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27 July 2021

From the NS archive: Goose-stepping

25 July 1980: You’d think that the Russians would be keen to avoid too many images which evoked the Berlin Olympics of 1936.

By Julian Barnes

In 1980 Julian Barnes, who worked as a literary editor and then TV critic at the New Statesman, sat down to watch the coverage of the Moscow Olympics. “As these morally tatty Games proceed,” he wrote, “it’s going to become harder and harder to avoid lapsing into a state of self-pitying international paranoia”. During the opening ceremony, he watched as sportsmen “goose-stepped” around the stadium to Beethoven’s Ninth, drawing inevitable comparisons to “those earlier propaganda Games” – Berlin 1936. A further troop followed, each man carrying a white dove. “A dove of peace on the end of a Nazi salute: was it the year’s strangest image?” Just as the Olympics began, Gay Pride Week ended, and Barnes turned to prejudices at home. The BBC ran an “Inside Story” on “Coming Out”, a “useful” programme, Barnes wrote, at a time of mild backlash against homosexuality. “Gay pride is only partly about being proud to be gay; it’s also about relief at surviving as such.

***

When the early results came through on Day One of the Olympics, we learned that Russia had won a gold medal in the free pistol shooting. Well, they would, wouldn’t they, my viewing companions sneered back at the set in unison. As these morally tatty Games proceed, it’s going to become harder and harder to avoid lapsing into a state of self-pitying international paranoia. Take the case of Danny Nightingale, our gold-medal hope in the modern pentathlon. He randomly selects a Russian horse for the showjumping leg, and rides it more or less impeccably round the ring, except that the daft commie nag chooses to drop its rear hooves into precisely as many fences as there are onion domes on St Basil’s. Explanation? Quite obviously, a subcutaneous KGB electrode implanted in the haunches of every horse, and a belted figure high up in the stands “whispering” into his sleeve.

“Moscow 80 = Berlin 36” declared a chalk slogan near my home for the length of half a shower. Not really; but you’d think, wouldn’t you, that the Russians would be keen to avoid providing for worldwide transmission too many images which evoked those earlier propaganda Games? At the opening ceremony, the Olympic flag was trooped by “eight unknown sportsmen” (ie eight really not very good sportsmen) in pale blue lightweight suits and white gloves; they goose-stepped round the stadium to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, legs sabre-dancing out and free arms flung vigorously across opposite shoulders. (Of course, the goose-step is commonplace in Eastern Europe, and doesn’t have fascist connections over there; but even so, it’s nothing if not martial, and looks very odd on a sportsman, however unknown.)

This queasy image had no sooner appeared than it was amplified. Behind the eight Daks stormtroopers came 22 additional highkickers, though looking a little more Austin Reed in their blue blazers and white slacks. White gloves again – though this time they were more than decorative, designed to protect the strutters’ hands against “accident” from the rear end of the white dove they carried aloft on their straightened right arm. A dove of peace on the end of a Nazi salute: was it the year’s strangest image?

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Lord Killanin made a tactful speech, and the only children left in Moscow duly bombarded him with gladioli as if he were Barry Humphries. Brezhnev, speaking from a panelled bus shelter, was allowed (by Olympic tradition) only one sentence in which to open the Games; but who can monitor Russian punctuation – and the result was something so long it might have been scripted by Bernard Levin. The British athletes stayed away, and the team’s chef de mission paraded with an Olympic flag, which the Soviet TV producer craftily excised from the picture. As a result, the Russian viewer was free to conclude that the British had become so enfeebled and ricket-stricken a race after a year of Mrs Thatcher that all they could raise for the Games was a single middle-aged pole-vaulter.

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One wondered what the average Muscovite in the stadium made of it: or rather, the average, sanitised, with-dissidence-removed Muscovite. Most of them, of course, couldn’t see much anyway because they had to keep on holding up coloured cards to construct a kaleidoscope of insincere slogans (“O Sport Thou Art Peace”, etc). Why is this form of stadium entertainment so popular behind the Iron Curtain and so antipathetic to us? Is it perhaps because it seems to us to emphasise the antishness of the participants; whereas it seems to them to prove that expressions of the popular will can be both located and pungently conveyed? But what must it feel like to be a chap with a placard, turning it over by command, never seeing the result of your endeavours, and constantly blocking out the sun? It must be a bit like singing in the chorus of the Messiah while wearing earplugs. Perhaps one of the card-bearers who made Jimmy Hill’s face for the opening credits of Match of the Day will write and elucidate.

The Olympics began – doubtless not intentionally – just as Gay Pride Week was ending. BBC2 acknowledged the occasion with an Inside Story on “Coming Out”: a useful programme at a time when there seems to be a certain mild backlash against gays. Not just among Leviticans like Sir John Junor either: a lot of heterosexuals who supported gay lib as a principle now seem less pleased with it in practice. To some, gay couples are acceptable as long as they keep house plants and do French knitting in the long winter evenings; but if they jump about on the streets, dress in leather, and (my God) look gay, then they’re held to be overstepping the mark. We didn’t intend for you to behave like that when we legalised you, is the patronising implication. What “that” may involve was occasionally made explicit in this programme: “You then have to get across,” murmured a Hammersmith press officer, softly, “that you enjoy sodomy… it’s very pleasant, very OK.” One felt the soft shuffle of tightening sphincters all across the country; but it was bravely said. At the moment, homosexuality is legal rather as prostitution is legal, and scarcely more socially acceptable; so, as Inside Story made clear, all the old reality of being homosexual – of guilty suicides, shamed and bitter parent, arbitrary job dismissals – continues unabated. Gay pride is only partly about being proud to be gay; it’s also about relief at surviving as such.

Russell Harty’s new chat show, Sorl Baht Booooks (as the title song has it), will soon presumably be retitled Sorl Baht Sex (BBC1). Last week the Lip discussed boffing with the parent of Louise “Test Tube” Brown and with a benign Christopher Isherwood. As a relief between these two serious bits, Robert Morley was paid to plug his Son Sheridan’s new anthology. Memo to Russell: I’ve just written a book, and my dad’s free any time.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)