Politics, Change and The Olympic Spirit

The most yawnful month of the year is upon us, but thankfully politics and sport are keeping the flame alight: the games have already begun.

August is traditionally the silly season, the month when the stray dog’s indiscretions get picked up by snoozy sub-editors in the national media. Whether in an office, a production line or a farm, our heads are on holidays. But elsewhere it ain’t necessarily so.

Two big things will dominate the headlines over the next month. First up there’s the Games of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing from August 8 to 24. Immediately after that there’s the Democratic National Congress in Denver, Colorado, from August 25 to 28 which will see Barack Obama accept the nomination for President of the United States.

The Olympics kick off next week. They’ve already proved politically controversial and the Olympic torch has been dogged by human rights protests on its way from Greece. Also, dissidents and nationalists in Tibet and Xinjiang have used the games to highlight their grievances against Han Chinese majority rule and, as they see it, colonisation.

Plus c’est la meme chose plus ça change...

Well, we started it way back. The first significant Olympian rumble was initiated by Irish athletes who boycotted the 1908 Games in London in protest at not having their own country to compete for – only countries with full sovereignty were accepted.

But some competed for adopted countries. Not only that, they went and won gold, silver and bronze medals to boot. Corkman John Jesus Flanagan, representing the USA, won his third Olympic title in London (at the age of 40!) throwing the hammer. Two other Irish athletes were second and third, Mattie McGrath from Nenagh (USA) and Con Walsh from North Cork (Canada).

Martin Sheridan, who emigrated from Bohola, Co. Mayo at sixteen years of age, went one better and won two golds for the USA in the discus and in the Greek style discus. Just for the hell of it he also took a bronze in the standing long jump. In all, he won nine medals in various Olympiads. Timothy Ahearne from Athea, Co. Limerick came first in the triple jump for the USA, Robert Kerr (Enniskillen) represented Canada and came first in the 200 metres and third in the 100 metres.

Then, as now, politics were everywhere. As the USA team passed King Edward in the royal box its flagbearer Sheridan refused to dip the Stars and Stripes in the usual gesture of respect. "This flag dips to no earthly king" he said afterwards. Meanwhile, the Finnish athletes, protesting at being under Russian rule, entered the stadium without any banner rather than march behind the flag of Tzarist Russia.

And the games? There were complaints about officiating and allegations of cheating. There were walkouts. The most remembered event was the marathon in which the exhausted Italian Dorando Pietri reached the stadium first, but fell five times trying to complete his last lap of the track. Race officials charitably, but illegally, came to his assistance and helped him finish. As a result he was disqualified when the USA lodged a protest and the gold went to Johnny Hayes – yes, his parents were from Nenagh…

Actually, the most abiding complaint about the 1908 Olympiad concerned the awful weather: wet and humid and smoggy. So nothing much has changed in a hundred years. Unless, of course, the Chinese really have mastered the science of local weather control as they claim. We’ll see soon enough.

Will the XXIX Olympiad prove controversial for other reasons as well? Overarching all events is the spectre of performance enhancement. There are 10,500 athletes on their way and they’ll compete in 302 events in 28 sports.

In the pure moment of anticipation just before the off we all hope that old Corinthian virtues will endure. But while it may be that no drug cheats will be caught it would be naïve in the extreme to think that none are travelling.

In the Tour de France Riccardo Ricco tested positive for ‘third generation’ EPO, so clearly the blood-doping chemists are still hard at work trying to outwit the testers. But it remains to be seen whether the Olympics officials are as cagey and ruthless as the French have become.

Also, the Olympics gain added spice from the US presidency campaigning. Think of 1980 when, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Moscow Olympics were boycotted by President Carter. Did him no good, as it happens, and he lost to Ronald Reagan in November.

Or think of 1968 when, in addition to electing a president, the USA was embroiled in an unpopular war. Ah yes…

By the time those Games opened in October the year was afire. The Tet offensive in Vietnam had already undermined the notion of American invincibility. And the global circulation of a photo of the murder of Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lém by South Vietnamese National Police Chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan began to turn the US public against the war. By then a certain John McCain was already in detention in Vietnam having been shot down on a bombing raid over Hanoi…

It was the year the Prague Spring bloomed and was crushed. There was a humanitarian disaster in Africa when Nigerian forces captured Port Harcourt and formed a ring around Biafrans. It was the year when Enoch Powell made his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

Plus ça change again!

But two assassinations overshadowed everything else. On April 4 Martin Luther King was shot dead at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Black America erupted. And on June 5 presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. He died from his injuries the next day.

After all that there was another protest at the Olympics in Mexico City. This time it was Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two African-Americans who won gold and bronze in the 200 metres and who raised their arms in a black power salute on the podium.

So, where are we, forty years on from there? Well, some things are immutable. Wealth still begets wealth. As one tyranny fades another is born, as always. Somewhere, every second, a child is dying of hunger or poverty, faster and more frequently than in 1968 if only because the world has so many more children. Disease still always hurts the poorest most.

Yet, almost everything has changed as well, technology, the knowledge society, the world economic order, our understanding of how the world works and its limits, the lot.

This is a darker and less hopeful time. Nothing can be taken for granted. We no longer even trust the stars in the night sky. That said, while African Americans may still have much to complain about, the argument has been won (though Marxist academics and rightwing fundamentalist scholars might disagree with me on that).

The Mexico Olympics came at the end of the decade which saw the descendents of those Irish immigrants, whose representatives performed so magnificently and defiantly in London in 1908, take the White House. The Beijing Olympics come at a time when an African American and a woman contested the Democratic nomination. Things do change.

Forty years on from 1968 Barack Obama represents the fusion of the visions of RFK and MLK for America’s future. And a century on from 1908 we Irish have our own flag, we can beat our own drum.

Our team jets out with more than hope… You never know! Spain won Europe with a return to the beautiful game, showing that skill and commitment could override cynicism and brute force. Perhaps Beijing can see a similar rebirth of athletics with Olympic sports rediscovering something of that old Corinthian ideal. If so, bring ’em on!

Incidentally, among our athletes is Eileen O’Keeffe who dons the mantle of hammer thrower in the great Irish tradition of John Jesus Flanagan and of course Dr Pat O’Callaghan who took gold in the hammer for Ireland in the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928. (Do we do well in Olympiads in years that end in an eight?) We wish her and all her colleagues the very best.

Athletes, to your marks! Testers, to your benches! Viewers, to your seats!

Let the games begin!

 

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