Against the “Olympic Spirit”

23 July, 2021

The flame, symbol of the Olympic Spirit in the Tokyo Stadium
The flame, symbol of the Olympic Spirit in the Tokyo Stadium

With minutes to go until the opening of the Tokyo Olympics, preparations are being finalized in an atmosphere of disorganization, half-baked planning, protests, contagions, dismissals, corruption and grotesque propaganda. But even if these games were to be a paragon of organizational perfection, the “Olympic curse” of which the Japanese press speaks would still be at work because the real curse is the “Olympic Movement” itself and its ideology: the famous “Olympic Spirit.”

Table of Contents

The “revolution of manners” and the historical roots of the “Olympic Spirit”

Bourgeois “respectability” stops the universalization of German gymnasiums in the first instance

The German "gymnasia" movement pushes forward the union of nationalism and physical exercise that will reappear as "Olympic spirit" decades later
The German “gymnasia” movement pushes forward the union of nationalism and physical exercise that will reappear as “Olympic spirit” decades later

The emergence of sport as an ideology and specifically as part of nationalist ideology can be safely dated to the Gymnasium movement (German high schools) which arose in response to the Napoleonic invasion. It is originally – and will remain so throughout the 19th century – a paramilitary movement seeking to create national citizens preparing them for the defense of the fatherland. A muscular, militaristic, adolescent version of what Herder and Fichte were doing in schools at the same time.

But the exaltation of sport, which will crystallize later in the Olympic Spirit is not the offspring of that impulse. The gymnasium responds to concrete German conditions, to the need for permanent affirmation of a bourgeoisie that is unable to impose national unification on its own terms.

Neither the gymnasts nor the shooters who accompany them in the myriad nationalist parades and choreographies, will succeed in other countries. The shooters because not even they themselves considered that they were doing sport, but a half-finished rehearsal of the National Guard. Gymnastics, on the other hand, because it clashed directly with the new public morality that was on the rise after the Revolution and for which physical contact, fraternal promiscuity and bodily display were not respectable things.

The concept of respectability had been born in the early 19th century among the British bourgeoisie – coming from the Puritan and Calvinist tradition – as an attempt to assert a social and ideological space of its own between the gentrified aristocracy that made up the ruling class on the one hand and the popular classes on the other, namely the petty bourgeoisie, the artisan class, the peasantry and the young proletariat that was developing in the cities. Quickly, the new public morality was mirrored in Protestant Germany and echoed in France.

The adoption of this public morality as a sign of identity by the petty bourgeoisie gave way to its own process of secularization, which we have already discussed in relation to the USA. Physicians then took over the role of churches and enlightened ideologues engaged in defining what was socially normative.

With them the Protestant idea of moral degeneracy-originally applied to Catholicism and Catholic countries-would turn into racial and social degeneracy and apply as much to sexual behaviors and preferences as to physical appearance. Racial types and sexual behavior will form a single package scientifically enshrined and associated with national identity.

It is then – in the first half of the 19th century – that xenophobia, racism, sexism and anti-Semitism, without completely eliminating the imaginaries inherited from the Ancien Régime, took on a specifically bourgeois and contemporary form that makes them very different from their feudal forms.

This is the time for instance when it ceases to be considered natural for women of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie to run the family business at the death of their husbands or to participate in the management of the workers. The bourgeois woman ceases to stroll daily through the workshop in order to do so through the garden – which is no longer an orchard – confines her power to the house and her direct command to the domestic service.

The revolt of the petty bourgeoisie’s customs and the limits of respectability

Marjorie Annan Bryce dressed as Joan of Arc at the coronation festivities, an image that became common in feminist activism. The idea of a "new chivalry" was also catching on in the "Olympic spirit."
Marjorie Annan Bryce dressed as Joan of Arc at the coronation festivities, an image that became common in feminist activism. The idea of a “new chivalry” was also catching on in the “Olympic spirit.”

Starting in the 1870s, a series of movements – some with roots in earlier decades – will challenge this narrow version of bourgeois morality. In previous articles we have approached the origins of juvenalism in Germany, of American and British feminism and even the rise of the vegetarian societies. Along with the new forms of spirituality proliferating at the same time, the new teaching methods developing with the century and the gay-affirmation movement that would appear in interwar Germany, they intertwined and formed part of a common whole.

With historical perspective we can see them as expressions of the transformations of the petty bourgeoisie and its expectations in the dawn and early stages of development of imperialism as a historical stage. But in the eyes of his contemporaries, these were movements of youth revolt that sought to expand the boundaries of bourgeois respectability.

In that respect, they are united by different forms of reconsideration of the body: bodily expression appears in educational science, the ability of bourgeois women to manage workers and businesses is vindicated, sun tanning ceases to be a thing of the poor, desexualized nudity becomes a sign of freedom, hygiene and diet become healthy, collective ancestral dances are recovered – and invented – and the clothing of the bourgeois classes becomes comfortable.

The obsession with “bodies” of today’s identitarians and “post-modernists” comes from there. Yet, women could work before Victorian morality was called into question – there were millions of proletarian women – clothing did not prevent movement – workers of both sexes would not have been able to work in the factory or in the fields – and there were physical games or mass dances…. It was just that for that generation of the petty bourgeoisie all of these were worker’s things.

The texts of a Sabino Arana against the “repulsive” “baile agarrao” of those same workers whom he associated with moral and racial “degeneration” give a belated example of the class logic under bourgeois respectability that these sectors of the petty bourgeoisie itself wanted to broaden without really calling it into question.

The ideologies of the petty bourgeoisie gravitate toward nationalism

The relationship between youth, sport and militarization, later exploited by fascism, is forged during the "revolution of customs" and will take on its own ideological form in the "Olympic spirit."
The relationship between youth, sport and militarization, later exploited by fascism, is forged during the “revolution of customs” and will take on its own ideological form in the “Olympic spirit.”

Like any movement that seeks to push boundaries without questioning the very thing that creates them, the “revolution” of customs that juvenalists, feminists, nudists, vegetarians, eugenicists, theosophists and others attempted to promote sought to legitimize itself by reaffirming a common ground with the established order. Ultimately they denounced the hypocrisy of bourgeois morality and its criteria of respectability, they did not reject capitalism and the exploitation of labor. As an alternative they could not go beyond proposing a purified, more authentic, more inclusive version… of the same thing

And the way to show this will be to exaggerate all other trappings of respectability. Anglo-Saxon feminists rejected anything barely working class-looking or sounding and exaggerated the signs of purity and chastity – hence the use of purple as the movement’s color and the incorporation of Joan of Arc, the maiden, as a symbol; the publications of the early gay-affirming movement in Weimar Germany were virulently anti-Semitic to reinforce that gays and lesbians were serious and conservative people; the Wandervogels combined anti-Semitism with the rejection of female membership…

In the end the implicit common ground could only emerge and be reinforced: all were to regroup and find themselves competing, coalescing or merging in a thousand ways around the idealized form of national capital: the homeland, the nation.

The juvenalists, fused with and reinforced by the latest gymnastic movement, accompanied by the nudists and the new fashion of mountain climbing, will claim that the petty-bourgeois youth – freed from the guilt of past generations and regenerated by physical exercise – will build on fraternity and Nature the foundations of a purifying national revival.

The eugenicists will give the nation a biological excuse and supposedly scientific basis for the longed-for purity; the theosophists and their thousand derivatives, ubiquitous like vegetarianism in all sauces, will create for the nation-race a spiritualist mythology.

Radical pedagogues, such as Maria Montessori who would drink from and accompany the Italian Futurists, make their own the elitist discourse of what will soon be called fascism and unashamedly present themselves as incubators of leaders for the nation they seek to rejuvenate… that is, to use as an ideology for the counterrevolution the patriotic revolutionism of the petty bourgeoisie.

And, of course, the feminists, who had been the pioneers in recruiting for the imperialist slaughter and exhibiting as liberation the military framing, will see in the new war that looms under the defeats of the workers the best opportunity of their history.

Under the moral journey of the petty bourgeoisie, the passage of capitalism towards imperialism and decadence

"Paris a sangre y fuego", one of the first stories about the Paris Commune in 1871 published in Spain. Its cover included the new political image of the proletarian woman that was born in those days and that profoundly upsets the bourgeois idea of "respectability."
“Paris a sangre y fuego”, one of the first stories about the Paris Commune in 1871 published in Spain. Its cover included the new political image of the proletarian woman that was born in those days and that profoundly upsets the bourgeois idea of “respectability.”

In the fifty years between the massacre of the Paris Commune (1871) and the March on Rome (1921) the petty bourgeoisie did not create and rehearse all that ideological soup, often profoundly delusional, by chance.

In 1871 the proletariat appeared for the first time as the hegemonic class of society. However brief the flash was, it was clear that the proletariat was no longer the tail of the democratic petty bourgeoisie. That decade also saw the first signs that capitalism was entering a new phase: imperialism, the prelude to the end of its historically progressive stage in which the major trends of what will become its decadent period are already showing.

The petty-bourgeois revolutionarism becomes increasingly in open conflict with the workers’ movement. See the struggle of the left of the Second International against feminism, against pacifism, against Zionism and the nationalisms of the irredentist European nations, etc.

Until, with the outbreak of imperialist war and revolution, the camps violently diverge: the nationalist revolutionarism of the petty bourgeoisie becomes the backbone of the ideologies of counterrevolution – fascism and stalinism. They absorb, each in its own way, the elements inherited from the decades of revolution of the customs into the aesthetics and moral discourse of a state capitalism that presents itself as a rejuvenation but which is nothing but the grotesque expression of the same tendencies toward concentration and militaristic centralization of war capitalism and imperialist monopoly.

That is, the revolution of customs of those 50 years was for the petty bourgeoisie the way to find a new place in a capitalism that was becoming anti-historical.

From the fear of the Commune to the “Olympic Spirit”

Pierre de Coubertin at the time he writes the "English Education" and begins to outline the ideology of the "Olympic Spirit."
Pierre de Coubertin at the time he writes the “English Education” and begins to outline the ideology of the “Olympic Spirit.”

That is the historical framework in which we can understand the Olympic Spirit. As we have already seen with feminism, the petty bourgeoisie increasingly incorporates elements of chivalric spirit and the exaltation of sacrifice into its political and cultural expressions. While pushing the limits of bourgeois respectability, they nostalgically rediscover values of the ruling class of the Ancien Régime. Little by little, the revolution of customs converges in a great project for the moral reform of the bourgeoisie on the basis of feudal heroic values and nationalism that we will later see synthesized in all its splendor in fascism.

The Pierre de Coubertin, later creator of the Olympic Spirit, is almost parodic of the expectations of the petty bourgeoisie of the time: equally afraid of capitalist concentration – represented by the aristocracy of finance and of the Commune, desire for a return back in time to a more stable and orderly world in which class boundaries would be as stable as under feudal corporatism, and recourse to the state and the education of elites as leverage to achieve this.

Thus, as French sports historians point out, the most remarkable thing about Coubertin in his pursuit of a new “Chivalry of sport”, is that he recovers the legitimist thinking, that is to say, the legitimism of feudal reaction, to mix it with bourgeois and conservative republicanism.

Before becoming the inventor of the modern Olympic Games (1894), Pierre de Coubertin’s political action focused on sports education.

Driven by the spirit of social reform, forged by a culture of the Ancien Régime, but attached to the Republic, Coubertin’s mission is to transform the French educational system by generalizing the practice of sport in schools. His goal is to educate the young adolescent of the affluent class, to turn him into a man who would perform well in industrial society and above all animated by moral principles (Brohm 2008 p. 45).

He grants this social role to sport: he considers it capable of bringing good values to the elites and, in ultimate instance,of building a liberal Republic, protected from revolutionary dangers, after the defeat of 1870 and the Commune (Clastres 2004).

This social project is a continuation of the work of two French thinkers who contributed to his intellectual and political formation: Frédéric le Play and Alexis de Tocqueville (Boulongne 1975, Clastres 2005). Although divergent in their political affiliation, Tocqueville, the republican, and Le Play, the legitimist, situate their thought in a common, conservative and liberal issue – the restoration of social order (Tréanton 1984, Castel 1999 p. 390, Jaume 2008 p. 86-91) – which finds its foundations in Burke and Montesquieu (Aron 1960, Dion 1967, Colonel de Boissezon 2007).

Following the tradition of these historian-sociologists, Coubertin undertakes to continue the analysis of customs and institutions. Following in the footsteps of Tocqueville, Taine and Le Play, he travels, studies manners, compares societies and distinguishes good practices from bad, always leaving in his wake an “aftertaste of noblesse oblige“.

Une chevalerie sportive ” mise au service de la responsabilité sociale : généalogie du projet politique de Pierre de Coubertin, Shirine Sabéran

On his travels he discovers in the educational establishments of the British ruling class – still basically a gentrified aristocracy – an original fusion of nobiliary and bourgeois values shaping a new generation of children of industrial and financial capital through character building.

He lays out his conclusions in a pamphlet, English Education (1887) in which he presents Muscular Christianity as the pedagogy needed by the sons of the French ruling class to become “Christian gentlemen”. He quotes profusely from Thomas Arnold, headmaster of the Rugby School and “father of present-day English education” when the Englishman asserts that his aim is “to teach children to govern themselves […] [rather than] to govern them well myself.”

Coubertin has no qualms about stating that his own aims are Arnold’s, namely that “future masters” learn to “know their power” in order to put it at the service of social order, and he quotes rapturously the vindication of the feudal chivalric ethic that Arnold sees in the Muscular Christians:

They have inherited the ancient chivalric maxim that the body of man should be well exercised and developed by its master and then serve for the protection of the weaker, for the advancement of all just causes and for the conquest of the world.

Arnold quoted by Coubertin

But it is not only a lyrical moment, Coubertin always keeps in mind that the function of exercise and sport is the creation of a feeling of group fraternity and class belonging among the children of the propertied classes. He shows, as early as 1887, all the features of the militarization of the state bourgeoisie that will develop in fascist and stalinist rhetoric.

Games are a perfect ground for social education […] [the students] contribute, elect their leader, and then obey him in a remarkable spirit of discipline.

Coubertin, who a few years later would assert that “the healthy sporting spirit of a young generation prepares for national success,” soon aspires to project this fraternity of the ruling classes into a fraternal competition of national elites among themselves. We are at the dawn of the Olympic Spirit.

Olympic Spirit, Olympic Peace

Organizing committee of the first Olympiad (1896). Coubertin materializes the "Olympic spirit", i.e. the fraternal competition between the "fratrias" that university sport forms in the ruling classes of each country
Organizing committee of the first Olympiad (1896). Coubertin materializes the “Olympic spirit”, i.e. the fraternal competition between the “fratrias” that university sport forms in the ruling classes of each country

The reference to classical Greece which comes to mind in the idea of reinventing the Olympics from a nationalist logic is by no means accidental. The reinvention of the body of the German gymnastic movement, which would later revive in juvenalism and naturism, had taken the Greek male beauty as the physical model of the national hero. More importantly, it had exalted the exclusively male fraternity of athletic practice as preparation for the maximum sacrifice in patriotic warfare.

More importantly, the fraternity of gymnasts, like that of Coubertin’s Olympic Spirit is a class fraternity. As in classical Greece the slaves were not invited to it. That’s why Coubertin will boldly fight against the professionalization of sport and its games throughout his life. Not because he rejected their commodification, but because he feared the dissolution of the class identity they promoted.

In this sense the reference to the Olympic Peace, a truce that the original Games imposed between the ruling classes of the Greek city-states, is fundamental to understanding the Olympic Spirit. Coubertin, through fraternal competition between fraternities of knights wants to recover chivalry in war and conflicts between states. There begins and ends the internationalism of the bourgeoisie. But if competition is opened up to professional athletes, the only way workers can manage to pay their own travel and training costs, the social purpose of the Games is lost.

Olympic spirit, imperialism and exploitation

Organizing committee of the first Olympiad (1896). Coubertin materializes the "Olympic spirit", i.e. the fraternal competition between the "fratrias" that university sport forms in the ruling classes of each country
“Chariots of Fire” (1981), a good cinematic reference on the use of sport and the “Olympic Spirit” as a tool of nationalist propaganda during the interwar period.

This is not to say that the Olympic Spirit does not have a face for the lower classes. No ideology of the imperialist phase can be exclusively for the internal consumption of the bourgeoisie and the ruling classes at a time when they are merging with the state. It is quite a different matter whether the Olympic Spirit is universal. Coubertin writes in 1920, in the midst of the World Revolution:

For the bourgeois youth and the proletarian youth to drink from the same source of muscular joy, that is the essential thing; for them to meet again, something that today happens only accidentally. From this source will spring, for one as for the other, social good mood: the only state that can authorize for the future the hope of an effective collaboration.

Pedagogy of sport. Coubertin, 1920

We might think on reading it that the petty bourgeoisie represented by Coubertin is still in its utopia of class collaboration. But make no mistake. The terms of that collaboration have nothing to do with those originally put forward by a Fourier, an Owen or a Godin.

In the discourse of the Olympic Spirit that Coubertin has already well rehearsed in 1920, the class struggle is “the product of an agglomeration of tense fountains of rage” for which “sport is the greatest appeaser that exists.” Significantly, he is thinking, and he says so openly citing a New York example, of the earliest expressions of sport as spectacle.

On the contrary, Coubertin and his context provide a key to understanding the nationalist orgy of mass sports in the 1930s. Just as he does not oppose the universalization of the practice of mass sports, either among the workers or in the colonies.

In fact he clearly sees sport as a form of domination. In Sport and Colonization, he rejects the idea that organizing sports games with natives might encourage them to rebel by feeling stronger. In the same way as vis-à-vis the workers, he thinks that vis-à-vis the colonists “sports are a vigorous instrument of discipline” that promote among the dominated “hygiene and cleanliness, order and self-control.”

None of this is contradictory either with the pedagogy for the ruling classes or with the rejection of professionalization espoused by the Olympic Spirit, simply because they are part of two segregated spheres, two applications of the same principle. The ruling classes need self-discipline to direct and exploit, the dominated classes to obey and produce. Mass sport is useful… to redirect the social rage of the masses… but it has nothing to do with the Olympics or with the promotion of fraternal competition within the ruling class.

Thus, Coubertin’s vision of the working classes and the natives confirms his elite positions and highlights a differentiated pedagogy for the use of the different classes of society: The first, placed at the service of the elites, is intended for the learning of self-governmentand freedom. The second, at the service of the popular classes and colonized peoples, is intended for learning self-control, obedience and discipline.

Une chevalerie sportive ” mise au service de la responsabilité sociale : généalogie du projet politique de Pierre de Coubertin, Shirine Sabéran

The Curse of the Olympic Spirit

The Japanese military exercises today over the Tokyo Olympic stadium preparing for Friday's opening. Pure "Olympic Spirit."
The Japanese army exercises today on the Olympic stadium in Tokyo in preparation for the inauguration on Friday.

The fantasy of turning the ruling class into a fraternity through sport and a parallel education system of their own cannot be said to have been entirely utopian. They are not a fraternity, but undoubtedly the school segregation of classes contributes to create the ties, complicities and networks that informally articulate the bourgeoisie in its control of the productive apparatus and the state in all the countries of the world.

Coubertin himself would have to recognize that today the Olympic Spirit lives more in the business schools and exchange programs of private universities than in the games themselves. The bourgeoisie prioritized while he was still alive the usefulness of international competitions as a framing tool for nationalism and preparation for war.

But not in the way Coubertin dreamed: except in minority and little-followed sports, the exploited do not go to the Olympic stadium to applaud the gentlemanly sporting conquests of their national masters, but to follow professional athletes with whom they can identify.

At the end of the day, the athletes we will see competing on television will not be gentlemen imbued with the Olympic spirit, but people trained through repetitive exercises to exhaustion and drugged up to give the maximum of their muscular capacity. They will compete in an analogy of warfare as national teams, but they will work their butts off in the hope of being recruited by big brands and state sponsorships. Isn’t competitive sport a metaphor for life?

The curse is the Olympic Spirit and what it sells today, the poisonous brew of all nationalism. What it has to offer us, the example they say the athletes offer us, is nothing other than self-improvement and discipline for the sake of national capital. Life degraded and reduced to marching and overcoming until burning out, framed in national battalions, ready for sacrifice and oblivion. And in the VIP box, the true fraternity of the Olympic Spirit, proud of its successes, always fearful that the stands and the court will raise their heads and rebel against the real rules of the game.