Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

Selling the United States to the World: Developing Domestic and Global Markets for Olympic Spectacles in the 1920s and 1930s

Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

Selling the United States to the World: Developing Domestic and Global Markets for Olympic Spectacles in the 1920s and 1930s

Article excerpt

By the time the Olympic Games came to Los Angeles in 1932 to celebrate the enduring dreams of American visions of consumer capitalism even in the midst of the Great Depression, American entrepreneurs had developed powerful national and international markets in which to market Olympian spectacles. (1) During the 1920s the Olympics became a major global phenomenon that, like the older system of world's fairs on which much of the Olympic structure was based, provided a key international technology for communicating fundamental ideas about culture to global audiences. (2) In the era of "prosperity" that preceded the Great Depression, the United States perfected a strategy of selling American culture at Olympic venues. As the American Olympic leader Colonel Robert Means Thompson fondly proclaimed throughout the 1920s, the fundamental purpose for sending American teams to the Olympics was to "sell the United States to the rest of the world." (3)

At Antwerp in 1920, at Paris and Chamonix in 1924, and at Amsterdam and St. Moritz in 1928, Thompson and his partners in the American Olympic cartel perfected the process of selling the United States to the world. Their efforts also made the Olympics a popular domestic product, as the industrious American quest to capture the 1932 summer and winter games revealed. Shrewd operators who had previously manifested little interest in the Olympics came to understand the possibilities of the Olympic brand. Certainly General Douglas MacArthur grasped the new market opportunity. In 1928 as an Olympic novice he led the American team to Amsterdam in order to bolster his rasuma for a potential bid for the presidency. He needed civilian accomplishments to compliment his illustrious military record in order to keep his future political ambitions alive. He chose the "common language of sport," as the sportswriter John R. Tunis dubbed it, (4) to connect with potential voters. MacArthur's choice was no accident. His odes to "athletic America" attached his name and fame to the national fascination with Olympic sport. (5)

MacArthur was not the only cunning courtier of popular favor to use the Olympics to gain distinction. A variety of entrepreneurs exploited the Olympics in order to craft market niches in the national sporting industry. Some athletes used their celebrity to develop careers in the media and entertainment businesses. Sprinter Ray Barbuti, fresh from a starring role in Amsterdam, found himself marketed as a traditional American sporting hero. Veteran speedster Charley Paddock, in spite of his poor showing in Amsterdam, continued to market himself as the leading man of the American team-a role he played throughout the 1920s. American women Olympians even found a few opportunities to capitalize on their renown, albeit in exploitative aquacades, or in carnivalesque swimming escapades, or in cinematic frivolities. Clever sporting moguls developed a thriving entertainment business showcasing foreign Olympic stars, most prominently skater Sonja Henie, distance-runner Paavo Nurmi, and marathon phenomenon Abdel Baghinel El Ouafi, in smartly packaged spectacles for American audiences. (6)

In Olympic marketing, American swimming sensation Johnny Weissmuller's visage outsold every other contender, both foreign and domestic. After turning professional shortly after the 1928 Games the swimming sensation dabbled briefly in vaudeville-inspired water shows and then moved to Hollywood. From the center of the new American consumer culture Weissmuller quickly catapulted into a global celebrity who symbolized the dreams and desires of "athletic America." He became the body and face recognized as readily on the streets of Ulan Bator, Djakarta, Beijing, and Baghdad, as he was on the sidewalks of New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. Weissmuller became the ultimate symbol of the American team, transforming a less-than glamorous sport into an element in leisure-filled lifestyle favored by an emerging global bourgeoisie. …

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