Comment le CIO tente d’écrire sa propre histoire 

The Scientific History of Olympism is a Combat Sport

Every institution, whether public or private, likes to write its own history, lauding founding saints, over-glorifying certain events, and shamefully overlooking others. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) shares this taste for forging its own legend. Indeed, it is a field in which it excels, to an extent that greatly complicates the work of professional historians.

The Olympic world’s obsession with writing and imposing its “true” history dates all the way back to Baron de Coubertin’s book Une Campagne de vingt et un ans (A 21-Year Campaign), published in 1909. This was followed in 1931, six years after he was forced to step down as IOC president, by his Mémoires olympiques (Olympic Memoirs), published in answer to those who were already downplaying his role in reviving and developing the Olympic Games. In these two books, written in a sharp and articulate style, Coubertin naturally depicts himself as playing a central part in building French sport and the Olympic movement throughout the world, while erasing equally important figures whom historians would find out about only by searching other archives. Unsurprisingly, subsequent IOC presidents and IOC members adopted similar approaches when writing their memoirs.

Just like Coubertin, who was a formidable propagandist, the IOC has become an expert in marketing its own history since Juan Antonio Samaranch’s presidency (1980-2001). In 1982 it opened the Olympic Studies Centre (OSC), in Lausanne, to give unparalleled access to its impressive archive of documents and specialist publications. The OSC also allocates generous research grants, but not without imposing strict guidelines on the work to be carried out. Since its inception, it has commissioned numerous commemorative books about the IOC and national Olympic committees (NOCs), written by “official” historiographers, and sponsored the publication of “fabulous” accounts and emended biographies of Coubertin by sports journalists, collectors, and scholars throughout the world. The result is a strange, sanitised, and neutral Olympic history, as if sport and Olympism were detached from human societies.

For example, an anti-Semitic letter from Coubertin is missing from the catalogue of his “autographs,” as is his declaration of support for Hitler, which has disappeared from his aptly named Selected Writings. During the presidency of Belgium’s Jacques Rogge (2001-2013), the IOC decided to extend the classification of its Executive Commission’s records from 20 years to 30 years, which means that documents concerning the Salt Lake City corruption scandal (1999), for example, will remain inaccessible until 2030.

The IOC also overlooks the relationships between a substantial number of its members and twentieth- and twenty-first-century dictatorships. Everything is presented as if it incarnates the adage “don’t mix politics and sport,” which first appeared in the 1920s. While this ideal is honourable in itself, because it aims to guarantee leisure activities’ independence from states and ideologies, it primarily served the interests of sports leaders who refused democratic oversight and who used their control over sport as another way of doing politics. You might expect former IOC managers and employees to provide a counterpoint to this, but a draconian confidentiality clause, imposed since Monique Berlioux’s tenure as director general (1969-1985), enables the IOC to silence any dissenting voices.

Moreover, the historical timeline along the walls of the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, opened in 1993, makes no mention of Africa’s boycott of Montreal 1976, the USA’s boycott of Moscow 1980, or the Soviet Union’s boycott of Los Angeles 1984. The totalitarian stranglehold over Berlin 1936, Moscow 1980, and Beijing 2008 have also been consigned to the dustbin of history, as have all demands concerning social issues or human rights.

The IOC also disseminates the Olympic legend through other channels, including the Olympic Review, launched in 1901 by Coubertin and still published today; the Olympic Channel, launched at the 2016 Rio Olympics; the online encyclopaedia; and Olympic museums, which have sprung up around the world at the same rate as Coubertin Committees, National Olympic Academies (modelled on the International Olympic Academy), and Olympic Studies Centres, now present in around 50 universities around the globe.

This raises the serious issue of the independence of academic research, as university research centres wishing to include in their titles the word “Olympic” — which has existed in European languages for centuries — must provide the IOC with a letter of support from its country’s NOC. Could you imagine the opposite? The university must also provide detailed information about the teaching programmes, publications, and sources of funding of the scholars involved. Research centres that have refused to bow to the IOC’s demands are rare, and doing so has been without consequences for the moment. Universities in democratic countries should be more vigilant regarding these abuses.

Occasionally, signs of hope appear. As when the Paris 2024 Olympic Games Organising Committee set up a history committee, the first of its kind. But this committee has not met since its members questioned the use of the French Revolution for marketing purposes or the drawing up of a spreadsheet designed to demonstrate the success of the Olympic Games’ legacy, even though the event hadn’t yet taken place. And what can be said about the pressure exerted on both publisher and author to ensure there would be no mention of politics or doping in the official Olympic Games album … which will therefore not be published.

However, the IOC would gain a lot from a historical aggiornamento of the dark periods in its history, as Geneva’s Museum of Ethnography has just done in its exhibition on the colonial ventures of several of the Red Cross’s founding members, including Henri Dunant. Such openness would avoid giving credence to the idea that the IOC is trying to hide things about its present.

Clearly, it is not easy to study and publish the history of Olympism while respecting the canons of academic research: comparing sources within and outside the so-called Olympic movement, identifying the various actors involved, and examining their social lives, as well as their sporting lives, decompartmentalising the sporting context by relating it to surrounding contexts, and engaging with scholarly historiography, whether or not it is about sport.

Contact details:

Professor Patrick Clastres
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