Olympics expert discusses Sochi Games, sport history, Super Bowl and society

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mark Dyreson, Penn State professor of kinesiology, is an expert on the history and role of sport in the modern world. His studies of the Olympic Games and other sports events, including the Super Bowl, focuses on the role of sport in the creation of modern societies. He offers his thoughts on the past, present and future of the Olympic Games, and the role and spectacle of sport in a global society.

Since the modern Olympic Games began, they have been seen as cultural milestones that have elevated medalists in particular to celebrity status, from Jesse Owens to Sonja Henie to Michael Phelps and others in America alone. Can you point to a handful of standouts who haven't received the attention they deserved, and why?

Mark Dyreson: We might have in 2014 forgotten older Olympic heroes and heroines, from Jim Thorpe, Duke Kahanamoku and Johnny Weissmuller, to Peggy Fleming, Jean-Claude Killy and “Spider” Sabich, but they were celebrities in their era. I will point to a few who probably should have gotten more attention but did not — because they did not win enough, or in a grand enough fashion.

First, when Jesse Owens won four gold medals at Berlin in 1936, he overshadowed the sterling performances of what the Nazi press labeled America’s “black auxiliaries,” the other African-American athletes who competed in Berlin in spite of racism and segregation both abroad and at home. Owens’ fellow African-Americans — David Albritton, Cornelius Johnson, James LuValle, Ralph Metcalfe, Fritz Pollard Jr., Mack Robinson, Archie Williams and John Woodruff — won four golds, three silvers and two bronzes. In addition, they went on to stellar careers in academia, business, the military, politics and other fields after the Berlin Olympics.

One in particular among that group stands out. Ralph Metcalfe finished second by milliseconds to Owens in the 100 meters in Berlin, as he had to fellow African-American Eddie Tolan four years earlier at the Los Angeles Olympics. Had Metcalfe been just a few milliseconds faster he would have been the “world’s fastest man” in two straight Olympics — and we would remember him and not Jesse Owens as the African-American hero who challenged both Nazi and U.S. ideologies of white racial supremacy. We forget Metcalfe even though he had quite a post-athletic career, including as leader in the civil rights movement in Chicago, his victories in four elections to the U.S. Congress from Illinois, and his role in helping to lead the early incarnation of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Also in the overshadowed category was the silver medalist behind Owens in the 200 meters, Mack Robinson from Pasadena, Calif. Not only would Mack Robinson be overshadowed by Jesse Owens in Berlin but in his own family by his younger brother Jackie who would go on to fame as the man who broke the color line in baseball. A few milliseconds can make all the difference in the world. Ralph Metcalfe and Mack Robinson were mainly ignored because they finished a close second behind an American icon.

Another silver medalist who has never gotten the attention he deserved is Bill Koch. In 1976 at Innsbruck Koch won a silver medal in the 30 kilometer Nordic race. Nordic skiing, or cross-country skiing as it’s often called in the U.S., has never been a major sport in the United States. When Koch won his medal he was the first American to ever make a splash in athletic contests that reigns as a significant national pastime in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, but is a sport Americans mainly ignore. Interestingly, over the last decade the U.S. has developed a strong Nordic ski team that won medals in Vancouver and might well again earn some medals in Sochi — but Bill Koch’s silver remains one of the biggest surprises in Olympic history.

Let me finish addressing this question with a Penn State story.

During the 1940s the best U.S. sprinter and long jumper in the world, a man who many track and field experts predicted might match Jesse Owens’ record of four gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4x100 meters relay, wore Nittany Lion blue and white when he competed. Norbert “Barney” Ewell was a stellar collegian at Penn State and touted as the “next Jesse Owens” as the 1940 Olympics, slated for Tokyo, approached. World War II scuttled the 1940 and 1944 Olympics, however.

Ewell left Penn State to join the U.S. Army during the war and then returned afterward to complete his degree. In 1948, running at the relatively advanced age for a sprinter of 30, Ewell finished just milliseconds from gold in the 100 meters and 200 meters — he earned silver medals in both events — before finally capturing the elusive top prize as a member of the U.S. 4x100 relay team that was initially disqualified and after a long review of the film of the race finally reinstated and declared the victor. Based on his performances at Penn State and in the military during World War II, it is quite likely that Ewell might have not only matched Owens’ feats but done it twice and earned eight golds in the two Olympics that never were.

four runners, two wearing Ohio jerseys and two wearing Penn State jerseys, with Penn State runner leading the race

The most decorated Penn Stater was Barney Ewell (far right), who won a gold medal with the 400-meter relay team and two silver medals in the 100- and 200-meter sprints in the 1948 Olympics.

Image: Penn State University Archives

You recently returned from a conference that examined the 30th anniversary of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. How do you believe the 1984 Games influenced the Olympics, and in what ways have the Games, both summer and winter, changed in the last three decades?

As strange as it seems from a contemporary perspective, when Los Angeles bid for the 1984 Olympics many observers were predicting that the Olympic movement was about to crumble into the dustbin of history.

From the 1968 Mexico City Olympics forward, boycotts and other political controversies had enveloped the games and threatened future prospects. Looking at the economics of Mexico City, Munich and Montreal, the Olympics appeared to be a financial “white elephant” that propelled cities, regions and nations toward bankruptcy. Not only Cold War political controversies and a series of powerful boycotts but terrorism, in Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City and in the Olympic Village in Munich, had become a tragic Olympic reality.

In the early 1970s a fascinating political coalition of anti-tax libertarians and environmentalists in Colorado persuaded voters to boot the 1976 Winter Games out of Denver. The Olympics were in real trouble. No major cities bid for the 1984 Olympics except for Teheran and Los Angeles. Teheran’s attempt quickly perished as the Islamic Revolution began in that nation.

Power brokers in Los Angeles loved the Olympics. The city hosted the games in 1932 and then bid, unsuccessfully, for every games from 1952 until they were the last city standing in 1984. International and national critics predicted the 1984 Olympics would be a disaster given both the city's many problems and the Olympic movement’s seemingly insoluble dilemmas. Even Angeleños were suspicious — city voters pushed for a promise that no public funds would be used to stage the Olympics.

While many thought that the lack of public funding would derail the LA organizers it actually freed them to build a much more commercial version of the Olympics that turned a profit, advertised Southern California as a land where dreams come true, and re-energized the Olympics as a global economic and cultural product.

“Part of the global appeal of the Olympics is that they are exotic and rare; they are not hyper-familiar and overexposed like many other elements of global popular culture.”

— Mark Dyreson, professor of kinesiology

Love it or hate it, commercialization has become the lifeblood of the Olympic movement and propelled it into a new international significance. You can credit, or blame, L.A. for that. Love it or hate it, the Olympics are a prized commodity that cities around the world spend millions of dollars to acquire and billions of dollars to stage, and you can blame L.A. for that as well.

The other major trend that the 1984 L.A. Games started are what I call the “Californization” of the Olympics through the increasing inclusion of “lifestyle” and “entertainment” sports such as snowboarding and freestyle skiing, mountain biking and BMX cycling, beach volleyball and triathlon. These sports look great on television, provide enormous markets of young consumers with lots of disposable income for advertisers, bring the U.S.A. lots of medals and make the Olympics “California cool.” Historically, these new sports were all incubated in California.

The debut of windsurfing and synchronized swimming at Los Angeles in 1984 begins this growing trend toward featuring “lifestyle” sports with California connections at the Olympics. If you love the “Flying Tomato” — snowboarder Shaun White — or think he’s a symbol of the corruption of Olympic purity, credit or blame L.A. ’84 for him and the rest of this new breed of Olympic celebrities.

With the news of Lindsey Vonn's injury sidelining her at the Sochi Games and changes made to the Sochi luge track, following the tragic death of Nodar Kumaritashvili while practicing at the 2010 Vancouver Games — aside from concussion risks to professional football players — has becoming an premier athlete become more of a risk than a reward? In what ways might we see changes to top-tier sports and athlete regulations, for safety and other reasons?

What if I were to tell you that a career as a world-class athlete is bad for your health, that a multitude of studies of mortality indicate elite performers die at significantly younger ages than the general population? You’d probably tell me I was crazy, and cling to your belief that high-level sporting performance builds bodies that are healthier and will last longer than those of couch potatoes. Well, studies show that a career training as an elite athlete actually means a shorter life — but the public does not seem interested in that dismal demography at all. Athletes remain our paragons of health and fitness.

But if we don’t care about those factoids, do we care about the prospect of really-shortened lifespans, of sudden deaths in a competition while the whole world watches?

The International Olympic Committee has been adding new sports that carry greater risks than traditional ones, such as “slopestyle” skiing and snowboarding as well as the half-pipe events, and new forms of “freestyle” skiing as well. Horrible injuries as well as deaths are, unfortunately, not unknown in training and competition in these events.

Criticisms of the dangers of some of these “extreme” events have begun to mount. The prospect of any competitor, particularly a star, perishing in front of billions of television viewers is, tragically, not an unrealistic prospect. Short of catastrophic death or injury, concussions and other head injuries are not uncommon in a wide variety of winter sports.

When a broad spectrum of people, particularly parents, begin to wonder whether or not they should let their children take up these sports, as it now appears is beginning to happen in football, then major changes might occur. Until then, however, the danger is part of the allure of these new endeavors.

You're also an expert on the culture of the Super Bowl, having co-authored an essay on “Super Bowl Sunday: A New American Holiday,” in a collection of essays on the history of national holidays. While the Super Bowl is an American tradition celebrating professional football, it also gets worldwide attention like the Olympic Games. From your perspective, how is the Super Bowl similar to and different from the Olympics?

The Super Bowl makes the world voyeurs to a uniquely American spectacle. The Olympics makes the world, including Americans, voyeurs to a wide variety of sports that are embedded in a global spectacle.

The world watches the Super Bowl like most Americans watch the biathlon: from our vantage it seems curious and amusing to watch people try to ski and shoot and it raises questions about why Norwegians or Russians or Swedes would be so passionate about what, from American perspectives, seems such a strange activity. Americans would not watch a steady diet of biathlon but once every four years we’ll tune in out of curiosity.

Part of the global appeal of the Olympics is that they are exotic and rare; they are not hyper-familiar and overexposed like many other elements of global popular culture. That has been the perfect market niche for the Olympics for more than a century. The Olympics, across its summer and winter productions, has something for just about every nation or culture to get excited about, be it badminton or bobsled, field hockey or ice hockey. Nations and cultures that are not so interested in these sports get excited to see what other cultures love, which is also the appeal of watching the Super Bowl in many other parts of the world where large audiences do not regularly tune in to the NFL.

“The genius of the Olympics, and the central paradox, is that they are simultaneously both tribal and universal. We watch in some ways to celebrate our own nation and measure it against other nations. We also watch for those transcendent moments where our common humanity seems to be thrust into startling relief.”

— Mark Dyreson

Although we are in the midst of the Sochi Games, the world is already looking to the Rio Summer Games in 2016. What are you most looking forward to, and what emerging trends or predictions are you watching for both the Games in Sochi, Rio and future host cities?

I love watching the Olympics for the narratives they create about nations and the globe, stories that develop and grow in so many unexpected and startling ways. You never know what’s going to happen.

The genius of the Olympics, and the central paradox, is that they are simultaneously both tribal and universal. We watch in some ways to celebrate our own nation and measure it against other nations. We also watch for those transcendent moments where our common humanity seems to be thrust into startling relief. I watch, as I suspect many around the world do, to see both what my own tribe can accomplish and how the human species will push at its own boundaries. The Super Bowl represents the largest shared common experience in contemporary U.S. culture. The Olympics represent, alongside the World Cup (which more than eight decades ago sprouted out of the Olympics), the largest shared common experience in contemporary global cultures.

My fear for Sochi is that it might become a stage for global terrorism. It could happen at any world event, but given Sochi’s location at this moment in world history, nervousness seems warranted. My hope for Sochi is that nothing terrible happens. My hope for Rio is that Brazil demonstrates to the world that it is an emerging and dynamic power that can overcome a myriad of social and economic problems to stage a dazzling event. My fear for Rio is that it fumbles its chance and the prospects for the Olympics moving beyond the wealthiest neighborhoods on the globe diminishes for decades — keeping Latin America, Africa and much of Asia outside of the orbit of potential Olympic hosts.

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Last Updated February 18, 2014