It was announced yesterday that Tracey Emin would be among twelve artists who would be designing posters for next year’s Olympic Games. As she posed for the photographers, Emin said that she wanted her effort to look different from posters from previous Games, “because they look a bit fascist, to be honest”. I have yet to see any footage of Lord Coe as he stood alongside her, but I’ve no doubt that he must have winced considerably. Whatever Coe’s reaction, the fact is, Emin is right – the posters do look a bit fascist, because the Olympic Games themselves are a bit fascist.
Essentially, both Olympism and fascism are secular religions that venerate the human body and seek the triumph of the will. The Olympic motto of “citius, altius, fortius” (“faster, higher, stronger”) is something that could have been dreamed up by Hitler or Mussolini. Indeed, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, celebrations of the Olympiads and fascist rallies grew increasingly indistinct. Both were quasi-religious experiences, complete with increasingly sophisticated rites and rituals, and adorned with striking iconography. Even their salutes looked the same. (Just check out the Paris 1924 poster.)
During that period, the Olympics and fascism also adhered to a cult of personality. The founder of the Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, was almost regarded as Christ, and the IOC president, Henri de Baillet-Latour, as his chief disciple. As I wrote in my book Berlin Games:
“[T]hese men were regarded as being infallible, because they embodied an idealism that far transcended the grubby quotidian strivings of humanity. It was a pagan idealism, its pageantry godless, but its chauvinist adherents were nothing less than fanatic, men for whom no other point of view was acceptable. If anyone obstructed their ideals, then they would be subjected to the most vicious ad hominem attacks.”
And then there is the notion of race. Although anybody watching next year’s 100 metres final would be hard pressed to claim that the OIympics were today racially discriminatory, early adherents of Olympism such as the future IOC president, Avery Brundage, spoke about the Olympics in the 1920s in ways that sounded like Alfred Rosenberg:
“Perhaps we are about to witness the development of a new race,” Brundage observed at a dinner in Chicago in 1929, “a race of men actuated by the principles of sportsmanship learned on the playing field, refusing to tolerate different conditions in the other enterprises of life; a race physically strong, mentally alert and morally sound; a race not to be imposed upon, because it is ready to fight for right and physically prepared to do so; a race quick to help an adversary beaten in fair combat yet fearlessly resenting injustice or unfair advantage…”
The Olympians and the fascists also regarded the success of a nation as the result of the physical health of its people. Admiring Hitler’s programme of enforced physical education, Brundage observed that countries that performed well at the Olympics, such as Finland, did well in other arenas. “What pleases those of us who are interested in sports is that the Finns carry the ideals from the playing field into other relations,” Brundage wrote. “At least little Finland is the only country that recognises its obligations to pay war debts.” The idea that athletic prowess is linked to sound financial management was a curious one to say the least, but such views were taken seriously at the time, not least by the Nazis.
When the Games went to Berlin in 1936, the union between the two movements was blessed. In many ways, the Berlin Olympics were the ultimate Olympic Games, because the Nazis were the only people who really “got” Olympism. For the Nazis, Olympism and Nazism dovetailed so neatly that, in the words of a memorandum from the Propaganda Ministry from October 1934, “the Olympic idea is a cultural requirement of National Socialism, which concerns the entire German people”.
The Nazis added many little flourishes to the Olympics that are still evident today, not least the torch relay, which was the idea of the Secretary General of the Organizing Committee, Carl Diem. It was Diem who was later to rally thousands of Hitler Youth at the Olympic stadium in March 1945 as the Russians assaulted Berlin. Diem called on the assembled teenagers not to capitulate, and to show some “Olympic spirit”. (In case Olympic spirit was not enough, execution stakes were set up around the stadium, ready to be used if there were any displays of cowardice.)
Since the war, the whiff of fascism has always clouded around the Olympics, not least in the form of Juan Antonio Samarach, who was a member of the Spanish Falange. And the Olympic movement still carries on with its funny rituals at its opening and closing ceremonies. It will be interesting to see what sort of poster Emin comes up with. In a way, I’d like her to do something a bit fascisty, because – ultimately – that would be an accurate reflection of the type of mumbo-jumbo that accompanies a few running races and some women’s beach volleyball.