An Olympics Exhibit Fails to Grapple with the Games’ Complicated History

The Olympic Museum brought a multi-media history exhibit to London. Why it falls short.

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American sprint star Jesse Owens is shown in action during one of the heats of the 200-meter run August 14, 1936 in Berlin.

Part of an exhibit being shown at London‘s Royal Opera House during the Olympics — called “The Olympic Journey: The Story of the Games”– is dedicated to U.S. track legend Jesse Owens. For good reason: Owens is one of the most important athletes of all-time. The Adi Dassler — now known as Adidas — shoe Owens wore during his gold medal-winning long-jump at the ‘36 Games in Berlin is on display. A video details how Owens forged a friendship with his long-jump rival during those Olympics, Germany’s Luz Long.

This is all nice stuff. But, incredibly, the display makes no mention of Owens’ greatest feat: sticking it to Hitler. The dictator saw the 1936 Olympics as a global stage to promote Nazi and Aryan superiority. An African-American like Owens, Hitler thought, belonged to an inferior race. Yet Owens won four gold medals on German soil, proving Hitler wrong. Few, if any, athletic feats in history have had such far reaching import.

The “Olympic Journey,” a collaboration between the International Olympic Committee’s museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, Olympic sponsor BP, and the Royal Opera House, should be one of the cultural highlights of these Games. The Olympics have a rich, complicated history worthy of an honest assessment. Yet, the multi-media project is entirely unfulfilling, and speaks to a broader, frustrating problem: the refusal of the so-called “Olympic movement” to grapple with all aspects of its past.

We witnessed this troubling habit at the opening ceremonies, when the IOC rejected calls from citizens groups and political leaders, including Barack Obama, to hold a moment of silence to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the terror attacks at the 1972 Munich Olympics. “We feel that the Opening Ceremony is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident,” said IOC president Jacque Rogge. But with the world watching, there had never been a more appropriate time to honor victims of a human tragedy. The Munich attack unfolded in the Olympic village, and shook those Games. By trying to whitewash history out of the Olympics, Rogge and the IOC blew an opportunity to educate a younger generation.

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How can the Olympic Museum claim that the exhibition tells “the story of the Games,” while making no mention of the Nazi imprint on the 1936 Olympics? The Munich attack, which resulted in the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, is the biggest story in Olympic history. Yet, in this “story of the Games,” the incident is ignored. So are the various Olympic boycotts or drug scandals.

These omissions are unfortunate, because the exhibit has enlightening elements. It begins with a section on the ancient Olympics.  A bronze discus tossed in competition, and a “training weight” that looks like a dog bone, are showcased. “To enter the Olympic stadium,” visitors learn, “the athletes had to pass under the 12 statues of Zeus, whose all-seeing gaze would discourage cheating.” Where was Zeus at this year’s badminton venue? Another wall outlined the typical five-day program at the Ancient Games. On Day 2: equestrian events, pentathlon, and “feasting and general revelry.”

A guide tells the crowd it’s time to learn about “a more civilized staging of the Olympics,” and we enter a room dedicated to Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Games, which were first held in Athens in 1896. “I remain convinced sport is one of the most forceful elements of peace,” says a voice, purportedly of de Coubertin, over a loudspeaker. When that peace is broken, however, this museum won’t tell you.

After de Coubertin, we’re treated to more Olympic PR: a year-by-year recap of the torch relay, complete with footage of people running with the flame. From 1936 through 2008, the images look pretty much the same.

The exhibit ends on the high note: a room with videos on 20 influential Olympians, including Owens. Ex-Soviet Union gymnast Olga Korbut, whose three gymnastics gold medals in Munich pushed the popularity of her sport to new levels, is here today, signing autographs near the area dedicated to her. Also featured are Indian field hockey star Balbir Singh, who led his country to a gold medal over Great Britain at the 1948 London Olympics, a year after India’s independence from the U.K.; Australian sprinter Cathy Freeman, whose 400-m gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics uplifted her Aboriginal community; and long distance runners Elana Meyer and Derartu Tulu. After Meyer, from South Africa, lost the 10,000-meter final to Tulu, of Ethiopia, at the 1992 Olympics, the pair ran a victory lap together, in a display of African unity. Meyer is white, and ’92 marked South Africa’s first post-apartheid appearance at the Olympics, after a ban of nearly 30 years.

These athletes show that the Olympics transcend sports. Sometimes, however, the results are negative, even tragic. When Olympic officials run from this reality, we all lose out.

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