OK, let’s talk about the Olympics, then. But not the 2008 Beijing Olympics – rather, the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics! Yes, we pride ourselves here at EuroSavant on our solipsism, but the immediate motive for this nostalgic look 80 years backward is the excellent recent article in the Dutch newspaper Trouw by Haro Hielkema, Amsterdam: Example for the Rest, which is itself largely derived from the book Model voor de toekomst – Amsterdam, Olympische Spelen 1928 by Ruud Paauw and Jaap Visser (which was itself only published a few weeks ago, that is, just before the opening of the Beijing Games – which I bet will not surprise you at all).
A rough-and-ready approach to comparing those Olympics of yesterday with those of today is to treat the ways they are different and the ways that they are the same. Of course, the ways they are different predominate, but those differences are quite interesting. The most striking is the almost complete lack of support – indeed, the hostility – the 1928 Olympics received from the host-nation government. That partly was tied to one innovation which these Olympics were scheduled to (and which they did) introduce, namely participation for the first time of woman athletes, if only in the track-and-field and the gymnastics events. Unfortunately, the Netherlands at the time was quite a bit more of a Christian conservative – nay, even prudish – nation, governed by a right-wing coalition of the Protestant and Catholic religious parties. Right off the bat, the organizing committee had to promise that absolutely no Olympic activities would take place on Sunday, to desecrate the Sabbath day. But that was hardly enough of a concession to satisfy the religious critics, such as the spokesman for the Protestant party, the ARP (the “Anti-Revolutionary Party”) who maintained that the Games were fundamentally “of a heathenish character” and should not be allowed to put female athletes on display “in short skirts, thin clothing, and bobbed hair.” Other factions from the ARP (the party of the then-Minister of Finance Hendrik Colijn) expressed sincere alarm that, with all the foreigners they would attract, the Games would only increase the immorality that was already rife in Amsterdam. (Of course, that battle has long since been given up as lost.)
That Much Money – For Sports?
When it came right down to it, concluded many Dutch political figures, including those from the rather less-excitable Catholic party RKSP which wasn’t so worried about what might happen to the city’s morals, the one-million-guilder subsidy that Colijn proposed to pay to the Games (spread over four years) was simply too much money to go for mere sport, at a time when economic conditions in the Netherlands had already begun to worsen and such things as education and housing needed the money more. In the end, the proposal for that subsidy was voted down in the parliament; and a previous undertaking to set up a lottery to raise the funds the local Olympic committee needed to run the games had already been firmly shot down from the Finance Minister, who wanted no competition to the already-existing State Lottery that brought the government 650,000 guilders yearly in revenue.
So the Amsterdam Olympic Committee received no money from the state: none at all. As we have seen, it faced the hostility or at least the indifference of much of the Dutch population (including the Queen herself, Wilhelmina – she wasn’t very enthusiastic about sports). At the same time, in its first few years of existence it was staffed exclusively by volunteers (definitely a difference from the way things are run today) and could not even find a new chairman for a quite a while after the old one, Baron Frits van Tuyll van Serooskerken, suddenly died in 1924. All the while, the Committee faced sniping from other cities (Rome, Los Angeles) lobbying the International Olympic Committe to try to take the 1928 Games away from that “small city” Amsterdam, that clearly was having such a hard time.
Still, this Committee did it, they succeeded in bringing the 1928 summer games to Amsterdam and in staging them there successfully. How did they get their money? you ask. They begged for it from the public, from both within and outside the Netherlands. Indeed, they cleverly used the prospect of having to go outside the country for money (which they did anyway) to get more money from people inside the country: they appealed to “the whole [Dutch] people” to contribute to keep the country from “degrading to the class of international money-cadgers [klaploopers].” And they succeeded in raising 1.5 million guilders within the space of two weeks! It sounds unbelievable, but that’s what Paauw and Visser say in their book is what happened. (One interesting note: the newspaper Het Volk, reacting to the parliament’s rejection of the subsidy for the Olympics, claimed that by that action the Dutch had shown themselves to be “the Chinese of Europe” ; Chinese were at the time reputed to be rather skin-flint. Rather ironic in the light of 2008, eh?)
A Success After All
Yes, not only did the Amsterdam 1928 organizers raise enough funds, but they staged a very good iteration of the Summer Olympic Games – so much so, that many observers agreed that the 1928 Games were “a model for the future” – in fact, that was the precise phrase used by the chairman of the US Olympic Committee (which would run the next Summer Olympics, scheduled for 1932, in Los Angeles – and which had tried to steal the 1928 Summer Olympics), one General Douglas MacArthur.
The Amsterdam Olympic Stadium still stands there today, with its distinctive Olympic tower and the five rings, in the south part of town down towards the ring-highway/beltway, although these days it is too small to be of much use for most athletic or other public events. (There’s a nightclub now built in one of the sections along the side that people say is pretty good, by the way – but it is too far away and too isolated from anything else to be worth a visit for me, though.) More significantly, those Olympics pioneered several key aspects of the Summer Olympic Games that are still in use today. There’s the participation of women, of course, but it was in 1928 in Amsterdam that the competing teams paraded for the first time before the adoring assembled crowds at the opening ceremony, with the Greek contingent coming first of course.
And the Olympic flame – did you follow along earlier this year (like I did) as the Olympic flame made its way through Europe and other parts of the world, braving protesters and outright assailants behind its phalanx of identically-dressed, grim-faced, identically-Chinese bodyguards? Well, you can thank the Amsterdam Olympics for that – that’s when that somewhat quaint Olympic customer was introduced. You might even be relieved to hear further that the current Dutch Crown Prince, Willem Alexander (a member of the International Olympic Committee) has recently spoken out against this “wandering Olympic flame” custom, advocating instead that it appear in public only in Greece, for the lighting at Mount Olympus, and then in that year’s host-country.