Notions of Hegemony in Olympic Discourse / / Anita Stahl

    The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics closed just months ago, and already Russia is playing fast and loose with any global good will it built. That is, if they ever intended to generate good will… that is, whatever that even means… that is to say, it’s all a little hazy when it comes to Russia and Western relations. Global good will, power plays, displays of grandeur, there are no clear intentions. Sandwiched between despicable acts of homophobia partially endorsed by the Kremlin and the (para-) military annexation of Crimea, some Westerners still appear genuinely shocked by the dichotomous representations of a nation trying to show a different side in Sochi and in Ukraine. But corruption, abuses, elitism, and a deliberate whitewashing of disgusting realities are as old as the Games themselves, and are well documented in the Olympic revival of the 19th Century.

           “Amateurism” is used to discursively to evoke the idyllic virtue of the Games. Billed as a founding tenet of the modern Olympic movement, amateur status speaks to the purity of the athletes’ motivations. It speaks to a broader sense of sportsmanship—to “doing it for the right reasons.” But like so much else we take for granted, this purity is a myth perpetuated to whitewash a classist history. Quite simply, when British gentlemen funded the Olympic revival that commenced with the 1896 Athens Games, following the 1894 formation of the International Olympic Committee, they wanted to ensure they could do some of the winning. Barring “professionals” in this era before FIFA and the NBA, was a blanket ban of manual laborers, effectively, the entire working class, for their supposed unfair advantage. Simply, what is sold as a popular affair was rigged to benefit the few from the very beginnings.

           This is hegemony at work. Originally, hegemony was a term to describe an imperial domination of a geographic area through implied force, rather than a military one. Slowly, the term was used increasingly to describe a cultural power a hegemon held over another population. Finally, Antonio Gramsci brought the word into the 20th Century; by the Marxist concept of cultural hegemony, it is a way one social class dominates another by defining the conversation, setting the cultural norms, and ensuring that the ruling class values become the people’s values, unbeknownst to them, against their own best interest. This subtle way of ruling by consent is pervasive in Western nations that pride themselves on democratic values and peaceful civil societies.

           Combining the ideas of it being a geopolitical term and a socio-theoretical one, we arrive again at the all powerful IOC imposing its values on the world population. Any wrongdoing is dismissed as an isolated incident or blamed on the host country, because we still believe what the IOC charter says: “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Sold as a celebration of sportsmanship, the international scrimmages support non-military competition between nations and provide a stage to show off on. Over a hundred nations compete, and every time a handful of individuals from smaller nations stand out and validate the Games’ virtue of bringing the world together through sports.  And yet, the countries who consistently come out on top of the medal count, the US, Russia, and Germany, for example, already wield a great deal of power.

           When scandals happen, such as unethically displacing Chinese citizens in Beijing to make room for stadiums, the Olympic committee is only briefly implied as having made a mistake in choosing that country, before the world demonizes China. The IOC gets off scot free to run another Olympics, say in Sochi where violence against the LGBT community abounds, to repeat the process. The list of Olympic scandals is a long one touching on nearly every Game and involves everything from the Nazi’s hosted Berlin Games, to corrupt judges and corrupt IOC officials accepting bribes when deciding on Olympic bids. And still, despite over a hundred years of consistent and indisputable evidence of corruption and scandals related directly to the Games and the Committee, every four years the world comes together to watch this idyllic event. That’s hegemony.