Olympics exhibition sets in Paris; heroes displayed

From the propaganda displays at the 1936 Berlin Olympics to the poignant protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, where their Black Power salute against racial injustice led to their expulsion, the Olympic Games have reflected some of the most somber chapters of the 20th century.

As the Paris Olympics loom, set against the ongoing conflicts from Ukraine to the Middle East and with French President Emmanuel Macron calling for a ceasefire in Ukraine during the Games, a new Parisian exhibition delves into the Olympics’ profound social and geopolitical influences over the past hundred years.

The Olympics have occasionally been manipulated by dictatorial regimes and sparked intense debates over issues like racial discrimination, colonialism, sexism, and more, amidst boycotts and defections. “Sport is more than just games,” co-curator Caroline François remarks, highlighting the exhibition’s focus on the societal questions sport raises.

The exhibition, “Olympic Games: Mirror of Our Societies,” opening at the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris, revisits the Games’ original peace-promoting goals while illustrating how international and athletic rivalries were heightened during times of dictatorship and the Cold War. It reminds us of the International Olympic Committee founder Pierre de Coubertin’s vision of the Games as a beacon of peace and universalism, despite their early focus on elite, physically dominant white men, excluding women from certain events until the London 2012 Olympics when women participated in every sport.

It also sheds light on the participation of colonized peoples under their colonizers’ flags and reevaluates well-known Olympic traditions, such as the flame relay which began under Nazi influence in 1936. The use of Olympic architecture for political propaganda, notably in Berlin’s massive stadium under Hitler, and the darker uses of Olympic venues during wars, like the Vélodrôme d’Hiver’s role in the roundup of Parisian Jews in 1942, are examined.

The Munich Olympics of 1972, intended to overwrite memories of the 1936 Nazi Olympics, tragically witnessed the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by the Black September Palestinian militant group. The exhibition pays homage to remarkable athletes like Tommie Smith and John Carlos, whose 1968 protest became an iconic political statement, and Wilma Rudolph, a polio survivor and civil rights campaigner who became the first woman to win three golds in a single Olympics.

Exploring further, the exhibition addresses modern concerns such as homophobia, disability rights, and the Paralympics. Co-curator and contemporary history professor Paul Dietschy discusses how the exhibition uses sport to interpret the 20th century’s history, showing the Olympics’ capacity to embody both hope and tragedy. He notes the growing scale and global reach of the Games, highlighting their use by modern authoritarian regimes, like the Beijing 2008 Olympics, as a venue for ideological battles. Dietschy expresses hope that the 2024 Paris Games will champion democracy and true universalism, aiding in a deeper understanding of the Games’ significance.

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