wages were further reduced to £8 for the season and £6 for the close season. This remained the case until 1945 when the close season pay was raised to £7. So in 1945 a top professional footballer could expect to earn £119 a year less than his counterpart of 25 years previously while attendances and the price of admission to see him play had both increased.

There were incremental increases of the maximum wage over the years but no real progress was made and the maximum wage stood at £20 in 1958. Finally in 1960 the players showed their strength. The players union led by Jimmy Hill demanded the maximum wage be abolished and threatened to strike on 14th January 1961. This time the players stood firm and the league was forced to abolish the maximum wage with Johnny Haynes the England captain becoming the first £100 per week player soon after.


The Struggle for Freedom

Almost since the moment footballers were granted their professional status they have struggled for their contractual freedom. Two years after the Football League began but before it introduced its registration scheme football found itself in the English courts in the matter of Radford v Campbell. Campbell was a player who had signed for Nottingham Forest for the upcoming 1890-91 season but before the season’s start had signed a new contract with Blackburn Rovers for a handsome sum. Forest applied for an injunction to prevent Campbell from playing for Rovers which was denied and ended up in the court of appeals before Master of the Rolls Lord Esher. Lord Esher found against Forest also but his judgment seemed to be based more upon his own contempt for professionalism in sport than anything else: “ought the solemn machinery of the court in granting an injunction be invoked in order to satisfy their pride in winning their matches?… all that needed to be said was that Mr Justice North (in first instance) was right..”

The Football League’s registration system was designed to prevent matters such as the above arising again. Once registered a player was tied to his club and could not take up employment with a new club without an agreement being reached between the two. This applied even if a player refused to sign a new contract or his club had no intention of playing or paying him. The only options for a player in this situation was to seek a team in the Southern League (until 1910) or the Scottish League (until 1893), or return to the factories.

In 1906 the registration system had its first test in the courts. Herbert Kingaby was transferred from Clapton Orient in the Southern league to Aston Villa for £300. Shortly after the purchase, however, Villa had second thoughts and offered the player back to Orient for £150 who declined and no other club was interested. After his first season was up Villa placed Kingaby on their retain list. With Villa unwilling to let the player leave for free or offer him a contract he was left in limbo, not being paid by Villa while at the same time being prevented from finding a new club. This was not an unusual situation and Kingaby did what many in his situation before him did, he jumped to the Southern league and Fulham. In 1910 he left Fulham to join Leyton Orient who were a 2nd division Football League club. Under the complicated terms of the agreement reached in 1910 between the Football and Southern Leagues, however, Kingaby once again found himself registered to Aston Villa who now demanded a £350 fee for him.

With the looming termination of his career Kingaby sought out the help of the AFPU contending Villa’s actions were an unlawful restraint of trade. The union felt Kingaby’s case was a strong one and were backed by a body of case law so agreed to meet legal costs. Legal counsel, however, made a disastrous error in pleading the case. Mindful of the earlier Radford case counsel based his argument around Aston Villa’s motives being malicious ignoring previous case law. This approach gave tacit acceptance that Villa’s actions were legal, and as the legality was not in dispute motive was irrelevant. The case was lost and the union was ordered to pay costs almost bankrupting them.

At the time the union was winning its battle against the maximum wage it also trained its guns once again on the retain and transfer elements of the player registration system. The union approached George Eastham in October 1961 with a view to his being a test case in the matter of his transfer from Newcastle United. Eastham had been trying since April 1960 to be released from his contract at Newcastle and had left football briefly before his club relented and finally allowed him to move to Arsenal for £47,000. Despite this ultimate resolution he agreed to go ahead with the case.

The case was heard in the Chancery Division in the summer of 1963 and after this time making the correct arguments the union won the case. The Judge Wilberforce, J found in favour of the player deriding retain and transfer as an unreasonable restraint of trade and was way beyond what was needed for the clubs to protect their interests.

Wilberforce stated “Any system that interfered with the player’s freedom to seek other employment when he was not actually being employed by another club would seem to me to operate substantially in restraint of trade.” And responding to the leagues claims that they knew best and the system was in the general interests of the game he said “I do not accept this line of argument. The system is an employers system…. this does not prevent the court from considering whether it goes further than is reasonably necessary to protect their legitimate interest”

This victory in conjunction with the maximum wage victory gave the players greater control and freedom to manage their own careers. Added with the further freedoms the Belgian Football Association  v Bosman case (1996) granted players they finally were granted complete freedom of trade.

Some say players these days are earning too much as a result of these victories but you should ask yourself with the billions coming into the game from TV, merchandising and ticket sales where should that money go? Nobody has ever paid anything to see Malcolm Glazier play against John. W. Henry. Now as it ever was we pay to see the footballers at work, and when an industry is built on the labour of a group it should be that group that reaps the rewards not those that see themselves above the workforce.


The Olympic Games – Politics on the Track

“I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.”  – George Orwell

Festivities were kicked off recently in London to mark the 2-year countdown to the lighting of the torch and the beginning of the 2012 summer games. Triple jump world record holder Jonathan Edwards faced off against table tennis champion Darius Knight, Michael Johnson and Chris Hoy toured the sporting venues, and Londoners and the press were treated to the sight of Mayor Boris Johnson trying out the velodrome on Chris Hoy’s bike. All together 900 events were organised for the London 2012 open weekend 23-25 July.

London organisers are building up the Games as a huge sporting and cultural celebration which is going to regenerate areas of the city, create jobs, revitalise our stalled economy, and leave a lasting ‘legacy’. It’s going to be a world party bringing together people from different nations united in their goals under the Olympic banner. This sponsor friendly view of the Games does not sit well with the truth of the games history however:

The I.O.C

Avery Brundage was the American sports official who served as the president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 until 1972, and an avowed admirer of Hitler and the Nazi regime.

During the build up to the 1936 Games in Berlin when president of the US Olympic Committee Brundage rejected calls by religious, civil rights, civil liberties, labour groups and athletes such as Jesse Owens for the US team to boycott the games. The IOC clearly liked what they saw in Brundage and elected him to the group to replace American Ernest Lee Jahncke who was expelled after urging athletes to boycott.

On the morning of the 400m relay race the only two Jewish athletes on the US team, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, were replaced. Avery Brundage had not wished to cause any embarrassment to Hitler’s view of Aryan supremacy with a ‘Jewish’ victory for the favoured US team that day. As late as 1941, at a rally in Madison Square Garden, Brundage was still praising Nazi Germany. His Views were too much for his fellow right wingers at home and the America First Committee expelled him for his pro-Hitler stance.

Brundage was also opposed to the inclusion of women in sports believing their role to be merely decorative. He was quoted in 1936 “I am fed up to the ears with women as track and field competitors… her charms sink to something less than zero. As swimmers and divers, girls are beautiful and adroit as they are ineffective and unpleasing on the track.”

Strangely for a man of such strong political leanings which he liked to express through sports, as in 1936, he would brook no such thing as head of the IOC. During the 1968 Games in Mexico City there were widespread protests by activists and athletes. Two such athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, made their protest when receiving their medals on the podium. This enraged Brundage so much that he had them thrown out of the Olympic village and suspended from the US team.

The most infamous moment of Brundage’s career occurred at the Munich Games in 1972. He was outspoken against the banning from the games of South Africa and Rhodesia for their racist domestic policies and opposed their exclusion. During a memorial service held in the Olympic stadium after the killing of eleven Israeli athletes by terrorists Brundage made an address before 80,000 spectators and the world’s media. He used this as an opportunity to link the atrocity with the ‘crime’ of the barring of Rhodesia: “The Games of the XXth Olympiad have been subject to two savage attacks. We lost the Rhodesian battle against naked political blackmail”.

It’s not just on matters of race were the IOC president has given the Olympics a decidedly right wing look. One of the successors of Avery Brundage all but created the Games in its modern form as a monument to capitalism. Juan Antonio Samaranch was born in 1920 in Barcelona and in the best tradition of the IOC was a fascist. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War he fled to France to avoid conscription into Republican service. He later returned to Nationalist Spain and joined the fascist movement Falange. Samaranch also served in the lower house of the Cortes Espanolas during Franco’s last decade in power.

Samaranch began his term as IOC president in 1980 and served until 2001. It is in this time that he instituted the reforms to the bidding process that turned the Games into the orgy off greed it has become. Pitting potential host against potential host to see who can line the IOC’s pockets the most. Rolling into a new host city every four years sucking billions from the local tax base only to leave them with nothing but empty stadiums they don’t need and promises of ‘legacy’.

You can see this legacy in Greece ‘winners’ of the bid to host the 2004 summer Games under the bidding process set up by Samaranch. In 1997 when the Games were awarded Athens officials estimated the cost at $1.3 billion. This estimate rose to more than $5 billion when a more detailed accounting was undertaken and the final costing was pushed to over $14.2 billion. As a result Greece’s budget deficit reached record levels and recent events there would suggest that six years later that hole has only gotten deeper. Nice legacy.

Pre-Games Traditions

As in many walks of life there are traditions that are observed before the Olympic games. Before a wedding we have stag and hen nights. Before Easter the devout observe the fasting period of lent. Before a movie is released we have a star studded premiere. Before the Olympics arrive a host government must repress any dissent amongst its populace.

The 1968 Games were held in Mexico City. This was the first time the Games had been held in a developing country and Mexican president Gustavo Diaz Ordaz was determined nothing would spoil Mexico’s coming out party before the watching world. A growing student protest movement (Consejo Nacionalde Huelga) had developed leading up to the games opposing the government’s violation of university autonomy during 1968. As the Games closed the CNH sought to harness the world’s attention to achieve a peaceful resolution to their grievances.

On October 2 10,000 students marched to Tlatelolco square at the Plaza de las Culturas to attend a rally and listen to speeches. Amongst the chants being shouted was “Nos queremos olimpiadas, queremos revolucion!” (“We don’t want Olympic Games, we want revolution”). At 6:30pm 5000 soldiers backed by 200 tanks and trucks surrounded the protesters and shots rang out. The students panicked and started to flee but they were surrounded, after half an hour more than 300 lay dead. As many as 500 in total died that day. This was not the work of communist agitators, panicky police or a tragic accident. Recently declassified Mexican government documents reveal that a group of the presidential guards Special Forces, called the Olympic Brigade, had secreted themselves in buildings surrounding the square. They opened fire to instigate the massacre.

Developed nations also enjoy partaking in traditional pre-games repression; they just tend to be a little subtler than their developing counterparts and don’t resort to killing their undesirables. They criminalise them instead.

During the two most recent Olympiads held in the USA, LA 1984 and Atlanta 1996, the local authorities set about a process of gentrification. The LA city fathers reinstated a 1916 anti union law called the Anti-Syndicalism act. This act made illegal hand signals and styles of dress that implied membership of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union. Transferred to 1980’s LA this law allowed Chief of Police Daryl Gates to conduct his ‘Olympic gang sweeps’ clearing the streets of young black men for crimes such as wearing a bandanna or performing a high five.

In 1996 Atlanta was keen to show off the ‘new’ south, of course this meant they had to clear traces of the ‘old’ south. Taking a leaf from LA they passed new city ordinances making all manner of things illegal, including lying down, clearing the streets of undesirables. Luckily for Atlanta the Olympic Organising Committee had built them a new city jail to house everyone, locals dubbing it the first Olympic project completed on time.

For the 2008 Beijing Games China came down hard on any protests against it’s human rights record or its presence in Tibet. Along the route of the torch relay protestors were routinely arrested as they turned it in to an obstacle course for the participants, attempting to extinguish the flame. The Tibetan government in exile claimed 140 protesters had been killed in clashes with the Chinese authorities during the build up to the games.

China’s crackdown was not limited to it’s own citizens though and Beijing successfully exported its repression beyond China’s borders. When the Olympic torch was paraded through London in April 2008 it was escorted a squad of track suited Chinese bodyguards. The world was treated to the sight of these men, showing no ID or credentials, beating British citizens as they were engaged in their right to protest as protected by UK law. The UK government and police allowed the perpetrators to act with impunity, assaulting members of the public and returning to China without sanction.

The Renegades

There have been times in it’s history when the Olympic games has had it’s orthodoxy challenged by people who wished to see a better world and saw sports as a way to bring it about. In their own time these renegades were punished and often made pariahs for politicising the Games. They often suffered great personal hardship as a result of their actions but now we can look back and see the right in what they did.

When Avery Brundage withdrew the 2 Jewish sprinters from the 4 x 100m relay to appease his Nazi hosts he in the end played his part in exploding the myth of Aryan supremacy. One of the replacements drafted in was a man whose actions on the track in 1936 showed the world racial superiority was a lie. That man was Jesse Owens.

Leading up to the games in 1936 Jesse Owens had been a supporter of a proposed US boycott of the Games but when that was defeated by a vote in the Amateur Athletic Union he travelled to Germany. At the Berlin Games he won 4 gold medals, including the 4 x 100m and embarrassing the Nazi authorities in the process.

On his return home the conservative leaning US sporting establishment rewarded Owens. He was stripped of his amateur status for accepting some lucrative endorsement offers and could no longer compete. Unable to compete the offers disappeared and he was forced to make ends meet as a carnival spectacle racing horses: “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”

The Man who perhaps had the greatest effect on the modern Olympic games was not an athlete but an academic and journalist. Dennis Brutus was born in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia in 1924 and moved with his parents to South Africa in 1928. Brutus saw sport as a potential driver for social change and as an organizer began to lobby all-white sporting organizations in South Africa to change their selection policies voluntarily. He made little progress.

In 1962 Brutus formed the South African Non Racial Olympic Committee (SANRAC) with the aim of having South Africa excluded from the Olympic games for its refusal to select black athletes. SANRAC had little success with direct appeals to Avery Brundage and were just ignored. The Group instead formed alliances with other nation’s organizing committees and persuaded them to vote to suspend South Africa from the Olympics.

In 1964 SANRAC’s actions bore fruit as South Africa was suspended from the Tokyo Games. Dennis Brutus heard the news in solitary confinement on the notorious Robben Island having been imprisoned there for his activism, but not before being shot at point blank range in the back. Brutus’ and SANRAC’s activities ensured South Africa was again excluded from the Olympics in 1968 and expelled completely from the Olympic movement by 1970. In fact in 1976 in Montreal twenty-six African countries boycotted the Games because of the inclusion of New Zealand. The All Blacks having broken a wider sporting embargo by touring South Africa for a series against the Springboks.

What Brutus and SANRAC had set in motion was the international isolation of South Africa for it’s apartheid system which eventually led to its dismantling. In 2007 Brutus was to be inducted into the South African Sports Hall of Fame. At the ceremony he publically declined his nomination saying: “It is incompatible to have those who championed racist sport alongside its genuine victims. It’s time—indeed long past time—for sports truth, apologies and reconciliation”.

In 1968 while the Mexican government was cracking down on all dissent outside the Olympic stadium another movement was about to make it’s protest inside. The Olympic Project for Human Rights was established in 1967 by American sociologist Dr Harry Edwards and counted many college athletes headed for the Olympics among its members. OHPR aimed to protest racial segregation at home and abroad and had many goals; South Africa and Rhodesia banned from the Games, more black coaches involved in sports, Avery Brundage to be removed as head of the IOC for his racism. In OHPR’s mission statement Harry Edwards wrote “Why should we run in Mexico City only to crawl home?”

In the final of the 200m black American sprinters and OPHR members Tommie Smith and John Carlos took gold and bronze. For the medal ceremony both Smith and Carlos made their way to podium wearing OPHR patches on their tracksuits along with silver medalist Peter Norman also wearing a patch in solidarity. After receiving their medals both stood there barefoot to protest black poverty, wore beads around their neck to protest lynching, and as the US national anthem played raised their black gloved fists in a salute of defiance of the treatment of black Americans at home. One of the most iconic images of civil rights protest.

Both men were ostracized for their dissent and were immediately expelled from the Olympic village and US team. Back in America both men struggled for years to get by and find work and endured many death threats, even having bullets sent to their homes. John Carlos’ family eventually broke up due to the stress they were placed under. Tommie Smith’s mother died of a heart attack in 1970 having had to live with the pressure of receiving manure and dead rats in her mail, his younger brothers were kicked of the high school football team and one had his college scholarship taken away.

At San Jose University at a dedication ceremony for himself and John Carlos Tommie Smith said “we felt a need to represent a lot of people who did more than we did but had no platform, people who suffered long before I got to the victory stand… We’re celebrated as heroes by some, but we’re still fighting for equality.”

The Future

In these times of uncertainty when the UK government is slashing public spending in all areas, the private sector is shedding jobs and institutions like the NHS are under attack the London Olympics is still going ahead full steam. Cost for the games currently stands at £9.2 billion, three times the original estimate, and the government has stated these major projects will not be affected by spending cuts. Should the British public not like this situation we have seen historically how the Olympic organization and complicit host governments deal with protest. We had the disgraceful sight of Canadian citizens being corralled into ‘free speech’ zones after local lawmakers changed to law curtail the right to free speech in the build up to the 2010 winter games in Vancouver.

At the funeral of Juan Antonio Samaranch in April 2010 his successor as head of the IOC Jacque Rogge told mourners “I pledge in the name of the International Olympic Committee that we shall preserve and perpetuate his legacy and his heritage.” The Olympic Games, coming soon to a city near you.

(Originally written summer 2010)


Left Field

Sitting up high here in left field I can see a lot going on. Mostly it’s sport I see but sometimes something else might come into view and catch my attention. From my vantage point way out here on the left I don’t always like what I see happening on the field, but as bad as things may look you can still find people doing their best to make it right. To these renegades I say ‘Keep on keeping on’.