Msnowe's Blog

Olympiadic Problems

Posted in 1936, China, olympics, politics, sports by m.snowe on April 9, 2008

The Olympics thrive on conflict–that’s essentially what they’re all about anyways–not-so-friendly competition that masquerades as international good-sportsmanship. Some Americans felt good/smug about Jesse Owens winning 4 gold medals while in Germany during Hitler’s reign in 1936, as the dictator was proclaiming the supremacy of the “Aryan race.” Yet, on returning home, Owens was still subjected to all the racial prejudices that plagued the US. Ultimately, neither side is free from blame, or can take the completely ethical highroad. The US was embroiled in a deep debate prior to the 1936 games as to whether or not they would boycott, due to Hitler’s regime. The US decided to participate, the main argument being that sports should be free from politics. Also, one must take into consideration the US policy of non-involvement before entering WWII. In fact, despite many nation’s internal debates about whether or not to send athletes, the Berlin Olympics (up until that time) had the highest number of participating nations. But really, can we claim that politics and sports are so divergent? Wasn’t it a mere month or so ago that baseball players were testifying in congress? Can a country that claims to invest so much in overseas peace and “freedom” really claim the rule of separation of sports (a.k.a. the new church) and state?

There are two main arguments in the newest debate concerning boycotting the Beijing summer Olympics, or at the very least, boycotting the ceremonial opening. The first is the obvious throwback to Berlin, currently trumpeted by Bush: he aligns with Chinese officials, and plans on attending the ceremony, citing international cooperation over any political concerns/issues. French and German officials plan on boycotting the opening, though the Brit’s Gordon Brown still plans on attending. Just as a precursor to the problems that might present themselves as the games near, the Olympic torch relay has meet with angry protesters in England, France, and California. The torch actually had to be held at an “undisclosed location” while in the US, and the general CIA-like feeling and rendition-style atmosphere is not helping the international acclaim of this year’s games, scheduled to start on 08-08-08. The last time something notable was held at an “undisclosed location” it was Dick Cheney–and I think most wished he would have stayed there to grow mold in undisturbed peace and utter incapability. But here’s the problem with Bush’s stance: we can no longer claim neutrality in world affairs, like Roosevelt did in 1936. This is not ala carte globalization–we’ve (for better or worse) taken the moral high ground in terms of the “war on terror” and “fighting for freedom and democratic society.” We might be able to strategically ignore a tiny country with problems in the middle of South America (probably due to it’s lack of oil). But we can’t pick and choose what types of events warrant our support or action in terms of democracy. Aren’t we still boycotting Cuba?…but then again, Cuba doesn’t manufacture nearly as many lead-laced children’s playthings that the US so enjoys receiving from China. China is a major world power, and it’s only going to grow. But the political problems that China faces are overt, and they’re gaining notice with the current protests in/about Tibet.

The claim that sports should be a non-political endeavor is absolute fiction. Politics, prejudice, and an ingrained attitude of superiority have all mixed together to create an Olympic system that has, until very recently, been highly discriminatory (it’s still discriminatory, but not as much nowadays). Sports like to consider themselves as drama-free in terms of the outside world (and most importantly politics) because that way, sports get to make up their own rules. And then, once rules are put in place to regulate them, sports and the sports authorities try in all seriousness to subvert the rules in whatever ways possible. Sports is increasingly political, because sports are no longer the lazy-day occupation of Saturday afternoons–they involve the same themes that inculcate political scandal: Drugs, sex, lies, MONEY, and fame.

Let’s take one “for instance” where the Olympics and the sporting community allowed a prejudiced view to continue for years, unabated. To think that national politics/feeling don’tfind their way into sports and vise-versa is insane–but people believe it. In fact, without reading about gender and sports, the practice about to be explained concerning Olympic policy is not widely known, or “politicized” if you will.

“Gender Verification.” This practice was performed only on women (or those participating in women’s events in the Olympics, and some other major sporting events). In 1966, Olympic officials felt that it was necessary for all female athletes in the games to be “inspected” by officials in order to prove their sex (to make sure that men were not trying to compete as women). It is also important to remember that men were not tested to make sure they were, in fact, men. This is inherently political because it goes against women’s basic rights as equals and it assumes: A. Women would not be athletic enough to pass as men, and B. Men are automatically better athletes than all women, so the incentive to try and win in a female competition would be high.

Not only is the idea of testing detestable–but the methods were also inhumane. The female athletes would have to strip down, and literally prove their sexuality by having their genitalia inspected. The tests, while despicable, were actually quite unscientific–because someone can look like a woman, but in fact be a man in terms of hormones and chromosomes–and so after a rather ungracious start, the Olympic officials decided it would be better to conduct genetic testing (still on women only) to see if the athletes were women. These tests relied on analyzing the X and Y chromosomes. XX: female, XY: male. But it isn’t so simple. Some people have extra chromosomes, and it causes different issues in terms of sex/gender determination, those being people that have XXY, or those who have a combination of XXY cells and a singular X chromosomes. So some women, who were women, turned out in the tests to be male, causing quite an uproar in the athletic community, and causing many women political, social, and psychological harm. It is also important to note that this was not the only type of gender-stereotype-influenced testing. Before the doping scandals of today, it was women who were considered more likely to inject steroids into their buttocks (because they were “weaker” than men and could use the extra help, apparently). Women, especially those participating in collegiate sports, were subject to random drug tests, while their male counterparts were not. This was happening all throughout the 80s and early 90s. Only now is steroid testing a huge part of male sports.

But the real shocker is this: Gender Verification continued up until the 2000 Sydney Olympics. From 1966 to 2000, women were either required to drop trow in front of doctors and other players, or ordered to take a cotton swap to their cheek cells in order to compete, while men waltzed in, test-free. These tests were not only shame-inducing, they ruined lives by determining that some women were not “in fact” women, and subjecting them to public and private humiliations.

The Olympics are fraught with politics, discriminatory practices, and every other injustice that plagues all the nation states. To claim that a global event with many nations involved can occupy a Utopian space of neutrality is inconceivable. The real question is whether or not one issue warrants pulling back the veneer of political myopia and actually making a boycott happen. If we didn’t do it for Hitler, the odds aren’t in our favor for boycotting The People’s Republic.