The Aestheticization of Politics at the Olympic Games

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By Eric Wright

Disclaimer: I am an athlete and sports fan, despite what this article may lead you to believe.

The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics has been embroiled in controversy from the start.  The games will be the most corrupt in history based on dollar value, with an estimated one third of the games’ $51 billion price tag attributable to corruption. Then there is the ongoing controversy over whether Russia should have been awarded the games in the first place given its homophobic laws against “gay propaganda.”  Added to this is the persistent allegation that these are “Putin’s Games”—an act of personal aggrandizement.

In spite of these controversies, roughly three billion people worldwide will watch the Sochi games. So it is safe to say that the “controversies” plaguing these games are not imperilling their legitimacy.  Instead, the controversies have been folded into the larger media narrative of the games, providing additional dramatic fare to the larger sporting spectacle, becoming yet another tool to market the games to spectators. A perpetually bored and channel-flicking public consumes these “controversies” as sideshows to the larger media narrative about the Olympic games.

Of course, there are those who oppose the games on the grounds of these controversies rather than simply consuming them as additional dramatic flair.  However, in spite of their legitimate protests, they tend to create a perception that the games can take place in an apolitical fashion.  In a world where the Olympics has achieved incredible popularity, it would be supremely unpopular to oppose the games both based on one’s issue, say gay rights, and also in a generalized sense.  Thus, from an activist’s standpoint, it makes sense to pay homage to the stated goals of the IOC, for example, “to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport…” etc. in order not to alienate people who might side with you on your issue, but never pay attention to you if you opposed the games in a more global sense.  Although this style of protest is clever, it re-enforces a notion that the games can take place in either an apolitical (proper) fashion for the sake of sport alone, or can become negatively embroiled in political agendas – hijacked for someone’s purposes, to some nefarious ends.  This dichotomized understanding of the games does not adequately capture the ways in which the Olympics is always a deeply political event.

Historians of sport such as Patricia Vertinsky have noted that sporting events like the Olympics are arenas for reproducing the political legitimacy of the nation state and political regimes. Historical photographs of past Olympic games illustrate this argument.  Nowhere is this process more evident than in Leni Reifenstahl’s photographs of the 1936 Berlin Olympic games, published in her book Schdnheit im olympischen Kampf (Beauty in the Olympic Struggle) entitled Olympia in English.  The book is a series of still photographs culled from Riefenstahl’s 1937 film Olympia that captured the Berlin Summer Games in documentary fashion.  It also includes some original still images taken by photographers who worked closely with her at the games.  The film is a harrowing work of political propaganda, commissioned and entirely financed by the Nazi regime in close collaboration with Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda.  Riefenstahl chose the stills from the film for publication in Schdnheit im olympischen Kampf based solely on the quality of beauty present in the images.

“Gisela Mauermayer-Germany” from Leni Riefenstahl, Olympia (London: Quartet Books, 1994), 98.

“Gisela Mauermayer-Germany” from Leni Riefenstahl, Olympia (London: Quartet Books, 1994), 98.

“Dancer” from Leni Riefenstahl, Olympia (London: Quartet Books, 1994), 37.

“Dancer” from Leni Riefenstahl, Olympia (London: Quartet Books, 1994), 37.

“Trebisonda Valla, Hurdles’ winner” from Leni Riefenstahl, Olympia (London: Quartet Books, 1994), 67.

“Trebisonda Valla, Hurdles’ winner” from Leni Riefenstahl, Olympia (London: Quartet Books, 1994), 67.

The photographs in Schdnheit im olympischen Kampf, a few of which are displayed above, are aesthetically stunning and at the same time politically disquieting to the contemporary viewer – they have the irresistible quality of something that attracts yet deeply repulses at the same time. They are photographs of beautiful athletic bodies in motion—flexed, extended, poised and in some instances, eroticized.  They are also repulsive: today’s viewer knows that the images are part of an insidious political project, a sense owing to historical hindsight, which associates the swastikas present on the German athletes’ clothing and their fervent Roman salutes to the Fuhrer with the atrocities of the Nazi regime.  As a consequence, we slot the German athletes in these photographs into a historical narrative of brutality, war and genocide; that is, these images invoke a reflexive understanding that these athletes have somehow been co-opted into a political project.

“Hans Heinrich Sievert - Germany” from Leni Riefenstahl, Olympia (London: Quartet Books, 1994), 85.

“Hans Heinrich Sievert – Germany” from Leni Riefenstahl, Olympia (London: Quartet Books, 1994), 85.

The precise means by which this co-optation has taken place remains to be elucidated.  Regard the photograph above from Schdnheit im olympischen Kampf entitled “Hans Heinrich Siewert – Germany.”  This photograph can be distilled into two distinct elements—the youthful, muscular, poised body and somewhat ironically forlorn and attractive face of Hans the athlete and the prominently displayed German eagle/swastika symbol emblazoned across Hans’ muscular chest.  Hans’ natural attractiveness, athleticism, muscularity and his youth evoke in the spectator of the event, or viewer of the photograph, an aesthetic response, one that is either erotic or appreciative of masculine beauty.  This response then becomes paired with the only prominent symbols on his body – the swastika and German Eagle, symbols of party and nation respectively.  The instantaneous and automatic aesthetic response to a beautiful and youthful body conditioned through rigorous training is effectively transferred to the symbols of nation and party, through those symbols physical presence on the athlete’s body.  When viewed independently of the athlete’s body in another context, these symbols of party and nation will elicit a similar aesthetic response of “beauty,” either erotic or appreciative, which signals the moment at which politics, in Walter Benjamin’s famous formulation, becomes aestheticized.  That is to say, political symbols and imagery invoke an aesthetic perception of “beauty” in an individual, which Benjamin believed was a typical feature of fascist polities.

The danger of a situation where the symbols of party and nation inspire an aesthetic response of “beauty” in individuals (the aestheticization of politics) is that political debate, reasoning and independent criticism about the party and nation become impossible when the symbols of those entities reach beyond the status of mere descriptors for an imagined community or volk, instead invoking an automatic aesthetic response of transcendental “beauty.”  The experience of perceiving beauty is antithetical to political critique – beauty is the ultimate debate closer, an involuntary primal response that is experienced in the body as though it were not politically conditioned.

Images from Sochi today are no different in form than those Riefenstahl took in 1936.  Television coverage shows Olympic athletes performing at their peak emblazoned with the flags of their respective nations.  In victory, athletes often drape themselves in the flag and take a lap for the camera.  Medal ceremonies pair the bodies of athletes and their achievements with the flags and anthems of nations, temporary flag tattoos beam forth from youthful flushed cheeks.   The examples are truly endless, the imagery a constant: symbols of the nation piggybacking on the bodies of athletes, the sporting person’s body colonized in the service of political legitimacy.

A frequent criticism of the Olympic games is that they have become overly commercialized, more about selling consumer products than the true sporting “spirit” of the games.  However, this criticism is flawed because it posits a “pure” and “apolitical” Olympics (perhaps taking place in the romanticized past?) in which the games are above anyone’s agenda, and take place for the sake of sport alone.  But the Olympic games, since their modern origins in the nineteenth century, have always been about selling something.  Traditionally, it was nation state and sometimes political regime (as in the case of Berlin in 1936), through the association of national and regime symbols with the bodies of athletes.  Only in our historical present, one of pervasive corporate sponsorship, have companies been able to access the incredible marketing potential of the Olympics.  This potential is limited to a degree, since the IOC charter still prohibits the presence of corporate logos in the Olympic stadia and limits corporate insignia to small logos on athletes’ clothing. Yet, athletes’ bodies are often emblazoned with both national flag and corporate logo – the sporting body is both nationalized and corporatized.  So, it’s more accurate to say that the range of items marketed to the Olympic spectator has expanded since the re-birth of the modern Olympic movement in the 1890s to now encompass consumer goods.

So, how is a lover of sport to appreciate the achievements and aesthetic qualities of the participant athletes while remaining immune to the aestheticization of national and corporate symbols at the Olympics?  One cannot.  It is impossible to separate the sporting qualities of Olympic athletes and even additional qualities like the good work they do in their communities from the visual context of national and corporate symbols.  Although we obviously admire athletes for the sake of their sporting achievements in themselves, we cannot parse these from the context of the nation at the sub-conscious level.  Extended exposure to Olympic media coverage will slowly blunt our political minds in favour of an aesthetic response of “beauty” to nation states and corporations.  To be clear, the problem is not the idea of “nation” or “corporation” in itself.  Rather, it is a situation where the symbols of these entities automatically evoke aesthetic responses of beauty in the population, which means the nation enters a realm beyond the possibility of rational political criticism and becomes imbued with mystical, evocative qualities.

The best we can do as spectators of the Olympics is be hyper aware of this process and accept its inevitability, or seek out alternate sporting venues to spectate in which the body is less geared in the service of aestheticizing political and corporate symbols.

Eric Wright (@ericnwright) is a Historian & Researcher based in Vancouver, B.C.  He has recently completed an M.A. in History from the University of British Columbia specializing in Indigenous History.  To learn more about Eric go to www.ericnwright.com.

2 thoughts on “The Aestheticization of Politics at the Olympic Games

  1. evan skot

    Wow!!! This is a great piece of propaganda by this author!!

    I wonder whether Mr Wright boycotted the Vancouver games in 2010? Since in 1980, the games were boycotted because the host country had invaded Afghanistan?

  2. Max

    Somewhat splitting hairs here, but somewhat not. The last picture among the three top pictures, with the young woman giving a Roman Salute, is an Italian athlete. While Fascist Italy had many problems, one can safely say that Italian totalitarianism wasn’t nearly as nasty as its German variant.

    That nitpicking aside, a good article. The Modern Olympics have always been political (I don’t know enough about the Ancient Games), but people tend to hold on to the “Apolitical Olympics” myth. One wonders if Ben Johnson would have been outed as a steroid user and crucified if he had been an American athlete, for instance.

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