Toward a Theory of Olympic Internationalism
John Hoberman University of Texas at Austin
“Well, all right then, let’s talk about the Chairman of the World. The world gets into a lot of trouble because it has no chairman. I would like to be Chairman of the World myself.” —E. B. White, Stuart Little (1945) “But when it comes to our age, we must have an automatic theocracy to rule the world.” —Sun Myung Moon (1973)
Back in 1967, Dr. Wildor Hollmann, one of Germany’s most prominent sports physicians and longtime president of the International Federation for Sports Medicine (FIMS), was visiting the International Olympic Academy at Olympia on the day of its annual inauguration, with King Constantine himself in attendance. Naively assuming that the Academy was an open forum for thinking about the past, present, and future of the Olympic movement, Dr. Hollmann expressed the view that, in the not-too-distant future. the “Olympic idea” itself would inevitably fall victim to the logic of development inherent in the professionalization and commercialization of elite sport. The words were hardly out of his mouth before Dr. Hollmann was engulfed in a storm of indignation, during which an Italian member of the IOC declared that merely expressing such thoughts was in his view nothing less than a desecration of this holy site.1 Olympic historiography has long been inseparable from the Movement’s status as a redemptive and inspirational internationalism. Like so many readings of its founder, Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), historical interpretations of the Olympic movement have generally taken the form of “either hagiographies or hagiolatries,” and not least because the founder himself “proclaimed Olympism beyond ideology.”2 Historical treatments of the Movement since the launching of that provocative claim have thus had no 1. W[ildor] Hollmann, “Risikofaktoren in der Entwicklung des Hochleistungssports.“ in H. Rieckert, ed. Sportmedizin—Kursbestimmung [Deutscher Sportärztekongreß Kiel. l6.-19. Oktober 1986] (Berlin: SpringerVerlag, 1987): 18. 2. John J. MacAloon, This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981): 2, 6.
Journal of Sport History, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Spring 1995)
choice but to embrace or call into question the transcendent status of Olympic sport that is symbolized so powerfully by opening and closing ceremonies that tap into deep and unfulfilled wishes for a Golden Age of harmony and peace. Due at least in part to the impassioned and seemingly endless debate between the defenders and detractors of “Olympism,” with its pronounced emphasis on ethical values at the expense of historical factors, serious study of the Olympic movement has stagnated. Recent monographs have presented familiar events and issues without much in the way of new research or methodological innovation.3 While the periodical literature of the past decade or so, including voluminous conference proceedings, has offered a wider range of perspectives, the conceptual landscape inhabited by the historian has not really changed in significant ways. This closed circulatory system of topics and problems has rigidified the important debate over values by limiting our understanding of the object of contention—the Olympic movement itself. The arguments between supporters and critics of the Movement that tend to dominate discussion naturally proceed from the assumption that both actually know what the Movement is or, at least, what it is worth to the international community. Yet the sheer complexity of the Olympic phenomenon suggests there is much more to know even without entering the domain of ethnographical research. I would propose that the production of this knowledge depends on reconceptualizing the Olympic movement in fundamental ways. This essay proposes a theory of Olympic internationalism based on a comparative...