The Modern Olympics and the Triumph of Capitalist Sport

As the world turns its attention to London for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, it is worth remembering that the modern Olympics represent the ultimate triumph of capitalist sport and not just about the “ideals” that are presented to the global audience. The Games are run by an elite private organization, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has succeeded in stamping out all other “Olympic” games and movements as it is the self-proclaimed great unifier of the world through “Olympic” sport. The IOC owns the rights to use the word “Olympic” and no event beyond of its control can use the word without permission due to its licensing agreements and penchant for using legal systems to protect the name. The IOC has a long history of using its power to marginalize others and has been faced with numerous scandals over the past twenty years.

Of course there is much to celebrate as athletes from around the world gather to compete for their native or chosen country (i). These athletes have trained for many years to reach the top of their sport and have worked hard to reach their goals. However, do not be surprised to see the top nations on the medal table align closely with the past several summer Games (ii).

The modern games emerged as a borrowed vision of Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France. He was enamored with English games playing and visited the Much Wenlock “Olympic” Games in 1890. Founded by Dr. William Penny Brookes in 1850, the Much Wenlock Games were a means to promote the “moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock,” a small town in Shropshire. Professionals were allowed to participate in the Much Wenlock Games as of 1868 and events were handicapped in 1869. De Coubertin was so impressed that he moved forward with an idea to revive the ancient Greek Olympic Games, organizing the first Olympic Congress in 1894, which decided to hold an Olympic Games in Athens, Greece in 1896 (iii).

Unlike Much Wenlock and earlier regional sporting festivals, the Modern Olympics were elitist, amateur, and initially male only affairs directed by an organization of male aristocrats and other social and economic elites from Europe and European descendants from various settler societies. At the time the modern games began “amateur” was defined in ways to create class exclusion rather than our more contemporary understanding of someone who is or is not paid to play the game. In the 1890s sports organizations grappled with the class issue with some adopting open professionalism (association football, rugby league), some remaining amateur (rugby union, Olympic sports), and even some mixing amateurism and professionalism (cricket). Nearly all of these organizations remained for men only, though some women slowly made their way into a few of the Olympic sports.

Throughout much of the nineteenth century poorer rural and urban working class men played sport in isolation from the sports played by the landed gentry and bourgeois classes. In some sports large sums of money could be made through the winning of prizes or wagers particularly in “pedestrianism” and rowing. Football games, played in the streets, villages and on farmland, also continued to be played by young males throughout England and beyond. Some factory and business owners, particularly in the confectionary industry, supported their workers participating in sports and other physical activities – primarily to promote hygiene – though others feared too much playing at sports could lead to injuries and come at a cost to productivity.

Worker sport organizations became popular in the first decades of the twentieth century. Initially workers formed their own sports teams, such as the football club founded by workers at the Woolwich Arsenal, today’s Arsenal F.C. Later competitions between groups of workers were held ultimately leading to the formation of the Worker Sport International, founded in Lucerne, Switzerland in 1920 (later changing its name to the Socialist Worker Sport International [SASI] in 1925). Not to be outdone by the socialists, communists responded by forming the Red Sport International in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1921. Socialist Workers held a Winter Olympiad in Schreiberhau, Germany in February 1925 and a summer event in July 1925 in Frankfort, Germany in which over 100,000 athletes participated and where 3,000 athletes from 12 countries competed in official events. We know that the German women’s relay team broke the existing world record in their sprint relay, but the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) refused to recognize it since it did not sanction the event (iv).

A second summer Olympiad of workers took place in Vienna in 1931 with 77,000 athletes from 17 countries participating in front of over 200,000 spectators. At that time the SASI boasted of over 2 million members in worker sports clubs internationally, though over half of these were in Germany. In 1935 the socialist and communist worker sports movements began to work together. Workers planned to hold another “Worker Olympics” in Barcelona in 1936 to counter the Nazi controlled 1936 Berlin games of the IOC. Athletes from 11 countries had planned to participate, but the Spanish Civil War intervened. Many athletes stayed on to fight the fascists in Spain. Once the fascists took over in Spain, one of their leaders was none other than Juan Antonio Samaranch, who assisted Franco as governor of the Barcelona region and who was President of the IOC from 1980 to 2004. The Worker Olympiad events were so successful that the Popular Front government in France financially supported French teams for Barcelona and Berlin in 1936. A combined event involving socialist and communist workers was held in Antwerp in 1937 involving another 30,000 participants and 100,000 total spectators.

After World War Two, the IOC consolidated their position as the custodian of the “Olympic” traditions and name in part enabled by the decision of the Soviet Union to enter its events beginning in 1952. The Soviet regime decided to utilize the Olympics as a venue to demonstrate its superiority. In many European countries the impact of the War left worker sports organization in disarray and without funds or adequate facilities. The rule that only one governing body for sport would be recognized by international federations and the IOC made it doubly difficult for worker sports organizations to gain traction.

During the 1960s the majority of people around the world engaged with the Olympics through the medium of television. More and more money entered the Olympics as a result of global television coverage and national governments viewing the Games as valuable public relations exercises leading the IOC to remove amateur restrictions enabling professional athletes, many of whom earned large sums of money, to compete openly. By the 1990s, cities spent small fortunes in hopes of hosting the games and millions and even billions to build facilities for the Games in the hopes of gaining global publicity, increases in tourism, and legacies for future generations. The distribution of costs and benefits has been vastly uneven, however.

Today the Olympics represent the triumph of the neo-liberal global capitalist sports system based on a global economy of sports centered on a sports-media-tourism complex where professional sports leagues and regional and global international sporting competitions circulate among an elite few. These mega-sporting events have their brands and income protected via a vast machinery of contractual obligations that subvert democracy and human rights and impose significant burdens on local economies. Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard argued in the 1990s that criticism of the Olympics was “un-Australian” in efforts to minimize protest against the requirements for Sydney 2000 and the nation had to implement to satisfy the IOC. Protest and vigourous debate are hallmarks of the Australian tradition. Similarly in Britain, the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act of 2006 exacts even tighter control over what can and cannot be done or said in the lead-up to the event and during the event itself. Who will benefit from the London event?: The small shopkeepers and local hawkers and traders? Global capitalist enterprises? The British economy? The athletes? We know for sure that the IOC and its group of elite global corporate sponsors will top the list. Today sport appears more and more popular yet less and less accessible.


(i) Many athletes in 2012 will represent countries that they have moved to in order to compete in their sport, some through inducements, others through choice based on a number of factors. In a recent list of Team Great Britain’s top ten medal hopes in athletics (track and field), three fit this category including one American.

(ii)  These have been: USA, Russia, China, Germany, Australia, Great Britain, France, and Italy.

(iii) For more on Much Wenlock and British antecedents of modern sporting festivals see, M. Polley, The British Olympics: Britain’s Olympic Heritage, 1612-1912 (London: English Heritage, 2011). The best account of Baron de Coubertin and the rise of the modern Olympics is J. MacAloon, This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games (London: Taylor & Francis, 2008), new edition.

(iv) For more detail on these games and European worker’s sports movements, see A. Krueger & J. Riordan (eds.), The Story of Worker Sport (Champaign: Human Kinetics, 1996).

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