For Manhood and Empire

A short note on the Olympics, before they’re over (August 12 is the last day!): Louis Menand has an entertaining review of their history in modern times in The New Yorker (Glory Days).  He recalls the great moments, especially in athletics, like Ethiopian Abebe Bikila Imagewinning the Rome 1960 marathon running barefoot, signaling Africa’s enormous potential to the world at the height of decolonization.  (I am too young to remember that race but old enough to remember Bikila’s next Olympic marathon in Tokyo, in 1964, which he also won, now with shoes.)

Bikila’s heroics coupled with today’s marvelous win of the US team in the Women’s Soccer final, before 70,000 spectators (!), put an ironic spin on the original purpose of the modern

Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times

Olympics.  As Menand points out, when Pierre de Coubertin launched the games in 1896, he was inspired by the efforts of the British physician William Penny Brookes who had started a few years earlier the Wenlock Olympian Games in the town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire, “as a means of fortifying British manhood.”  “Britain’s culture of sports,” de Coubertin maintained, “is the reason for its empire.” To quote Brookes:

If the time should ever come when the youth of this country once again abandons the fortifying exercises of the gymnasium, the manly games, the outdoor sports that give health and life, in favor of effeminate and pacific amusements, know that that will mean the end of freedom, influence, strength, and prosperity for the whole empire.