HIST 220 │ The Olympic Games: A Global History

Professor Matthew Andrews

In this course, we will use the modern Olympic Games (1896-present) as a way to learn about both global sport and the wider story of modern international relations. On the one hand, then this a sport history course – one in which we will explore (among other things) the nineteenth-century British ideologies of amateurism and Muscular Christianity; the use of sport by governments for nationalistic propaganda; the ways that Olympic competitors (and non-competitors) have used the Games to protest their government or the global political order; issues of race, gender and the question of who is a “real” athlete; and the history of “doping” in sports.

But this is also a course on political history and international relations. To study the Olympic Games is to study the rise of nationalism and the “new imperialism”; Nazi fascism – and the response to it – in the 1930s; Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union; independence movements in the Global South; South African apartheid and the international anti-apartheid movement; tensions between mainland China and Taiwan; the question of a divided Germany; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and the evolving definition of “human rights.” These and other political phenomena are a significant part of this course.

Through this program, we will explore the paradox of an event that was created to celebrate human commonality but one that requires athletes to compete as representatives of different nations. We will discuss how a celebratory gathering intended to enrich competitors and spectators often leaves host cities and nations in staggering debt. And we will ask whether the Olympic Games have helped mend political divides and ease international tensions, whether the Games have actually served to exacerbate these conflicts, or whether the Olympics are, in the end, politically meaningless.