In 1936, Adolf Hitler professed the ideas of Aryan supremacy, promoting the view that these specimens were best suited for world domination. What better platform to demonstrate that so-called physical mastery than the Olympic Games to be held that year in Berlin?
Immersed in his blindness, Hitler left out something important: sport knows no race or country. That was proven when a six-foot tall and 165-pound African-American man took home the gold in the 100m, in long jump track, in the 200m race and in the 4x100m relay race. Jesse Owens, a name that was written in the history of sports and politics that August, made the world, and his own country, where he also faced discrimination, understand four times, that heart, dedication and physical focus will prevail over any bias.
After all, that’s what Olympic Games are all about: to make the access to glory more democratic. From its beginnings in ancient Greece, its main goal has been for the path to success to be the same for all participants, regardless of their social status. It is the story of the underdogs with great heart who prevail in adversity, the ones who rise from the ashes like the Phoenix, achieving what seems impossible with the body and the mind.
In its first games, held in 776 BC, the speed race was also won by a man who was discriminated against in his daily life: a baker with very few resources named Coroebus, from the Greek district of Elis. His victory in the event called “the Stadion,” a competition requiring the athlete to run throughout the 192.27 m of the stadium, championed the ultimate goal behind the creation of this event, equality, where the best athlete would be declared winner through fair play, without the benefit of social status.
In the beginning, the so-called Ancient Olympic Games were a relatively simple issue: they were held every four years in the city of Olympia, lasted one day, and always coincided with the first full moon after the summer solstice. As early as 472 B.C., the games attracted participants from neighboring areas, such as Laconia, Arcadia and Messenia. During the classical period, it had events such as pentathlon, sprinting, boxing, two-wheeled cart racing, horseback riding and the pankration fighting –a fighting style similar to current mixed martial arts–. The games were extended to up to six days.
These competitions were held to honor Zeus, the King of Olympian Gods. Olympia had the largest shrine dedicated to the king of the mythological gods. With this virtuous intent, the winners only obtained a single award: an olive branch crown. But of course, back in their own cities they were treated as heroes, and in recognition of their achievements, they received financial support from the nobles. The spirit of unity was so great that during the Games, the Olympic Truce was established, a suspension in armed conflicts throughout the region, so that the athletes could travel to the events venue and return in peace to their homes in the polis and the Greek colonies in the Mediterranean.
With the arrival of Christianity to the area in 393 A.D., all pagan celebrations were banned, including this tradition more than eleven centuries old.
THE OLYMPIC FEELING IS ONCE AGAIN IGNITED
In the late 19TH century, this sense of brotherhood, democratization of sports, and Olympic peace was relit; the Greeks had revived their national games, with a gathering in 1870 at the newly renovated Panathinaikó Stadium in Athens, featuring a crowd of 30,000 people. However, years later, a visionary understood that the Olympic Games had the power to extend across Greek borders.
Pierre de Fredy, Baron de Coubertin, a French aristocrat and pedagogue, undertook the task of expanding the Games to the world, trying to promote equality at a time when sports were exclusive to the wealthier class. For example, in Britain, where he lived, rowing competitions explicitly excluded members of the lower class.
Through diplomatic work, Coubertin formed the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and he saw the Games as an opportunity to promote unity and integration not only among citizens of a country, but among many nations. After many obstacles, and financial constraints, Greece was going through financial dire straits and political conflicts, and as remnants of the Franco-Prussian War, the French did not want to be present in the same place as the Germans, the Olympics returned home in 1896, but this time with the participation of 241 athletes from 14 countries. During the opening ceremony, on April 6TH, the Panathinaikó Stadium was overflowing with 80,000 people. The winners received silver medals stamped with the image of Zeus, together with an olive leaf.
The Olympic flame was once again lit all over the world.
The success of this first event, however, was not replicated in the second edition, held in Paris, where the IOC headquarters was located. Carried out within the Universal Exhibition, they were confused with sports exhibitions and without exclusive opening and closing ceremonies; they did not shine like the first ones. However, they made history as the first Olympic Games with female participation in archery and tennis. The arrival of women represented a milestone that even went against Coubertin’s wishes, who was radically opposed to their presence in the competitions, alleging that this threatened the historical origin of the Games. This version of the Games also debuted the first black athlete, Franco-Haitian Constantin Henríquez de Zubiera, who played for the French rugby team.
The number of athletes and countries increased in Saint Louis 1904 and London 1908, as well as the inclusion of technological measures to ensure accurate results, for example the photo finish and the use of the chronometer which were introduced in Stockholm 1912.
THE GAMES AS A REFLECTION OF CONFLICT
The Olympic peace achieved in Ancient Greece had no counterpart in modern times. Therefore, the only international competition that took place in 1916 was among the military forces of the countries involved in World War I. The Games resumed in 1920 in Antwerp, with the participation of 29 nations and the exclusion of Germany, Austria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Poland and the Soviet Union, because of their roles in the conflict. The number of nations and competitors rose in the Paris Games four years later and the growing interest in them took to Amsterdam 1928 the first of a group of names that would eventually contribute to the growth of the Olympic Games. That year Coca-Cola became the first sponsor of the event.
After a low attendance event in Los Angeles 1932, the Berlin 1936 represented a golden opportunity for Hitler to promote his ideology of white supremacy, until Owens and his 4 medals proved him wrong.
The Games as it occurred during the Second World War, have served to reflect financial and political situations that transcend sports, as it happened in 1940 and 1944 when the celebrations were suspended, and upon returning to London in 1948, without the participation of Germany or Japan, an austere event took place, similar to Antwerp 1920. But they have also shed light on these conflicts: in Munich in 1972, the same Games where the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, kidnapped and killed 11 Israeli athletes to demand the release of 234 prisoners in Israel, Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut made diplomatic magic between two other conflicting nations.
After her spectacular routine on the uneven bars, where the petite 17-year-old Olga Korbut did an outstanding backbend, she and her team gymnasts were invited to the White House. The Americans went mad with her style, and hundreds of girls across the country went to their local gyms to try to imitate her. There, in the midst of the Cold War, the then-President Richard Nixon said, “You did more for the U.S – Soviet Union relations with your participation in Munich, than the embassies were able to do in five years.”
In the following Games in Montreal 1976, while another gymnast of the Soviet Bloc, Romanian Nadia Comăneci was the star scoring the first perfect 10 in the sport, more than 20 nations withdrew from the event as a boycott against apartheid, in protest to the New Zealand rugby team having played in South Africa. Also, 65 nations withdrew from the 1980 Moscow Games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; China also joined the boycott due to political tensions between the two countries. Four years later, in Los Angeles 1984, the countries of the Soviet Bloc boycotted the event. By then, 140 nations were already participating in the Olympic Games.
Among these countries was the Dominican Republic, obtaining the first medal in the history of its Olympic participation, which had begun 20 years earlier. In a fight against the South Korean Sung-Kil Moon, boxer Pedro Julio Nolasco won the bronze for the Caribbean nation.
“That medal was a reference not only for the country but for Latin America,” recalls the former president of the Dominican Boxing Federation, Bienvenido Solano. “Back then, sport did not have as much support as it has now, and Pedro Julio’s medal sent a message to Dominican youth, that when you have talent, work hard and put great effort into things, you can get very far.”
After all, sports also have the ability to send positive messages in times of conflict.
THE OTHER IMPACT OF THE OLYMPICS
Los Angeles 1984 was also memorable for another reason. “These games marked a breakthrough in commercialization and marketing, with impressive work by the United States, with total investment made by the private sector to organize the Games,” says Roosevelt Comarazamy, a Dominican TV journalist and broadcaster of eight previous Olympic Games. “From there on, the Games have been a money-making machine.”
In fact, this situation was obvious in Barcelona 1992. Per estimates made by Spanish newspaper “20 Minutos”, the Games had a cost of 6.728 million Euros, but its overall economic impact was of 18.678 million, catapulting Catalonia’s economy to impressive levels. Thanks to the private sector’s participation, the Games were no longer just a tool for promoting international brotherhood, but also financial gain. However, there have been cases where the Games represented a financial burden for the host country, as was the case of Athens 2004, whose celebration later caused a huge financial crisis that still affects the Hellenic nation to this day. What would Pierre de Coubertin think of this reality compared to the modest beginnings of the modern-day Olympic Games?
Or even more: What would he think of the fact that his little project, after years of success, returned to Greece in 2004, this time with 10,625 athletes from 201 nations? For the Dominican Republic, of all its participants, 14 stand out: Félix Sánchez, who won a gold medal in the 400m hurdles, Gabriel Mercedes, who took fifth place in taekwondo and the 12 members of the women’s volleyball team, who in their first Olympics climbed to 11TH place on the board. Four years later in Beijing 2008, Félix Díaz brought home the gold in boxing, and Gabriel Mercedes would win a silver medal on the tatami.
In London 2012, the country cried tears of joy with Félix Sánchez when, after years of decline, he won his second gold medal, becoming the oldest athlete to win an Olympic gold in the 400m hurdles at the age of 34. And the same day, Luguelín Santos, a promising 18-year-old athlete, showed that his future had already arrived: in his first Olympic Games he won silver in the 400m.
The Rio 2016 Games, the first-ever held in South America, came at a time when Brazil faced a complicated situation with the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, and the financial crisis resulting from the so-called Operation Lava Jato, a money laundering scheme of more than 10 billion Brazilian Reals. On top of that, many Northern Hemisphere athletes were absent due to the widespread presence of the Zika virus in the nation.
Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, referring to the implosive political situation in Brazil just before the Olympics, compared the event with “a couple receiving a home visit immediately after a fight.” However, as one of the anthems of the city says, o Rio de Janeiro continua lindo. “The marvelous city” emerged victorious, and on its sports fields the world received several lessons about the new world order.
Two of those lessons came from the pool, and not necessarily from the legendary Michael Phelps, who with 28 Olympic medals is the most decorated athlete in the history of the event. The first lesson, which was positive, came from Chinese athlete Fu Yuanhui, who with her expressive personality and transparency on the effects of the menstrual cycle during her performance, unveiled a new face of the Asian giant: that of a generation that thanks to globalization and financial growth, is changing the phrase “Made in China” to “Designed in China”, focusing on innovation instead of cheap manufacturing.
The second lesson, which was negative, came from the American Ryan Lochte, who sought to conceal a night of drinking and vandalism with a made-up story about robbery at gunpoint on the streets of Rio. The city authorities quickly presented evidence of the falsehood of Lochte’s statements, and the world repudiated the athlete, a first-world citizen, who believed he could trample the law in a developing nation. In a diplomatic slap, Brazil represented all of the underrated developing nations, and the millions of people who followed the Lochte saga got to know a little advertised side of Latin America.
A third great lesson came from the British, with a record performance that won second place overall on the medal board, and raised national sentiment after a low post-Brexit time. They demonstrated that the investment plan in sports and strategic athletes which began some years earlier, worked out for the best. The #TeamGB gave 67 reasons why focusing on sports in the long-term is a plan that bears fruit.
Something similar is happening in the Dominican Republic, with combined strategies and contributions from the public and private sectors. The joint efforts of the Dominican government, through the Ministry of Sports and the Creating Olympic Dreams (CRESO) program, has opened the possibilities for Dominican athletes to stand out, which is evident in the fact that at least one Dominican has finished on the podium in the last four Olympics.
With joint actions like these, and thanks to the natural determination of Dominicans, medals will surely keep on coming.
NEW TEAMS, NEW ATHLETES
At the opening ceremony of the Maracaná, the team of 10 refugee athletes received a standing ovation, in recognition for their efforts to overcome the political difficulties of their countries. Besides this inclusion, the International Olympic Committee also decided to allow transsexual athletes to compete in events governed by the organization, demonstrating an action of openness and tolerance that far exceeds the reality that exists in hundreds of countries.
THE PARTICIPATION OF DISABLED ATHLETES
As part of the integration and equality spirit promoting the Olympic ideal, in 1960, the Paralympic Games were created. Since then, every summer of Olympic Games the games for athletes with disabilities also take place.
That first Paralympic Games were held in Rome, with the participation of 400 hundred athletes from 23 countries. In Rio, the participation was 4,333 competitors representing 159 nations plus the refugee athletes represented by the Independent Paralympic Athletes (IPA) team.