In the days leading up to Halloween, scholars from around the world traveled to London, Ontario, for the 2014 International Symposium for Olympic Research (ISOR). Started in 1992 by the International Centre for Olympic Studies (ICOS), the conference serves as one of the most preeminent forums for Olympic scholarship. Researchers from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States gathered on October 30-31 to discuss a wide variety of Olympic-related issues.
This blog post summarizes some of the information presented at the ISOR. Concurrent sessions inevitably meant that I missed exciting and influential conversations. Furthermore, the organization of this post stems from the themes I experienced, not those outlined by the conference organizers. For more information on all the panels, see the official ISOR program.
One of the ISOR’s functions is to provide historians the opportunity to critically explore the history of the Olympic Movement. MacIntosh Ross from Western University examined the prejudices that underlined Olympic qualifications in the 1920 Olympic Games. In “Who Gets to Play? The Maritime Region and the 1920 Canadian Olympic Team,” he explained that during this time period, Canada’s Olympians largely resided in the middle of the country; of the 1920 team, for example, 53% hailed from Ontario, 22% from Manitoba, 12% from Quebec, and 6% from British Columbia. Ross scrutinized the lack of maritime Olympic qualifiers and posited that these athletes faced mistreatment parallel to the marginalization maritime people faced in the broader society. In a similar exploration of discrimination in the early Olympics, I critiqued the introduction of physical examinations for female athletes in “‘A Careful Inquiry to establish her Sex’: Sex Testing in the Interwar Era.” I argued that the implementation of testing stemmed from the rise of women’s participation in track and field; unfortunately, recent events suggest that gender prejudices continue to plague athletics.
Toby Rider of Pennsylvania State University-Berks and Sarah Teetzel of the University of Manitoba traced the plight of Stella Walsh—an athlete oftentimes named in sex testing histories—and highlighted a lesser-known aspect of her Olympic career. In “The Strange Tale of Stella Walsh’s Olympic Eligibility,” the two authors discussed Walsh’s use of the “Cupid Clause,” a 1956 loophole that permitted women to compete for both their country-of-birth and their country-through-marriage. Because the IOC did not reciprocally offer men this option until 1978, Rider and Teetzel noted that the exception granted women a gender-based advantage, albeit one steeped in patriarchal assumptions. Although Walsh married Harry Olson in 1956, likely in an effort to utilize the “Cupid Clause,” she failed to qualify for the 1956 and 1960 Games.
While Rider and Teetzel described Walsh’s attempts to run for the United States in the 1950s, Erin Redihan of Clark University documented the country’s perception of the Olympics during the same time period. In “Winning Hearts and Minds: The Olympics during the Cold War,” Redihan argued that from 1952 to 1956, the Olympics grew in importance for both the White House and the US populace. When the Soviet Union returned to international competitions, a cultural cold war—which engulfed sport—ensued. While the Soviet Union and the United States avoided armed confrontations, other countries experienced violent clashes throughout the era. Graduate student essay winner John Petrella of Western University examined this issue against the backdrop of the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics. His talk, “Black, White, and Red All Over: Selected Canadian Newspapers and the 1968 Mexico City Massacre,” analyzed the coverage of the Tlatelolco Massacre.
In his assessment of The Globe and The Ottawa Citizen, Petrella found three significant themes. First, he noted that many reports depicted the massacre as a “battle,” thereby unquestionably accepting the Mexican government’s account of the events. Second, the coverage blamed the students for the violence, portraying the protestors as an antagonistic, uncontrollable mob. Third, many journalists supported the myth that the Olympics should remain apolitical. Thus, as Petrella concluded, the accounts provided a superficial and sanitized recounting of the tragedy.
As Cold War tensions seeped into the Olympic Movement, fears of drug use also permeated the Games. Many scholars typically focus on the IOC Medical Commission’s influence on the anti-doping campaign; however, to deepen this conversation, Jörg Kreiger from the German Sports University, Cologne, discussed the role of the IAAF. In “The Efforts of the IAAF Medical Committee from 1968-1981: Supporting Olympic Anti-Doping Fight?,” he posited that the track and field international federation prioritized the scientific aspects of drug bans over other elements, including social considerations and education, which consequently shaped the trajectory of anti-doping policies in the Olympics.
Correspondingly, the keynote lecture presented by Ian Ritchie of Brock University and Rob Beamish of Queen’s University also grappled with the trajectory of anti-doping rhetoric in the modern Olympic Movement. In “Ben Johnson, Charles Dubin, and the Spirit of Sport: Canada’s Role in International Anti-Doping Policies,” the two authors located the importance of Canadian sport authorities in shaping contemporary anti-doping beliefs. As Beamish explained, the Dubin Report was interpreted to provide a mandate for the Canadian government’s involvement in the fight against doping; consequently, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport developed the “Spirit of Sport” ideology, an ambiguous notion about the essence of competition intended to maintain fairness. The World Anti-Doping Agency appropriated the phrase upon its creation in 1998. Beamish and Ritchie demonstrated how anti-doping measures are typically reactionary and usually implemented without consideration of social context. Moreover, it has been only a handful of men who have controlled all of the values imbued in the Olympics.
Media and Consumption
Along with historical inquiries, the ISOR also encourages researchers to consider the ways in which the Olympic Games are mediated, commercialized, and consumed. For example, in the buildup to the 2014 Winter Games, many people publicly debated the selection of Sochi, Russia, as the host city. Pacific University scholars Jules Boykoff and Matthew Yasuoka examined the reportage of the Games in “Media Coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.” The authors conducted a quantitative analysis of four UK and four US presses, and completed a qualitative analysis of four Russian presses. In the UK and US sources, Boykoff and Yasuoka found that the media most frequently (in 47% of all articles) deployed an “Anti-Gay Frame,” highlighting the discriminatory practices of the country. When the media discussed Russian President Vladimir Putin, reporters typically presented an “Autocrat Frame” and “Anti-Gay Frame.” Similarly exploring the media coverage of Sochi, conference organizer Janice Forsyth and her student Eli Vanduzer focused on the dialogue that surrounded snowboarding in the 2014 Winter Games. In “Business Rhetoric and Responsibility: Media Discourses on Snowboarding at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games,” Forsyth and Vanduzer examined how the media advertised “risk” to the general public. They found three notable themes: the media depicted the sport as unique and youthful; the media devalued injury and harm; and the media valorized risk.
While Boykoff, Yasuoka, Forsyth and Vanduzer examined print media, Fred Mason from the University of New Brunswick and Estée Fresco of Western University expanded the source base. Mason scrutinized Olympic video games in “Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games: Consuming the Olympics through Video Gaming.” Drawing on game studies, he explored the role of commercialism in four Olympic-themed videogames: Mario & Sonic at the Beijing Olympics; Mario & Sonic at the Vancouver Olympics; Mario & Sonic at the London Olympics; and Mario & Sonic at the Sochi Olympics. By “playing through” all four games, Mason found that they promoted peaceful competition yet simultaneously encouraged materialistic consumption. He concluded that the major thrust of these Olympic-themed video games is thus consumerism, not Olympism. Fresco also questioned the consumption of Olympic-oriented materials in “Commodity Fetishism in the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics.” She explained that Canadian organizers attempted to self-finance the Games through the selling of Olympic coins and stamps, as well as through a novel lottery system. Using a Marxist interpretation of commodity fetishism, she demonstrated how through the valuing of certain items, the required labor was concealed. For example, the organizers used the beaver mascot to sell Olympic goods; however, they ignored the connection of the fur trade to indigenous labor.
Celebration and Symbolism
Other scholars explored the celebratory consumption of unique Olympic artifacts. In “‘All Men Will Become Brothers’: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as Olympic Games Entertainment and Ideology,” Skidmore College Professor Jeffrey Segrave traced the evolution of “Ode to Joy” in connection with the Olympic Movement. One of Coubertin’s favorite melodies, the song became intertwined with the Games; yet, always with different intentions and interpretations, and never as an official hymn. For example, Berlin organizers embraced the song as a signifier of power, while in the 1950s “Ode to Joy” served as the neutral anthem for the German Unified Team. From Nazi propaganda to contemporary Samsung commercialism, the tune remains deeply entrenched in the Olympics.
Historian Robyn Schwarz-Primer from Western University similarly explored the significance of an Olympic object in “Understanding Olympism through Trauma: 9/11 and the 2002 Salt Lake City Opening Ceremony.” In the presentation, she used trauma theory to illustrate how the use of the 9/11 flag in the Opening Ceremonies allowed the United States to use the Games as a forum to translate its post-9/11 narrative to an international community.
Activism and the Olympics
Finally, many scholars critique the Games in order to incite change. Keynote speaker Helen Lenskyj criticized the “Olympic industry” and suggested that the Olympics prove responsible for the current structure of men’s and women’s sport; no, she explained, “that is not a compliment.” In “The Olympic Industry: Sex, Power, and Politics,” Lenskyj argued that the Games limit both sport and sporting bodies. She then outlined the contemporary iteration of the “female apologetic” in the Olympics, suggesting that women now strive to display femininity and heterosexuality as dual mechanisms to counter the supposed threats of masculinization. Furthermore, sexuality was a central concern in the Sochi Games as Russia implemented several anti-gay laws. According to Lenskyj, the IOC and Putin proved well-matched: both were undemocratic, non-transparent, fraudulent, heterosexist, and always seeking to increase global power.
Other researchers also highlighted problems within the Olympic industry. Sophy Chan of Western University described how homeless populations are adversely impacted by the organization of the Games. In “Unveiling the ‘Olympic Kidnapping Act’: Homelessness and Public Policy in the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games,” she critiqued two pieces of legislation: Project Civil City and the Assistance to Shelter Act, both enacted for the 2010 Vancouver Games. Project Civil City sought to eliminate homelessness, diminish the open drug market and decrease panhandling, as well as increase the public’s perception of the city for the Games. The Assistance to Shelter Act allowed the police to forcibly transport homeless individuals to shelters in extreme weather. As Chan pointed out, the coercion that underlined both policies was a violation of human rights. Similarly discussing the disenfranchised, Christine O’Bonsawin, from University of Victoria, focused on the oppression of indigenous people in British Columbia. In “Showdown at Eagleridge Bluffs: The 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games, the Olympic Sustainability Smokescreen, and the Protection of Indigenous Lands,” she argued that the organizing committee appropriated indigenous territories under the fraudulent guise of sustainability. Although alternative, more environmentally-friendly options existed, the economic incentives convinced the Vancouver organizers to use the natives’ land.
The representation and inclusion of disabled athletes also appeared throughout the program. Melinda Maika of Western University portrayed the ways in which the media plays a significant role in the interpretation of disability. In her talk, “The ‘Other’ Athletes: Representation of Disability in Canadian Print Media during the London 2012 Paralympic Games,” she highlighted the different ways the Canadian press depicted Paralympians. While Maika found that 61.4% of the coverage used athletic descriptors, secondary themes undermined these positive portrayals as many articles also embraced a “Medical/Patient Frame” or “Supercrip Frame.” Also considering the treatment of disabled athletes in the Olympic Movement, Ted Fay of SUNY Courtland, Eli Wolff of Brown University, and David Legg of Mount Royal University argued for the introduction of “universal design” in the Games. The presentation, “Unity and Disability in Diversity: Olympism, Universal Design and the Paralympic and Olympic Games,” outlined several proposals for the more complete inclusion of Paralympians. They suggested designing infrastructure inclusively from the onset of construction, not tacking on adaptations; completely connecting the Olympics and Paralympics; and unifying the medal count. As the authors noted, currently the philosophy is “Two Games, One Movement,” paralleling the disparities athletes with disabilities face.
From the history of the Games to contemporary ethical debates, scholars from around the world assessed, analyzed, and discussed the Olympic Movement. Significantly, the ISOR allowed for a meaningful exploration of the Olympics, and scholars provided suggestions for advancement and improvement. Many may find this particularly important as the Olympic Games extend both its power and popularity. Therefore, after the Rio Summer Games in 2016, the ISOR will again meet to continue this critical work.
 Robert Barney established the ICOS in 1989 and started the ISOR in 1992, following the Winter and Summer Games. When the IOC adjusted the Olympic format to every-other-year, the ISOR followed suit, hosting conferences in 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014.
Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.