Have the Olympics Made the World Better?


“The goal of the Olympic movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play” (“Fundamental Principles,” Olympic Charter).

Has this goal been achieved? Is mankind on the road to “a peaceful and better world” as espoused by the Olympic Charter? Let’s honestly look at just how successful the Olympics have been at peacemaking—from the inception of the games to the 25th Olympiad beginning September 15 in Sydney, Australia.

Olympic History

The ancient games were first held at Olympia, Greece, over 2,775 years ago. These games provided a forum for the Greeks to salute their pagan gods, principally Zeus, the mythological leading Olympian deity. A “sacred” flame burned continually on the altar of the goddess Hera. These games consisted of such sports as chariot racing, running, long jump, javelin, boxing, wrestling, discus and the pentathlon. Conducted every four years, the event was known as an olympiad. The ancient Olympics ended in a.d. 393 with the decree of Roman Emperor Theodosius and were only revived in 1896 after a gap of 1503 years.

In Paris on June 23, 1894, French educator Baron Pierre de Coubertin spoke to the International Athletic Congress. He proposed that every four years the games be revived on a worldwide scale promoting friendly competition. His proposal was enthusiastically received, and the modern Olympics were reborn. King George of Greece officially opened the 1896 games in Athens.

The framers of these modern games did not intend them as a forum for worship of pagan gods, but more a celebration of athletic talent. This ideal, however noble, was greatly compromised when the decision was made to feature on all three medals the image of a Hellenic goddess holding a laurel wreath with the Athens Colosseum in the background. In addition, the pagan “sacred” flame was revived and is known today as the Olympic torch.

Since their regeneration, the games have survived two world wars, Adolf Hitler, massacres, apartheid, communism, boycotts, riots, war, drug use, commercialization, corruption and terrorism. But have the Olympics achieved their goal of building a peaceful and better world?

From Depression to Hitler

The Olympics were popularized with the rapid development of radio and cinema between World Wars i and ii. Prior to this, facilities and funds for the reborn games were fairly spartan.

The Los Angeles games of 1932 were held amid the iron grip of the depression years. There was much public criticism over the cost of staging this major international event. With money so tight, the number of competing countries was down to only 34, with a total of 1500 competitors. Still, attendance soared well over the million mark. The Los Angeles Coliseum alone attracted crowds of over 100,000 on almost every day of competition, as the masses found brief escape in sports from their financial torment. Despite the depression, when the games were over, the organization committee declared a profit over $1 million.

Four years later, the 1936 games in Berlin brimmed with fascist, nationalistic undertones. The Nazis used the games as a forum to propagandize their millennial vision of a master race. With the introduction of television and the cinematic sound newsreel, Hitler was provided worldwide media attention to push his demoniacal views.

Writing on Page 34 of his book Gold, Gold, Gold, Olympic historian Norman May reviews these events. “Adolf Hitler and his lieutenant, Goebbels, launched a vast propaganda exercise to prove the supposed superiority of the Aryan race and the greatness of Germany as a country…. Hitler’s visions of the supremacy of the German ‘Master Race’ were frustrated by a softly spoken black American athlete named James Cleveland Owens.”

Jesse Owens was a superb athlete. That year he won four gold medals, in the 100 and 200 meters, long jump and the relay, shattering the “master race” theory. Despite the fact that the Germans won the most medals, Hitler and Goebbels lost the propaganda war, because the fastest man was not a white Aryan but a black American.

The games were cancelled in 1940 and 1944 due to the outbreak of World War ii. They resumed in 1948, hosted by the city of London, which was still emerging from the rubble of war. Notable absentees from these games were Germany and Japan, excluded from all international athletic competition for 12 years.

The Darkest Hours

Helsinki, Finland, was host in 1952 when the USSR unexpectedly entered the games and the International Olympic Committee (ioc) permitted them to build their own Olympic Village for their athletes. The USSR and USA dominated, winning 147 medals. These were the first “cold war” games, sowing seeds of political division that quickly grew, casting an ominous shadow over coming olympiads.

In 1956 the Australian city of Melbourne played host under the cloud of international crises in Hungary and the Middle East. The Netherlands and Spain pulled out in protest over the Hungarian situation. Egypt and Lebanon withdrew after demanding that nations “guilty of cowardly aggression against Egypt” (meaning Israel, Britain and France) should be expelled. China also withdrew in opposition to the “Republic of China” (Taiwan) being allowed to compete. The Melbourne games saw politics come to the fore as nations locked in the struggles of the cold-war era sought to use each olympiad for maximum publicity for their cause.

The breakup of colonial empires in the late 1950s and the subsequent emergence of new nations in Africa and elsewhere had their impact upon the Olympics. As the 1960s dawned, pressure was brought specifically upon the Republic of South Africa, which had, prior to 1960, fielded all-white teams. Consequently, South Africa was not invited to send a team to the 1960 games.

Both the ’60 Rome and ’64 Tokyo Olympics suffered furious athletic confrontation, most notably in the swimming events. Old-fashioned sportsmanship began to suffer under the strain of political expediency.

Mexico City was the seat of riotous unrest during the 1968 games. These were the days of student riots leaving several hundred dead in street fighting. Forty countries threatened to withdraw from the games. Reporting on these Olympics, Norman May recalled, “It would be hard to forget the atmosphere of the opening ceremony, with thousands of soldiers armed to the teeth with rifles and bayonets surrounding the stadium” (ibid., p. 83). The climate of the games in Mexico City demonstrated how the Olympics tend to reflect the darker side of human nature.

Thirty-four years after Hitler’s propaganda games, the Olympics returned to Germany in 1972 under the cloud of international racial animosity. The ioc expulsion of South Africa for racial prejudice in 1960 now threatened Rhodesia. Two weeks before these games, 20 countries threatened a boycott if white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was allowed to compete. Despite Rhodesia submitting to ioc demands of competing under the British national flag and anthem, the African pressure was too much and it was expelled.

The games then rapidly descended into a forum for political and physical assassination. The host city will be forever remembered for the most terrible event in modern Olympic history—the Munich Massacre.

Eight Arab commandos from the Black September group entered the Olympic Village and promptly took command of the Israeli team’s residence. After 20 hours of high drama, the crisis ended in a bloody shootout. Eleven Israeli athletes lay dead, and five of the terrorists had been killed by police.

The ioc quickly organized an official “Ceremony of Mourning.” With a packed crowd, this moment is best remembered for the deafening silence that gripped the stadium throughout the ceremony and the remainder of the Olympic events.

Boycotts, Money and Drugs

Four years after the Munich Massacre, the Olympic spirit still had not helped unify nations. The Montreal Games of 1976 heralded a new Olympic phenomenon: the boycott.

Tensions between China and Taiwan erupted. China unleashed a bevy of demands on the ioc. Taiwan was not to be permitted to compete under the name “Republic of China.” In addition, the Taiwanese would not be allowed to fly their international flag or play their national anthem. The U.S. retaliated to the demands by threatening to pull their entire team in protest. A compromise was quickly reached. Taiwan could fly its flag and play its anthem but it could not call itself “Republic of China.” Despite their athletes having already arrived in Montreal, the Taiwanese government refused the compromise and called them home.

On the heels of the China-Taiwan dispute, 20 African nations plus Guyana and Iraq threatened to boycott if New Zealand was allowed to participate. Their complaint centered on New Zealand’s Rugby Union tour of South Africa. Rugby had not been an Olympic sport since 1924, and the ioc had no jurisdiction over it. Dumbfounded by the demands, the ioc rejected them—and the 22 dissenting countries withdrew their 441 athletes the night before the opening ceremony.

Boycott fever continued in 1980 when the USSR played host. Russia spent over $3 billion on this event, twice the amount spent in Montreal. These games are best remembered for their disharmony and widespread Russian cheating.

The year before, Russia had invaded Afghanistan. This act of aggression prompted the United States to lead 40 other countries in the largest-ever boycott of the games. In support of the U.S. action, athletes from an additional 16 countries marched under the Olympic flag rather than their own.

In his speech during the closing ceremony, outgoing ioc President Lord Killanin appealed for calm: “I implore the sportsmen of the world to unite in peace before a holocaust descends…. The Olympic Games must not be used for political purposes…” (Plain Truth, July-August 1984). His appeal fell on deaf ears.

Reprisal action came four years later when 14 eastern-bloc nations, led by the USSR, boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles games.

Once again controversy erupted in 1984 as the usual African nations threatened to pull out if South Africa was admitted. This time their grievance was an English rugby tour of South Africa. The protest collapsed, and all dissenting African nations competed.

That same year representatives of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (plo), who gained world renown for their acts of terrorism, petitioned the ioc to allow them to field a team. The ioc refused. (In the end, however, terrorism won out; Palestine fielded a team in the 1996 Atlanta games, as they will do again this year in Sydney.)

Los Angeles will be most remembered as a “capitalist venture.” The games were staged without cost to the city. World television rights and historic sponsorship deals were struck with local, national and international companies. This commercialization turned the Olympics into a major money-making venture.

In 1988 the games were held in South Korea. These games would make a mockery of the Olympic motto, “Citus, altius, fortius” (faster, higher, stronger). The Seoul Olympics highlighted the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs. Many athletes tested positive to various drugs and were stripped of their medals, sent home and banned from international competition. This widespread doping cast suspicion over Olympic medals won by China and eastern-bloc nations, in particular the former East Germany, whose athletes have since admitted to using drugs to enhance their performance.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 heralded the end of the cold war and the emergence of the “hot peace.” The 1992 games in the Spanish city of Barcelona were a celebration of Eastern Europe’s liberation from the bootheel of communism. The games were conducted under the backdrop of the Yugoslav crisis. Bosnia-Herzegovina competed under its own flag, as Croats, under the leadership of Nazi-sympathizer Franjo Tudjman, fought to liberate themselves from Serbia. These games also scratched the surface of widespread corruption within the ioc and its international affiliates.

The 1996 Atlanta games once again highlighted American capitalism and razzle-dazzle hoopla at its very best. Television networks jostled to spend billions to obtain broadcast and sponsorship rights, breaking all previous records. Security at the games was placed under the microscope as a pipe bomb exploded in “Olympic Park,” killing one visitor and injuring 111 others.

The depth of corruption involved in the selection process for the choice of the Olympics city, which initially emerged in Barcelona, finally broke through the surface following the Atlanta games. Since that time a red-faced Salt Lake City was found to have provided bribes to ioc delegates in the selection of their city for the winter games. The business dealings of various Australian officials were also brought into question.

On September 15, 10,300 athletes from over 200 countries will descend “down under” to compete in the games of the 27th Olympiad in Sydney. Currently distracted by a faltering economy and embroiled in peacekeeping operations in East Timor, Australia now faces its native Aboriginals threatening to make their own political statement by marking the occasion with violent protests.

The Coming Solution

Events of history prove that the lofty Olympic ideals of Baron Pierre de Coubertin have been sacrificed on the altar of international politics. The Olympics center the world’s attention on a single location for two weeks. Since their regeneration, they have provided the perfect forum for nations to trumpet their national dogmas.

In short, the Olympic “spirit” has not changed the world. History reveals that the world has changed the Olympic Games. They remain a reflection of human nature, dominated by corruption, racial hatred, drugs and the extremes of competitiveness and greed.

Through 6,000 years of doing things his own way, man has proven that his “heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). The Baron’s dream was destined to be besmirched by man’s darker side.

Noted internationally as an unofficial ambassador for world peace, Herbert W. Armstrong identified the way to bring about a peaceful and better world. “The Olympic Games are based on the spirit of competition. This is contrary to the spirit of giving, sharing—of outgoing concern for the good or welfare of others. It is contrary to the way that causes peace. It is the way of human nature—of vanity, greed, desire for self-gain, self-reward. It is the way that has caused rivalry and wars.

“In our very present generation, world peace is going to come! How? By changing human nature! But that’s impossible, you say? By man, yes. But more than 1900 years ago Jesus Christ came with the most tremendous announcement this world has ever heard…. Few today know what it was” (Plain Truth, December 1972).

Herbert Armstrong dedicated his life to proclaiming the gospel of the coming Kingdom of God (Matt. 24:14). Soon man will live peacefully, happily and abundantly, trusting God with all his heart instead of leaning to his own understanding (Prov. 3:5).

The Olympic spirit of human nature will soon be changed, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, to His very nature. Giving, sharing and serving will break out on a unprecedented worldwide scale! Do you want to be a part of this coming solution? You can! To be set on the right course, you need to request a free copy of our booklet Human Nature—What Is It?

Very soon, using God’s loving family government, Jesus Christ will return to stop man’s inhumanity to man. Then, and only then, will there truly be a peaceful and better world.