Is TV Corrupting the Olympics?

The (Post)Modern Olympics

Technology and the Commodification of the Olympic Movement

For special issue of Quest, the journal of the National Association for Physical Education in Higher Education, on the theme: "The Modern Olympic Games: A Contemporary Sociocultural Analysis."

The Content of the Table
  • Defining Postmodernism
  • Breakdown of the "Grand Narratives" of Coubertin's Olympic Ideology
  • Olympic Ideals Versus the Consumer Culture of Late Capitalism
  • Communication Technologies and Postmodern Style in the Olympics
  • Postmodern Fragmentation, Excess, and Relativism in the Olympics: Race, Gender, and Representation
  • Sources of Renewal Against Postmodern Negations
  • References

  • Abstract

    The classical formulations of Olympic ideology a century ago were founded in the worldview of "modernism" and its belief in rational, scientific progress. Current "postmodern" conditions and worldviews conflict with that original ideology and suggest a unity in the otherwise disparate aspects of change and conflict in the Olympic movement. The shift from aristocratic to commercial support, from upper-class to diverse participation, and from male European and American domination to female and global involvement all indicate diversification of the Olympics. Simultaneously, the huge growth of media technology and television rights fees has changed the Olympics. Conceptualizing the Olympics and these changes as "postmodern" clarifies the relationship between the Olympics and broader sociocultural change; it also suggests new challenges for Olympic ideology.


    The beautiful athletic body stretches, flexes, and propels the discus. A Greek statue? An Olympic record? A postmodern text? A global media ritual?

    In 1936 Leni Riefenstahl is the first to segue from the classical Greek statue "The Discus Thrower" into a contemporary athlete unleashing the spiraled energy into full athletic movement captured on film. In doing so, she ushers in a new era in which technological recreations of Olympic success become better than the original experience through close-up, slow motion, powerful music, voice-of-god narration, and brilliantly emotional editing. Olga Korbut, the Dream Team, Tomba--what postmodern gods hath media wrought? The discus thrower unleashes his power. As his arm unfurls, not a discus but a cornucopaeia of technology and money fly out to encircle the world. Higher budgets, faster profits, stronger market position--the "PoMo" Olympics live!

    This study examines the meaning of the Olympic transition from classical to modern to what has been called the postmodern, from ancient roots to scenes like the above. The modern Olympic Games were conceived and developed under the zeitgeist of high "Modernism," the worldview that believed science, reason, and progress in the classical Renaissance manner would bring humankind increasing health, prosperity, and well-being. The breakdown of the modernist project in the twentieth century has transformed the modern Olympics into a necessarily "Postmodern" phenomenon. The thesis examined here is that many otherwise disparate aspects of the Olympics today can be brought together and accounted for within the theoretical framework identified as postmodernist, and that conversely the Olympics extend and clarify our understanding of the nature of the postmodern condition.

    The millenium of continuous ancient games from 776 B.C. to 393 A.D. coincided with the intellectual birth of modernism in classical Athenian Greece, just as the century-long run of the modern games has coincided with the intellectual birth of postmodernism. The end of the nineteenth century found Baron Pierre de Cubertin preaching the modernist gospel of classical values as the intellectual and mythical foundation of the modern games. Since then, much has changed. Communication technology and television money have transformed the modern games into a media event celebrated as a "high holiday" (Dayan and Katz, 1992) of postmodern culture. As the twentieth century closes, the modern Olympic Games celebrate their centenniel in a dramatically different state than they were in the beginning or in their original incarnation in classical Greece.

    What is the socio-cultural nature of the current games, these global media extravaganzas in which huge amounts of television revenues fuel drives toward greater audiences, commercial endorsements, national rivalries, records, and a technologically accessed event in which half the world's population directly joins? This mega-event is as tellingly postmodern as the earlier games were classically modern; it is a rich subject for "cultural studies" analysis.

    Defining Postmodernism

    Competing definitions of postmodernism drawing from architecture, aesthetics, history, literature, sociology, critical theory, and elsewhere have made the label ambiguous and controversial. In a recent issue of Quest, Linda L Bain (1995, p. 238) referred to the importance of language, differentiated meanings, and qualitative analysis "in the postmodern era." In addition, here we take "the postmodern" to include the following qualities. The breakdown of the grand narratives, particularly the metanarrative of science as universal human problem-solver, as Lyotard (1984) has argued so compellingly. The consumer culture of late capitalism in which the puritan ethic of production has been replaced by the commercial ethic of conspicuous consumption (Featherstone, 1990). The centrality of communication technologies in providing global access to a culture of mass reproduction and "simulacra" or copies of which there is no original, in the view of Baudrillard (1983). The artistic, architectural, and overall aesthetic domination of the style of "pastiche" which juxtaposes unlikely combinations of styles borrowed from past cultural products, as Jameson (1991) explains. The fragmentation of sensibility into discontinuous forms of knowledge, culture, information, and living styles, as McGowan (1991) and virtually all observers of the postmodern condition agree. A depthlessness in which appearances are all, in which anchored meanings and permanent principles are absent, somewhat in the way Michel Foucault (1980a and b) and the poststructuralists describe and Baudrillard celebrates. A culture marked by excess and overload and an art marked by absence, by deconstruction, minimalism, and decoration, as documented in the famous traveling exhibit of the Museum of Modern Art High and low: Modern art, popular culture (Varnedoe and Gopnik 1990). Personal and social life dominated by the pleasure principle, relativism, privatism, and a schizophrenia that dips in and out of different personalities, as noted by Bauman (1988), just as postmodern art creates pastiches from different styles. An inability to resolve from within postmodernism the dilemmas that postmodernism describes so forcefully, as Best and Kellner (1991) and many other critics have lamented. Each of these characteristics of the postmodern condition has its expression in the phenomenon of the (post)modern Olympic Games. The Olympic Games in turn, as the pre-eminent expression of global media culture today, both reflect and extend the postmodern condition, testing the assumptions and shedding light on particular aspects of postmodernism.

    Breakdown of the "Grand Narratives" of Coubertin's Olympic Ideology

    The intellectual formulation of "Olympism" as the quasi-official ideology of the modern games is firmly rooted in nineteenth century modernism. The modernist framework of Olympic ideals dominated the rhetoric of the Olympic movement from the first Athens games in1896 until Coubertin's death in 1937 following the Berlin games. The classical Greek ideals as revived at the time dramatically attracted Coubertin and those who helped him revive the ancient games. Development of the sovereign individual, both mentally and physically, and the cumulative advancement of humanity were at the heart of the modernist worldview and the modern Olympic movement. As Duncan Petrie (1992, p. 1) has pointed out, it was an essentialist cultural tradition rooted in Judeo-Christian religion, Roman law, Greek ideas on politics, philosophy, art and science, and all refracted through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. This tradition. . . .promotes iteself as being characterised by ideas of high culture, autonomy and liberty, and is frequently contrasted with the cultural traditions of 'others,' be they Asia, Africa. . .or in more recent times, America. From his earliest writings, Coubertin was interested in the social reform of Le Play and the hopes of "muscular Christianity" (MacAloon, 1981, chap. 3 and 4). In a pseudonymous Ode to Sport, Coubertin went so far as to praise sport's beauty, justice, daring, honour, and joy, including "O Sport, you are Fecundity! You tend by straight and noble paths toward a more perfect race. . . .O Sport, you are Progress!" Coubertin sought classical blends of old and new: "We must restore the municipal gymnasium of ancient Greece and it will give us social peace" (Coubertin, 1967, p. 49), marshalling new technical, hygenic, artistic, and philosophical resources. Throughout his career, Coubertin applauded the nineteenth century revival of athleticism, crediting it with being a teacher of morals as well as health. He wrote: "There are not two parts to a man - body and soul; there are three - body, mind and character; character is not formed by the mind, but primarily by the body. The men of antiquity knew this, and we are painfully relearning it" (Coupertin, 1967, pp. 6-7) The development of character keyed the development of society for Coubertin: "Healthy democracy, wise and peaceful internationalism, will penetrate the new stadium and preserve within it the cult of honour and disinterestedness which will enable athletics to help in the tasks of moral education and social peace as well as of muscular development" (p. 9). The revival of the Olympic Games were to him not an isolated phenomenon, "but the logical consequence of the great cosmopolitan tendencies of our times" (p. 10). These tendencies included inventions of railroads and telegraphs "bringing into communication people of all nationalities" (p. 10) and achievements in art, industry, science, and literature, achievements celebrated in universal exhibitions, assemblies, and conferences of the day. Coubertin credited Thomas Arnold and the vigors of Victorian England with rediscovering "one of the most characteristic principles of Greek civilization: To make the muscles the chief factor in the work of moral education" (p. 11). Architecture too should be caste in a classical Hellenistic mold to attract visitors and to "inspire in them the respect due to places consecrated to noble memories or potent hopes" (p. 22). Here we have the characteristic tenets of classical modernism--the rational perfectable individual, progress, science, technology, and moral improvement. With reason and technology, humankind can conquer obstacles and achieve happiness. The high hopes of Renaissance humanism, the industrial revolution, the theory of evolution, universal education and urbanization all came together in the modernist hope to create an efficient, abundant life for all, one periodically celebrated in the Modern Olympic Games. This framework of Olympic ideals dominated the rhetoric of the Olympic movement from the first Athens games in1896 until de Coubertin's death in 1937 following the Berlin games. Coubertin's successors, especially up to the death of Avery Brundage in 1975, continued the modernist ideals of amateurism and the celebration of the human body and elite physical culture as the foundations of modern Olympism . Current postmodern theory contrasts sharply with the modernist and classical Olympic view. Postmodernism charges that there is no longer any consensus around the modernist-defined historical conditions, human goals, and driving ideas. Against the original well-articulated modern Olympic ideal, Jean-Francois Lyotard (1984) notes simply the demise of the modernist worldview and prospect. A countryman of Coubertin and leading articulater of Postmodernism, Lyotard ascribes the end of modernism and its replacement by postmodernism to the breakdown of the grand narratives of nineteenth century science, reason, and progress. In their place is a sense of limits, of relativity, of varied styles and goals, of skepticism over progress and perfectability. Architectual theory was forced to recognize the end of the Modern Movement (1910-45) which had sought nothing less than "a last rebuilding of the whole space occupied by humanity" (Lyotard, 1993, p. 171). With the abrogration of the modernist hegemony of Euclidian geometry, "there is no longer any close linkage between the architectural project and socio-historical progress in the relation of human emancipation on the larger scale" (p. 171). The idea of progress within rationalism and freedom has given way to "bricolage: the high frequency of quotations of elements from previous styles or periods (classical or modern)" (p. 171). Postmodernism, however, goes well beyond the architectural arena. As Lyotard observes: "One can note a sort of decay in the confidence placed by the last two centuries in the idea of progress. . . .in the certainty that the development of the arts, technology, knowledge and liberty would be profitable to mankind as a whole" (p. 172). Too many signs point in the opposite direction in Lyotard's judgement: "Neither economic nor political liberalism, nor the various Marxisms, emerge from the sanguinary last two centuries free from the suspicion of crimes against mankind" (p. 172). The development of techno-sciences can increase disease as well as fight it, can destabilize human populations as well as protect.

    Olympic Ideals Versus the Consumer Culture of Late Capitalism

    Aristocratic privilege, not commercial sponsorship, sustained the Olympic movement in its well-documented first decades, with no patronage more generous than from Coubertin himself (Guttman, 1992; MacAloon, 1981; J. Lucas 1980, 1992). But when the games after World War I began to gather momentum as major international events with increasing press coverage and general recognition, the "old boy" network of support became more and more supplanted by other forces. Cities spent increasing amounts in hosting the games, reaching an apex with the Berlin games in 1936 (Mandell, 1971), and competitors came more frequently from outside the leisure class creating tensions of race and class captured by the film Chariots of Fire about the 1924 Paris games.

    With public and commercial support becoming more prominent in the modern Olympics, the nature of contemporary capitalism took on increased importance relative to the games. This was not only evident eventually in the Cold War battles of Western capitalism against the state capitalism of the Soviet bloc, but also in the more general trend toward expanded fund-raising and commercial sponsorship, inclusion of the former European-controlled colonies, and especially in the increased visibility and income from Olympic television coverage.

    With the release of Leni Riefenstahl's two-part Olympia film (Graham, 1986) as well as experimentation with television at the Berlin games, the intrusion of the moving image into the Olympics began. This increased from mid-century with the 1956 Melbourne organizing committee being the first to sell television rights to the games (R. Lucas, 1984). Because broadcast networks in the United States and Europe boycotted the rights sale, the programming in the United States resulted in only six pre-recorded, half-hour programs presented on a scattering of independent stations. But the principle of commercial Olympic television had been established, and the Olympics would never again be the same. Perhaps no other single force has contributed more to the "postmodernizing" of the Olympics than television coverage in general and television rights fees in particular. They have created a new relationship between the public and the games at the same time as they have brought the dynamics of "late capitalism" (Mandel, 1975) into the Olympic movement.

    The television rights fees for the Summer Olympics have increased several hundredfold in the second half of the twentieth century. The United States commercial networks have generally paid some 50 to 75% of the total Olympic revenue from television rights and production costs. In millions of dollars, the fees paid by U.S. television have been (R. Lucas, 1984; J. Lucas, 1992):

    Rome 1960 = .6 Tokyo 1964 = 1.7 Mexico City 1968 = 6.0 Munich 1972 = 12.8 Montreal1976 = 25.0 Moscow 1980 = 95.5 Los Angeles 1984 = 225.0 Seoul 1988 = 305.0 Barcelona 1992 = 401.0

    The last three Winter Olympics have also brought in more than $300 million each in television rights sales. In the 1960s, television revenues quickly replaced Olympic ticket sales as the principle source of income from the Games. In 1960 television provided only 1 of every 400 dollars of the cost of hosting the Summer Olympics. In 1972, 1 of every 50 dollars was from television; in 1980, 1 of every 15 dollars; and by 1984 1 of every 2 dollars of Olympic host costs were paid for from television revenues (Real, 1989).

    This immersion of the Olympics in the world of television exposure and rights fees has been followed by rapidly increasing commercial sponsorship of the Games and teams themselves. The Olympic Program (TOP), formed in 1982 by the IOC, has combined with the marketing consortium International Sports and Leisure (ISL) to sell corporate sponsorships at a level approaching a 50-50 split with income from television rights. TOP contracts with Coca-Cola, Eastman Kodak, 3M, Ricoh, Matsushita, Sports Illustrated, Visa, and U.S. Postal express in 1992 brought in more than $120 million to the IOC (J. Lucas, 1992, p. 79). The 1984 Los Angeles Games pioneered this approach even selling rights to one company to advertise itself as the "Official Olympic Specimen Carrier" because it transported the urine samples of athletes to laboratories. Television exposure and commercialization prepared the environment for this additional corporate commercial sponsorship, sponsorship which is bringing $179 million in 1996 to the IOC from one transnational corporation alone, the Coca-Cola company based in Atlanta (J. Lucas, 1995).

    The intrusion of late capitalism's commercialism into the Olympics through television and sponsorships signals the economic shift from the modern to the postmodern Games. Echoed by hundreds of other critics, British historian Steven Barnett (1990, p. 134) warns: "The Olympic Games could be hijacked by an obsessively competitive American television industry, whose money will eventually corrupt completely the original spirit." The changes from the aristocratic but idealistic modern games of Coubertin to the pragmatically profit-centered postmodern games point to the qualities of "late capitalism" described by Fredric Jameson in his widely debated analysis of postmodernism.

    Jameson (1991, p. xviii), following Adorno, Horkheimer, and the Frankfurt School, places us in a period called "late capitalism," a period which Jameson also refers to as "'multinational capitalism,' 'spectacle or image society,' 'media capitalism,' 'the world system,' even 'postmodernism' itself." Jameson emphasizes that this conception of postmodernism "is a historical rather than a merely stylistic one. . . .I cannot stress too greatly the radical distinction between a view for which the postmodern is one (optional) style among many others available and one which seeks to grasp it as the cultural dominant of the logic of late capitalism" (pp. 45-6). Jameson argues that "culture is today no longer endowed with the relative autonomy it once enjoyed" (p. 48). In this sense, the (post)modern Olympic Games in all their commercialism are not aberrations but logical expressions of the age in which they exist. For those suspicious of the postmodern as jargon, Jameson concedes: "I occasionally get just as tired of the slogan 'postmodern' as anyone else, but . . .I wonder whether any other concept can dramatize the issues in quite so effective and economical a fashion" (p. 418).

    In fact, the capital produced by the postmodern era's media has carried the Olympic movement through two major financial crises since World War II. First, having been near bankruptcy in the decade before, the IOC officially declared in 1970 that all television revenues belonged to the IOC rather than, as previously, to the host city. Second, when Tehran's was the only other bid to host the 1984 Games, the IOC was forced to accept the commercially sponsored1984 Los Angeles plan without the usual guarantee of public monies. Both commercial turns proved so lucrative to the IOC that Olympic leadership is now as attuned to economic progress and success as it is to athletic achievement. These commercial changes, combined with Olympic hostage taking and boycotts made attractive because of the Olympics' media prominence, led Jeffrey Segrave and Donald Chu in 1981 (p.363) to conclude: "The politicization and commercialization of the modern Olympics has reached such a crescendo that few could deny that the idealistic intentions of the Games have become increasingly immersed in a sea of progaganda."

    Technologies of communication have made possible the incredible media outreach of the Olympics, bringing with it the increasing commodification of the Games. "Commodification" reduces the value of any act or object to only its monetary exchange value, ignoring historical, artistic, or relational added values. In addition, commodification has a fetishistic quality in which the commodities, because they represent commercial advantage, take on a bloated psychological importance to the individual or group. The postmodern Olympics have in recent decades become a virtual circus of commodity values and fetishes. Corporate logos and sponsorship abound, Olympic memorabilia multiply, merchandising and marketing pre-occupy officials, shoe sponsors become powerful decision-makers, promotions begin months before the Games and suffuse their media presentation, and Olympic leaders and the public learn to accept this commodification as if it were part of the (post)modern Olympic creed.

    Communication Technologies and Postmodern Style in the Olympics

    The IOC's media policies have been directed by the goal of making the Games available "to the widest possible audience." While this dictates against reducing television coverage to a pay-per-view event, among other things, it has reinforced the commercial incentives to cooperate with television, film, radio, newspaper, magazine, and other media sources to consistently expand the "spectacle" aspects of this global media event. In recent decades, more media personnel than athletes have been officially accredited to attend the Games. Opening and closing ceremonies have become big-time show business without parallel. The athletic competitions occuring in the Games are overlaid with promotions, commercial interruptions, sponsor logos, celebrity chasing, abrupt transitions, and entertainment packaging emblematic of what proto-postmodernist Guy Debord (1970) decried as the "Society of the Spectacle."

    Saturation with technologies of communication is a characteristic feature of the postmodern landscape. Technology and media can be defined as any extension of the human sensory apparatus (McLuhan, 1964), but after we create them, they create us. Cyberpunk literature is only a more extreme imagining of the freewheeling digitized, imaged, on-line existence which comes more and more to occupy real daily life. Within this plugged in environment, the greatest concentrations of electronic technology in the history of the world have not been the Gulf War, despite its popular characterization as the Nintendo war, nor the space launchings with all their futuristic accountrements. Rather, the now biennial Olympic Games attract the most breathtaking display of our technological capacity to capture, refine, and transmit messages of all types and to all places.

    advanced video, audio, and textual processing occurs in overwhelming abundance in the Olympic Games, even from nearly arctic conditions such as at the Lillehammer Winter Olympics. Transnational corporations develop and employ their most refined technologies to bring strikingly differentiated versions of Olympic events to viewers scattered in every part of the globe. In 1936 Leni Riefenstahl took two years to edit her four-hour film record of the Games; in 1960 CBS flew tapes from Rome to New York to squeeze in some delayed same-day coverage. Today, simultaneous events from widely dispersed venues are instantly relayed to broadcast centers and digitized, re-arranged, and transmitted in quite different versions to different national audiences through a complex array of cameras, video decks, editors, signal processors and compressors, microwave relays, satellite feeds, and related technologies all backed with massive managerial, legal, and economic systems. Science fiction fantasies of technological capabilities become real and invisibly transparent as media consumers everywhere access the competitions and entertainments mounted as Olympic spectacles. In addition to the television technology, data and text transmissions speed off to print media, and the very record-keeping and co-ordination of the Games themselves are based on massive arrays of computerized technology and organization.

    This is precisely the technologically saturated environment that Jean Baudrillard (1983) describes as the postmodern world of "simulacra," or simulations and representations, a world made up of copies of which there is no original. Walter Benjamin's famous essay on "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" anticipated the problem facing the IOC: How do the Olympics maintain their integrity as a work of human creation in the context of endless media manipulation?

    Jameson (1992, P. 16) describes our media and art as engendering "the well-nigh universal practice today of what may be called pastiche." Pastiche is the combining together in one work of the disparate styles and contents from what would normally be presented as quite different artistic eras and messages. High classical combines with art deco and neo-impressionism in the same eclectic architectural or other creative work. Traditional distinctions between high art and popular culture disappear as all become "mass-mediated culture" (Real, 1977). Feminist critics and cultural studies note the characteristic hodgepodge of style that marks virtually all of television: the strip of programming juxtaposes programs, advertisements, promotions, and credits in an array of formats from news to comedy, from cartoons to music videos to sports to movies. The viewer channel surfs among these by remote control making the sequence of television viewing a diffuse pastiche of cultural choices (Kaplan, 1988).


    While television channels attempt to present the Olympics in coherent patterns and while the viewer can make some sense of bewilderingly diverse Olympic messages, the Olympics are clearly a "pastiche" of cultural artifacts in the Jameson sense. The grand reliance on tradition to anchor what the Olympics are and mean may sound rather like Jameson's warning: "The producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture" (p. 18). This historicism results in "the random cannibalization of all the styles of the past, the play of random stylistic allusion, and . . .the increasing primacy of the 'neo'" in the "new spatial logic of the simulacrum" (p. 18). The fast-paced Olympic television presentation of multiple events with on-screen graphics and announcer commentary is the opposite of the classical coherent single-author focused artistic experience. Underlying it is the commercial incentive to maximize viewing audience by promotion and titillation, by superlatives and historical allusions, by giving the audience what it expects but even fancier than it had hoped for.

    Sports do suggest distinctions that postmodernism may otherwise ignore. The sporting event, such as an Olympic competition, has an externally situated reality that pure entertainment programming does not; in this it resembles more news programming than scripted drama. Michael Oriard in his excellent historical and critical study, Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle (1993), has argued this point against Jameson. Jameson (1979) charges that there are no primary texts in mass culture, only repetitions. Against this, in football Oriard sees the game itself as a primary text, ultimately unpredictable no matter how complete its packaging may be. Never denying the hype and manipulation of late capitalism, Oriard nonetheless argues that "the games themselves are authentic in ways that no commodity can be" (p. 9): real persons perform real acts, are injured, and win or lose in a story that has a reality beyond that of popular movies, music, and literature and is the source of the sport's cultural power. His detailed account of the negotiations in the late nineteenth century that resulted in what North Americans know as football manages to foreground this essential reality of the human contest, a contest that was being variously interpreted by journalists and others at the time.

    Football's cultural narratives and meanings, Oriard argues, were not imposed or arbitrary but "were created by an interplay of producers (rule makers, college authorities, players); consumers (spectators and readers); intermediary interpreters (sportswriters); a medium of communication (the daily press and popular periodicals); political, social, economic, and cultural contexts; and the inherent qualities of the game itself" (p.119). No single interest owned football in the beginning; today its media presentation is bundled into a pastiche alongside the most disparate alternatives. Football's high holiday, the Super Bowl (Real, 1977), like the Olympics, has a commercial infrastructure and is suffused with pastiche style and the drive to commodify.

    How have postmodern media changed the Olympics? When the 1984 Opening Ceremony featured 84 pianos playing Gershwin, Alan Tomlinson was led to conclude: "Televisual images do linger on; and those of the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 can only be said to owe more to the spirit of Liberace than to that of de Coubertin" (1989, p. 7-9). The Olympic events lend themselves to a pastiche style. They are not a single sport or event as in the World Cup or Super Bowl. The Olympics are many events occuring simultaneously. Nationalist interests dictate that while Great Britain may prefer equestrian events, India wants field hockey and team handball. When a national broadcaster buys Olympic rights, the host broadcaster provides a clean video-audio feed from each event, to which the national service may add its own commentator and then may transmit live or may edit and transmit on a delayed basis. It is "designer" television in which the original event becomes customized for each of scores of different audiences. The Olympic ideal of uniting the peoples of the world around a single experience becomes fragmented and nationalized as converted for local use. In this regard, Official Olympic historian John Lucas (1992, p. 42) argues that he would change only one current Olympic ritual: the playing of the national anthems for winners. National anthems are played more than 400 times during the Summer Games, further tipping the scale away from internationalism and toward fragmented nationalism.

    In short, the postmodern culture of late capitalism links the commercial incentive of the producers of the Olympics with the conditioned pastiche tastes of the Olympic consumer in a spectacle of nationalistic technological representation.

    Postmodern Fragmentation, Excess, and Relativism in the Olympics: Race, Gender, and Representation

    Elements of postmodernism have been developing throughout the twentieth century and not only in recent years. Lyotard (1984) argues that postmodernism was developing from within modernism and not merely as its successor. Avant garde works of Cezanne, Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, and others were, in a subtle Freudian way, a working through operated by modernity on itself. In this context, it is necessary to acknowledge the contradictions built into modern Olympism from the start. As Allen Guttmann (1992, p. 4) emphasizes "It has taken nearly a century for some of the internal contradictions of Olympism to be understood and partially eliminated (and for other problems, like commercialism and drug abuse, to have arisen)." The Olympic ideals would seem to have been aimed at erasing barriers of nationalism, racism, sexism, religious persecution, and other exclusions, in order to release individual potential. But from the start the institutional structure of the modern Olympics was based on national representation, while women and working class people were excluded. The experience of the modern Olympic Games in the twentieth century closely parallels what Lyotard describes as the demise of modernism and the emergence of postmodernism in the form of a more diverse but limited view of human ideals and potential. Given that the original ideology of the Modern Olympic Games was the classical worldview of a relatively narrow Western European modernism, how have women and non-Europeans fared? Much to its credit, and as a necessary adjustment to the contemporary world, the IOC has modified its original patriarchal, Caucasion exclusiveness. The first modern Games in Athens in 1896 featured neither women nor athletes from outside Europe and North America. As Adrienne Blue (1988, p. 1) notes, "No one wanted women at the Olympics." In 1900 women were allowed to compete in the Paris Games, but by 1912 women still comprised only 57 of the competitors against 2,447 men (Guttman, 1992, p. 33), who together represented 26 nations, primarily in Europe. At recent Summer and Winter Games, the percentage of female athletes is slowly improving but has remained close to 25% of the total (Hargreaves, 1994, p. 220; Blue, 1988, p. ix). Those from other than European Caucasian cultures had even slower entry to the Games than did women. At the original 1896 Games, only a Chilean and an Australian were participants from outside Europe and the United States (Guttmann, 1994, p. 124). Racially, the 1904 St. Louis Games featured Anthropological Days in which sideshow non-whites competed in unofficial games to the embarrassment of Coubertin and others appalled by the crudeness of the American organizers (p. 25). In 1908 athletes from Australia and South Africa became the first medal winners from outside Europe and North America. The 1912 American team featured an African-American, a Hawaiian, and two Native Americans. In 1920 the first Olympic medals for Asia and Latin America were won by Japanese and Brazilians respectively (Henry, 1984, p. 108). Even today, amid the rich national costumes of the more than 190 nations competing in Atlanta, a small core of advanced nations dominates the winning. As Alan Guttmann (1992, p. 171) notes, the Olympic events are the product of Western civilization: "Since winning, rather than simply taking part, has continued to attract the world's attention, the men and, especially, the women of Africa, Asia, and Latin American have been left to play ancillary roles on the Olympic stage." The IOC itself has always been dominated by Europe and the United States (Guttmann, 1994, p. 133), with its current 93 male and 6 female members (J. Lucas, 1995), and has yet to be headed by a President from outside Europe and North America. The limited diffusion of modern sport and the Olympics is a case of cultural hegemony (Guttmann, 1994, p. 178). This means that the Olympic movement has moved away from its narrow European and Caucasian origins but has only imperfectly embraced the multicultural, postpatriarchal global populace. The simple eurocentric, patriarchal values of Coubertin modernism have been displaced only to be replaced by the relativistic, fragmented condition of postmodernism which remains considerably short of a fully developed, widely accepted new ideology, value system, and worldview. The issue of "amateurism" in the Olympics further illustrates this shift away from classical modernist consensus. The commitment of Coubertin, Avery Brundage, and the IOC to the principles of amateurism through the first 80 years of the Modern Games was a clear reflection of the aristocratic class bias of these founding fathers and Olympic leaders. As John Lucas notes (1992, p. 123), the modern Olympics narrow definition of amateurism was of modern British rather than ancient Greek origins. David C. Young (1988, p. 56) described it as "an ideological means to justify an elitist athletic system that sought to bar the working class from competition." The argument was that fair play and sportsmanship occur only when sports are an avocation not a vocation; amateurs were defined, according to Guttmann (1992, p. 13) as those "who competed for the intrinsic pleasures of the contest, not because sports provided them with the material basis of their existence." Such Olympic amateurism has been widely debated (see Segrave and Chu, 1981, pp. 36-75). The Olympic Congress of 1981 in Baden-Baden, Germany, (J. Lucas,1992, p. 74) took the first decisive steps to dissolve the old "pure amateur code" and open the Olympic door to professional athletes. This has dramatically escalated the celebrity character of the Games, as in the 1992 American basketball "Dream Team." It has also removed the some of the charade of subsidies and trust funds for athletes and has brought the games far more explicitly into the big money world of professional-level athlete salaries and endorsements. The demise of Olympic amateurism has escalated the Games toward what has been called the Postmodern "culture of excess." Alongside an "art of absence" in which traditional standards of quality and artistic excellence disappear, the postmodern culture of excess rewards extremes of size, flamboyance, self-promotion, consumption, fame, and extravagance. Latin American critics of the Olympics (see Reyes Matta, 1986) have charged the Games with "gigantism" which poor countries must watch from the sidelines. The fixation on quantitative records in the Olympics and elsewhere as measures of success contributes to this Western mechanical emphasis on fragmented, relative values and excess. The use of performance-enhancing drugs in the Olympics comes from a mentality directly opposed to that of Coubertin's oft-cited exhortation that the important thing is not to win but to participate. The West has transformed sports, in the words of Guttmann's book title (1978), From Ritual to Record. The fragmentation of once absolute standards and ideology, the acceptance of necessary multicultural pluralism and relativism, and the drive to quantitative excess are distinguishing characteristics of both the recent Olympic Games and the Postmodern condition. At the same time, the Games have carried an imperial role of extending to diverse cultures the conflict-based deep structure of modern sports and an attendant set of Western structures of space, time, knowledge, nature, and relationships (Galtung, 1982). Standardized universality of sports reduces diversity in culture, even as it "enables everyone to play the game" (Guttmann, 1994, p. 188).

    Sources of Renewal Against Postmodern Negations

    One important consequence of understanding the transition in the Olympic Games as "Postmodern" is a realization that the Olympic Games do not operate independently of the global cultural environment surrounding them. One cannot, for example, exhort the Olympic movement to return to its idealistic ideological origins in classical Western modernism when the conditions and consensus for that no longer exist. The Olympic movement is faced not only with any number of current pragmatic issues--the 21 current problems and opportunities listed by John Lucas (1992)--but the IOC, the NOCs, the International Federations, the athletes, and others must contend with these in an explicitly different context than existed in the first half of the century as the modern Games struggled to survive their own birth pains, two world wars, and other challenges. Reformulating Olympic ideology calls for engagement in the cultural diagnosis developed by postmodern critics and theorists as the most appropriate and extensive of the many overarching cultural critiques offered today. Here, admittedly, is a difficulty. Postmodern analysis thus far has proven effective for describing trends and problems and identifying their underlying unity. It has shown far less promise for prescribing productive alternative directions and solutions. Limitations and needed corrections in postmodernism have been elaborated by, among others, Steven Best and Douglas Kellner (1991). They particularly decry the individualism, nihilism, and pessimism of extreme postmodern theory in Baudrillard (1983), Kroker and Cook (1986), the early Lyotard, some Foucault, and poststructuralism. Best and Kellner find it unjustifiably immobilizing "that most postmodern theory rejects macropolitics and the modern projects of radical social reconstruction" (p. 282). They acknowledge that "extreme postmodern theorists have abandoned politics for an avant-gardist posturing that is bloated with cynicism and opportunism" (p. 284). More specifically, they note: "Postmodern theory, like some liberal pluralist theory, has problems theorizing macrostructures and seeing how totalizing tendencies, like capitalism or gender and racial oppression, permeate microstructures and the plurality and differences celebrated in the theory" (p. 288). At the same time, Best and Kellner recognize postmodernism's positive contribution to "the need for reconstruction of society, subjectivity, theory, and culture, and rethinking power and struggle in non-juridical or economistic models" (p. 286). Of particular interest for physical education, postmodernists like Deleuze and Guattari (1983, 1986, 1987), the early Lyotard, and sometimes Foucault "privilege the physical body over critical cognition" (Best and Kellner, 1991, p. 287). A few postmodernists such as Jameson or Laclau and Mouffe (1985) argue for the importance of utopian values. These twin emphases on the body and on utopian values are particularly relevant to attempts to reformulate the Olympic project. In conclusion, Best and Kellner state: "Against the postmodern politics of subjectivity and tendencies to aestheticize politics, we would advocate a politics of alliances, a cultural politics, and a strategic politics which combine micro- and macroperspectives and retain a salient place for critical rationality" (pp. 291-292). With these important qualifications, the postmodern analysis, in short, offers to the Olympics a more comprehensive and developed frame for interpreting the many otherwise disparate and seemingly unrelated changes and problems infiltrating the once modern and now thoroughly postmodern Olympic Games. The Olympics have always strived to be truly Olympian and remain "above the world" of grubby politics and narrow self-interests. In doing so, however, the Olympic movement has been constantly in danger of being subtlely victimized by power politics, whether Nazi or Cold War, or being inconsistently polititized through member boycotts, or being antiquarian in language and ideology. Serious consideration of the Olympics within the postmodern condition closes off those naive retreats. It forces us to reconsider the postmodern Olympics in relationship to: classicism/classism and the non-commercial Olympic ideal media technology and Olympics "for the widest possible audience", postwar Olympic growth and escalating costs and media coverage, the model of Los Angeles '84 and the new for-profit Olympics, growth in commercial endorsements and sponsorships, the de-amateurizing of the modern games, de-Europeanized and postpatriarchal diversity of athletes, the pros and cons of postmodernism--and the Games, alternative directions for the Olympics under conditions of postmodernism The future of the Olympic Games cannot be dealt with apart from the many issues in cultural politics under debate today (see Michael Berube, 1994). For now, the elaboration of an adequate intellectual justification for the Olympics in the postmodern era recalls the challenge articulated by Segrave and Chu in 1981 (p. 362-363): "Divorced from the idealistic philosophy of Olympism, however, the Games stand as only another international athletic competition. The spectacle remains while the promise is lost. Consequently, the elaboration of a social-philosophical interpretation of the modern Olympic Games remains at the center of discussions. . ."


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    by Michael R. Real, Ph.D.

    Professor, School of Communication San Diego State University San Diego, CA 92182-4561 Phone: (619) 595-4255 Fax: (619) 594-6246 E-mail: