Politics and Media at Early Winter Games

Credit card companies, fast food chains and beer producers use the Olympics to sell their products, but countries also use the Olympics to push their values and ideals on the world community, said Professor Mark Dyreson.

Dyreson spoke Thursday in Orson Spencer Hall about the nationalistic push of the United States and the role of the media during the first four Winter Games (from 1924 to 1936) in the sixth lecture of the Tanner Humanities Center’s series on the Olympics.

“Long before the contentious debate surrounding whether or not the 2002 Winter Games are in fact the ‘Mormon Games,’ religious battles broke out over American participation in the Olympics,” said Dyreson, who is a professor of history and kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University.

In the 1900 Paris Games, the U.S. team threatened to boycott events held on Sundays. The most extreme case was when Americans demanded the French organizers move the Opening Ceremonies from Sunday, July 15 to Saturday, July 14, Bastille Day, “the holiest day in the French national calendar,” he said.

Debates concerning alcohol consumption also erupted well before now.

“During the prohibition era of the 1920s and early 1930s, the issue of ‘demon rum’ at Olympic venues sparked spirited debates,” he said.

At the 1924 Paris Olympics, the American Organizing Committee requested “dry zones” for U.S. athletes, which “the French found ludicrous,” Dyreson said.

The 2002 Games will provide another chance for the United States to push its ideals on the world, but Dyerson said he will wait with the rest of the world to see the extent.

From the beginning of the Winter Games, the media has looked upon them as “an absurd but strangely entertaining sideshow.” The media focused on the outfits of the female ice skaters rather than their athleticism, Dyreson said.

At the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, in 1924, the American media called the Games “too European” for American athletes and spectators.

In 1928, at St. Moritz, Switzerland, the U.S. press mocked the Games again, writing comical articles about the Olympics that portrayed skiing events as “trifles that had little appeal to the American public.”

In 1932, at Lake Placid, N.Y., where the U.S. team was successful because the Depression forced international teams to send less participants, the press continued to mock the festival.

Dyreson joked about W.O. McGeehan of the New York Herald-Tribune when the writer suggested that the ancient Greeks would never have taken up ski jumping because they preferred hemlock for their suicides in order to preserve the body’s appearance. McGeehan also made demonstration-sport sled dogs the true heroes of the Winter Games.

Dyreson used Governor Mike Leavitt’s words and referred to the 2002 Games as Utah’s “branding moment.”

Because the media so strongly mocked the Winter Games, the 2002 Olympics may not be the best venue for Utah to tell its story to the world, Dyreson said.

“The choice to make the Winter Olympics Utah’s branding moment for the twenty-first century is probably not the wisest strategy for local image-makers to adopt,” he said.

He mentioned the impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and said they would only add to the “star spangled spectacle” of the 2002 Games.

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