It's been said often that anyone is entitled to write his memoirs, because no one is obliged to read them. Taken facetiously or otherwise, the principle is valid, but unfortunately so in the case of the recently published memoirs of Lord Killanin, head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in the years 1972-80 and a member of the IOC from Ireland since 1952: My Olympic Years (William Morrow & Co., Inc., $15.95).
A lot of people in sport should be obliged to read the book, especially Americans. It is an unparalleled opportunity to see ourselves as others see us. In this instance the observer is a witty, urbane writer—he was a journalist with London newspapers for many years before joining the IOC—as well as a dominant figure on the international sports scene. This is particularly true if one does not agree with Lord Killanin's Olympic views—and I do not agree with most of them.
While the book is packed with interesting details about the Games since their reestablishment in 1896, the persistent argument—the polemic—that runs through it concerns the mix of sports and politics; much more than half the book is devoted exclusively to that.
Killanin does not waste time calling for the separation of sports and politics; he is well aware that this is both futile and irrelevant. In his eight-year term as head of the IOC, he was deluged with political problems, including the aftermath of the massacre of Israelis at Munich, the disputes about recognizing two Germanys and two Chinas, apartheid in international sport and the U.S. boycott of the '80 Moscow Games. Politics and the Olympics have been inseparable since the first founding meetings of the IOC in the 1890s, which the French threatened to boycott if Germans attended.
November 21, 1983
Killanin himself says, "No one, I believe, needs less convincing than myself that politics are 'in' sport and have always been. Everything in our lives is governed by political decision." And then he comes to the crux of the issue: "What we in sport and the Olympic Movement need is the interest and support of politicians, not their interference." What constitutes interference rather than support, what is a laudable "use" of sport for political ends and what is intolerable—these are questions both honest and dishonest men disagree on, as well as democratic and totalitarian states. They are not easy questions. In 1976 at the Montreal Games, Killanin and the IOC resented and deplored the boycott by African countries caused by New Zealand's refusal to cut sporting ties with South Africa over its policy of apartheid. Just a few years later, however, the IOC backed the Russians in warning France it would be thrown out of the Moscow Games if it allowed a French tour by a South African rugby team. Hard political questions affect the IOC's most important function: determining in what country the Games will be held every four years.
There are also, I believe, far simpler questions. To this day, in these memoirs, Killanin defends the Games of 1936 and attacks the considerable worldwide efforts to boycott them on the grounds that spectators in Berlin witnessed the evils of Nazism and returned to their home countries better able to express their repugnance of it—as false and fatuous an argument as can be imagined. He is rewriting history. No less a personage than his own Olympic mentor, Avery Brundage, returned from those Games to give a speech in Madison Square Garden in which he said: "We can learn much from Germany.... No country since ancient Greece has displayed a more truly national interest in the Olympic spirit than you find in Germany today."
The fact is that from the day the Nazis took over, staging the '36 Games became an instrument of government policy, apparently a tolerable "use" of sports and athletes. For foreign visitors, Berlin was scrubbed clean of official murder, official thuggery and other brutalities of official policy—Nazi "efficiency" going so far as to rehang, temporarily, the paintings by Jewish artists that had been removed from the National Gallery. The view of Germany that visitors carried back to their home countries was a public relations triumph of sweetness, light and strength through sports.
What inspires much of this book—which was first published in England—is Killanin's fury at the boycott of the Moscow Games by the U.S. and 61 other nations because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That action ruined Killanin's hope of making those Games the crowning achievement of his Olympic career as he left the IOC presidency. (He puts quotes around the word "invasion" as if he believes that the thousands of Russian troops still there are on holiday.) The 229-page book is barely into its fifth paragraph when Lord Killanin begins criticizing the positions on the boycott taken by President Jimmy Carter, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser of New Zealand and other heads of state. Killanin's criticism of the U.S. boycott in the British edition of the book is considerably softened by him in the American version, for obvious political reasons.
After Killanin has his cake by castigating both Houses of Parliament for their behavior in support of the boycott, he proceeds coyly to eat it, too, affirming that, of course, "as an Irishman" he declines to get involved "in British domestic policies."
The Russians, it should be noted, have often enough threatened to boycott the Olympics for political reasons. At the Montreal Games, as Killanin relates, one of their male swimmers suddenly disappeared and they became convinced that he had been seduced into a defection by the U.S. As they prepared their denunciations and started to pack up and go home, the swimmer reappeared—having defected for only a brief spell into the arms of a female capitalist.
Killanin approvingly quotes Avery Brundage's description of the Olympics as "the greatest social force of our time." Whatever its ranking, it is a major force indeed. The men and the handful of women who control this power—the IOC—are, in Killanin's accurate words, "a self-electing, self-perpetuating body...a club to which membership is invited...and, in fact, for more than half the world's countries there are no members." This should disturb no one, he believes, "since it is not understood that the members are not representing their country at the IOC, but the IOC in their country or territory from which they come."
To the man capable of this disingenuous disclaimer, it perhaps came as no surprise that Brundage, the man who was IOC chief executive for 20 years, answerable only to himself, could tell us all that we have much to learn from Adolf Hitler.