The anthropologist Clifford Geertz explained that sport is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. In that idea, he captured the way that sport serves a social function. From the skills we test to the physical challenges we endure, we use sport to define ourselves, our society, and even our worldview. Thus it is unsurprising that the stories which surround sport matter so much. The legends of athletes such as Jesse Owens, Babe Didrikson, Roger Bannister, Arthur Ashe, and many more, embody ideals that we value. Even the Olympic Games—an assembly of the best and most talented from around the world—embody our modern fascination with pursuit of excellence and the quest for ultimate performance.
But what happens when we start rewriting history?
We have a number of recent examples of history being rewritten through sport. The opening ceremony twice alluded to the fact that London was the first city to host the modern Olympic Games three times. This bit of information is only correct if you are willing to rewrite history. In fact, Athens has also hosted the Olympic Games three times (1896, 1906, and 2004). That’s right. Even though 1906 is not an Olympic year, the IOC decided to hold a special 10-year anniversary of the Olympic Games after the confusing 1904 St. Louis Games. At that time, the nascent Olympic Movement had left Europe for the first time and found a mixed response as it hoped the then-popular World’s Fair would provide it with increased publicity. It didn’t, and the IOC quickly decided on a special Olympic Games to restore interest (and commercial viability).
This casual forgetting of the 1906 Athens Games, which the IOC has ceased to recognize as an “official” Olympic Games (even though at the time they billed it as one, gold medals and all), allows London to maintain its place as the “Founder of Modern Sport,” a claim that was reasserted more than once during the Opening Ceremonies.
Whether you judge London’s claim as fact or fiction likely reflects more how you feel about London, and Great Britain than how you interpret history. However, not all reworking of history are quite as morally neutral (although as I will explain later rewriting history is never morally neutral). Consider the NCAA’s efforts to rewrite its own history by vacating all of Coach Joe Paterno’s wins going back to 1998. While reports indicate that Paterno participated in covering up Jerry Sandusky’s crimes, I fail to see how that action affects the outcome of football games. On the other hand it allows us to distance ourselves from the enabling (both near and far) of a culture that permitted such behavior. We can feel better by not having to deal with a complex legacy of Joe Paterno. Yet such rewriting is only deception. Paterno, and more importantly Paterno’s players, did win those games. And Paterno’s actions did not in any way delegitimize the on field results of the games. This was simply an effort to rewrite history so it tells a different story.
And these are not the only cases of such actions. Consider the myth about German Chancelor Adolph Hitler snubbing Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Games or the death of Danish cyclist Knud Jensen from amphetamines at the 1960 Rome Games. Sport is often the victim of those who wish to tell a different story.
By rewriting history, we avoid having to face systematic shortcomings in a society. We paint a rosy landscape of the past that ignores the hard cold reality of who we are. We make ourselves into something we are not so as to avoid seeing something we wish wasn’t true. When we begin rewriting false narratives about ourselves through sport, we not only begin down a morally destitute path of self-deception but we lose the self-knowledge that makes the story sport tells worth telling.