The Olympics: Citius, Altius, Fortius and, of course, Litigium10/5/2016
While the Olympic motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger” is familiar, we also should acknowledge that Litigium — Latin for dispute, controversy or distress — is no stranger to the podium either.
Litigium was evident at the 2016 games in Rio when Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia finished second in the marathon. At the finish line he crossed his raised arms in support of the Oromo people, a repressed minority in his country.
At the time of this writing, he still feared return to Ethiopia and might even seek asylum in the U.S.
The Lilesa Litigium calls to mind the Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 and the politics and protests of the 1936 Olympics in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin.
For while some say the Olympics soon becomes old news in the U.S. with the onset of the football season, the furor over the 1936 and 1968 Olympic controversies is rekindled at least every four years — sometimes to the anguish of those who focus on the pristine Citius, Altius, Fortius and Simone Biles for good measure!
Such review can be worthwhile in shedding light on our delusions, hopes and fears.
Consider 1936 in the context of a PBS documentary on those “games” which suggests many of us have been misled about what happened in Berlin. We’ve heard time and again that the games were a triumph for equality and a defeat for the Nazis as Jesse Owens ran and jumped to four gold medals, exposing the fraud of Hitler’s master race ideology.
• The Germans took 89 medals in 1936 to 56 for the U.S. The breakdown for gold, silver and bronze, all in the Nazis’ favor, was 33-24, 26-20 and 30-12. Hitler, Goering and Goebbels strutted.
• The Berlin Olympiad set the tone for contemporary “games” in terms of vast construction and national promotion. Even the spectacle of running the Olympic torch from Athens to Berlin was hatched to link the Third Reich with the glories of Greece. Olympic officials were so thrilled with the Berlin games that they invited the Nazis to host the 1940 winter games before WWII unpleasantries got in the way.
• Equality had its place on the Berlin oval, but not, say, in major league baseball for another dozen years or more.
• A key player in the Berlin games was Avery Brundage of the U.S. Olympic committee. He said there was little or no evidence of Nazi persecution of Jews and successfully maneuvered against any threatened boycott of the games. He parlayed the success of the games into his appointment to the International Olympic Committee and the IOC presidency from 1952-1972.
Decades after his triumph in Berlin, Brundage was to suspend Carlos and Smith from the U.S. team because of their salute at the 1968 medal ceremony for the 200 meters event. Just as in 1936 when there were concerns about Nazi ideology, in 1968 the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) demanded that South Africa and Rhodesia be banned from the games because of their racial policies. The nations were banned but OPHR opposition to Brundage as IOC chair went unheeded as did other concerns about racism. Two recollections:
• The press — including Brent Musburger who called Carlos and Smith “black-skinned storm troopers” — roundly vilified the athletes. Howard Cosell was about the only one to not do so. They suffered professionally, as did the Australian silver-medal winner in the 200, Peter Norman. He wore an OPHR badge in solidarity with Smith and Carlos. (Norman died in 2006; in 2012 members of the Australian Parliament praised him and apologized for his virtual banishment from track upon his return home in 1968.)
• I taught at the University of Kentucky the fall of 1968. When the UK football team went to play Ole Miss, as I recall, black players on the team had to stay in a hotel apart from their white teammates. But no one linked that with the Smith-Carlos protest.
What does one draw from all this and now the Lilesa episode and 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick — in Carlos-Smith fashion — protesting racism by not standing for the national anthem?
Maybe that if we want to be Citius, Altius and Fortius, Litigium can help.
Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.