7 November 2001 | Spleen
The evil this reveals lies precisely where we least expect it to - here and now
It was the 1936 Berlin Games that introduced the opening ceremony, the torch relay, the three-tiered presentation ceremony, and the overall sense of lavish, religious spectacle. In a way these are the first modern games. Does it worry you that most of the stuff we most fondly associate with the Olympics originated with the Nazis? It doesn't worry me: the Nazis' moral sense may have been deplorable, but their aesthetic sense was not nearly so bad as people like to pretend.
The most striking thing about Riefenstahl's documentary, viewed today, is its good taste. I admit I haven't seen the whole thing. Split into two parts for German release, it was edited somewhat and released simply as "Olympia" elsewhere, and it's "Olympia" that I've seen. I mention this because it's quite possible that "Olympia" is the version with the jingoism edited out. But I don't think so. (Surely if the film were to wave the swastika offensively, it would do so around the beginning, and the introductory sequence is just marvellous - it no more deserves to be associated with Nazism than Orff's "Carmina Burana".) In any case, if they edited all the jingoism out of a modern, two-hundred-hour Olympic telecast, it would last about ten minutes. It's amazing how much more crass and brazenly nationalistic modern coverage is when compared with Nazi propaganda. Riefenstahl shows races won by people other than Germans (and yes, some of them are non-Aryan) - she even shows us enough of the presentation ceremonies afterwards for us to be able to hear other national anthems! During the local coverage of the Sydney games I heard NOTHING but "Advance Australia Fair". Only other Australians can fully appreciate the horror of this.
Australian sports coverage, of course, was much better when it was in the hands of the state (or rather, the state-owned ABC network) ... but then, Australia is a democracy; the real shock is finding out that even HITLER'S regime could produce more even-handed, tasteful and intelligent Olympics coverage than we'll ever see from a modern commercial network.
Riefenstahl's footage is also more beautiful and better edited, and the athletes in general look LESS like fascist monuments and more like human beings than they do today. But that goes without saying.