Monday, May 5, 2008

Worst Olympics Ever?

Susan Brownell, the author of Training the Body for China, the leading scholarly work on Chinese sports, has a post in The China Beat that provides historical context for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. She sees a close parallel with an earlier Olympic Games, and it's not the Nazi Games.

For multiple reasons, I do not subscribe to the current fad for drawing parallels between the 1936 "Hitler" Games and the 2008 Beijing Games. If one is looking for actual historical connections, then I would argue that the 104-year connection between the U.S. and China through Olympic sports, which dates back to the 1904 St. Louis Olympic Games, is today exerting a much greater influence on the shape of the Beijing Olympics than is the legacy of a now-defunct German regime.

The third modern Olympic Games were held in St. Louis in 1904 alongside the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (world’s fair), and while China did not take part in the sports (it would send its first Olympic athlete to the 1932 Los Angeles Games), the Qing dynasty sent the first official delegation that it had ever sent to an international exposition. It was motivated to do so by concerns about the negative national image of China promoted by the unofficial exhibits at previous fairs, such as the opium den exhibit at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The 1904 Olympics were apparently the first Olympics to be reported in the press back in China.

The world’s fair was America’s coming-out party as a world power. It had just acquired the former Spanish colonies of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam as a result of the Spanish-American war in 1898. At the fair, it presented itself as an expanding power, with an extremely large display devoted to the Philippines. Another large section of the exposition grounds was devoted to displays intended to demonstrate that the government was succeeding in civilizing American Indians.

[A particular embarrassment was] the Anthropology Days, in which natives who had been brought to the fair for the ethnic displays competed in some track and field events and pole-climbing, and their performances were unfavorably compared with those of the "civilized" men who took part in the Olympic Games.

It's surprising stuff for someone - like me - who had known nothing about the 1904 Games. Her entire post has much more, and it makes a convincing case that the St. Louis Olympics of 1904 is the best historical key to understanding the Beijing Olympics of 2008.

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