Laissez-Faire Sport

Avery Brundage’s Neoliberal Olympic Vision

Avery Brundage speaking during the 1948 London Olympics
It did not trouble him that what he stood for existed mostly in his own mind. 
-Red Smith on Avery Brundage


Powerful men tend to leave complex pictures of themselves. Yet views of Avery Brundage across academic literature seem remarkably unified. The man reigned over the international sporting community for decades, and the picture of him that has developed since then seems relatively uniform. Brundage was an ideologue, a zealot of Olympism from his beginnings as an athlete to his time as President of the International Olympic Committee. His commitment to the values handed down by Olympic revivalist Baron Pierre de Coubertin are near unimpeachable, and can be seen as informing his actions in every position he held during his illustrious career. Brundage fought against anything that he perceived as a threat to his beloved Olympic ethos, from political encroachment by worldly governments to the more abstract forces of professionalization and commercialism. He left no question as to many of his beliefs. Brundage is viewed as a sort of last bulwark from the total neoliberalization of the Olympics. As political scientist Jules Boykoff wrote, “Brundage crusaded against the commercialization of the Olympics. […] But by the time Juan Antonio Samaranch took the IOC helm in 1980, neoliberalism was ascendant and Samaranch was ready to attach the Games to capital’s rising star.” In one 1966 session of the IOC, Brundage claimed that

There will always be a struggle in the face of political and commercial encroachment, to maintain the high standards which belong to the Olympic Movement.

Despite these frequent tirades, I will try to offer an alternative lens through which to view the man, suggesting that, perhaps it was it was a mixture of ideology and narcissism that drove him to govern the way he did, relying as he did on personal experience to inform policy. I will show how his personal experience, the epitome of ‘bootstrapism’ and the American Dream, is an inherently capitalist idea, concluding that, while Brundage certainly did not take every opportunity to monetize the Olympics, he was inadvertently very much responsible for steering the Games in that direction.

Like any tragic hero, to understand Brundage at his peak, we must look to his origins, for they are what informed his worldview more than anything else. Brundage’s story is a Horatio Alger tale come to life. Born in Detroit in 1887, Brundage was reared in a single-parent household, leaving much to be desired, economically speaking. He took to sport at a young age, writing

I liked to play football, baseball, basketball and all the other games as well, but track and field events appealed to me particularly because they are a demonstration of individual skill and supremacy. The track athlete stands or falls on his own merits.
A young Brundage at the 1912 Olympics

Brundage eventually rose from his humble beginnings to attend college at the University of Illinois, earning a spot and excelling on their track and field team. Throughout life, he would continue to romanticize the improvised training regimen of his youth. His athletic skills would carry him all the way to the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, where he would compete in both the pentathlon and heptathlon, ultimately losing to fellow American Jim Thorpe. Thorpe was later disqualified for previously being paid to play a different sport. Though the medals Thorpe earned there were later restored to him, it was not until after Brundage died, as Brundage believed “the fateful punishment meted out to the hero was fully justified by the hero’s moral inadequacy.” At those Games, Brundage was disgraced as well. He dropped out of the 1500-meter race in the decathlon because he was so far behind in the point total, an act he would later describe as “unforgiveable.” Historian Allen Guttman noted that this failure would continue to haunt him for the rest of his life. These two simultaneous episodes show how Brundage viewed athletics as a kind of performative morality, and thus that failures in athletics were moral failures. Even to not be involved in athletics at all, he wrote, “to not develop the latent possibilities of the human body is a crime, since it certainly violates the law of nature.” As he said in a speech at the 1952 banquet during which he was inaugurated as IOC President,

We live in a world that is sick socially, politically, and economically. It is sick for only one reason-lack of fair play and good sportsmanship in human relations. We must keep the Olympic heights of idealism, for it will surely die if it is permitted to descend to more sordid levels.

Olympism, according to him, was the asocial, apolitical, noneconomic panacea to all the conflicts between man. As such, it must be insulated from the humanly imperfect notions of sectarian politics and economics. Different from sport escapists that make similarly sounding arguments, Brundage believed that sports existed on a plane above more human concerns:

The bitter feelings engendered, the attempted coercion and intimidation by fair means or foul, the vicious and insidious propaganda which are being used in this campaign largely by individuals who have never learned the lesson of amateur sport and thus do not hesitate to use methods contrary to all codes of sportsmanship, are an indication of what may be expected if religious, racial, class or political issues are allowed to intrude in the council halls of sport where they have no place.

Of course, things that may seem apolitical to him may just appear so because the prevailing political atmosphere has become so banal as to almost disappear completely. Such is the case when he wrote in a 1948 letter, “I seriously doubt that it is possible to have friendly sport contacts with any country that adheres to the Communist system.” The reason he gives for this is that Communists bring politics into everything, and the International Olympic Committee was nominally apolitical. But when everybody that makes up the IOC hails from similar cultures, and all adhere to the same general Western liberal paradigms of politics and economics, agreement on such things can be mistaken for the absence of them. As Harvey wrote, “Neoliberalism has […] become hegemonic as a mode of discourse. It has pervasive effects on ways of thought to the point where it has become incorporated into the common-sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world.” This seems to have been the case with Brundage and his compatriots. The political messages they put out were so universally accepted that they were viewed as nonpolitical. The bubble they were in was so thick that it took a Revolution to get through.

It can be argued, as historian Seth Kessler does, that the Olympic Games themselves were never even about sport for sport’s sake, as much as Brundage may have wanted them to be. Rather, the Games were simply the vehicle for the spread of the inherently political ideology of Olympism. As Coubertin described it in 1896,

Healthy democracy, wise and peaceful internationalism, will penetrate the new stadium and preserve within it the cult of honour and disinterestedness which will enable athletics to help in the tasks of moral education and social peace as well as of muscular development.

If Brundage ever made the same observation as his master, he does not seem to have recorded it.

Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olmpic Movement

As one would expect considering his rags-to-riches tale, Brundage’s professed political positions were strictly Republican, saying at one point that “People like me haven’t had anyone to vote for since Hoover and Coolidge.” This manifested itself most importantly for our purposes in a taste for unbridled capitalism and a deeply ironic isolationism. But as cultural historian John Hoberman explains, Brundage would pick and choose where to apply these ideologies. “Brundage opposed American intervention in foreign affairs when it involved partisanship or […] when it involved conflict. But he did favor “foreign affairs” in the form of the Olympic movement’s fraternalism.” He opposed the United States’ role in both World War I and, more famously, World War II. He chaired the Citizens’ Keep America Out of War Committee and was also involved in the America First Committee. But during non-war time, he was the leading cheerleader for the internationalist movement, personally intervening in foreign affairs on multiple occasions as Patient Zero for Western liberal ideology, specifically in Germany and the Far East, As Hoberman wrote, “Brundage saw himself as the Great Reconciler, reassembling broken nations as though he were putting together the pieces of a global puzzle.”

Avery Brundage’s American Dream

The American Dream as a concept traces back to the very founding of our country, in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The idea of the being ‘created equal’, of the right to ‘pursue happiness’ ensure not that each American life will have a positive outcome, but rather that it will have the same chance to achieve a positive outcome as every other American life. This idea is clearly a manifestation of the Protestant faith of the architects of the document, a mythos has over time bled into the country’s collective conscious. Now, upward social mobility is seen as immensely possible for those that will just reach out and grab it. Though the idea has long been part of this country’s mythology, the term itself was not popularized until the 20th century, where historian James Truslow Adams described it thusly:

But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. […] It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

In plain terms, it is the dream of meritocracy. The myth has remained remarkably inelastic over time, as much more recently President Bill Clinton’s interpretation of the subject seems almost identical. As he said, “The American dream that we were all raised on is a simple but powerful one — if you work hard and play by the rules you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you.” James Catano, a linguistic theorist, explained that the staying power of the myth is rooted in the way it can be molded to fit different contexts without altering the rhetoric. For example, politically, “the myth serves to enunciate ideals of democratic progress and individuality,” while economically helping to mask inequality by providing false hope to many, and educationally, “there is a strong, positive value attached to the idea of an interplay between self-formation and the acquisition of academic skills.”

It’s not hard to see how Avery Brundage’s own life fits as evidence of this dream. From humble beginnings, he amassed an empire of businesses, mines, and oil fields, becoming a millionaire several times over. But just like the Dream itself and the promises of neoliberalism, Brundage’s destitute origins are also mythologized. Despite the absentee father and poor mother, Brundage’s uncle was a successful lawyer who rose to become Attorney General of Illinois and a prominent member of the Chicago Republican Party, and who seems to have been involved in his nephew’s life. But Brundage seems to have never acknowledged any benefit from association with his uncle. While this can be read as the uncle simply taking no interest in young Avery, a more consistent reading would be that Brundage failed to see the ways that this association would have made life easier for him. Because of his own experiences to the contrary, Brundage had no time for factors like socioeconomic status or race that could privilege one human over another. The world was a meritocracy, and people were only separated based on talent and work ethic. And it was not as if Brundage was never presented with evidence to the contrary. As Guttman wrote in his biography of the man, despite being shown numerous times that so-called ‘poor boys,’ whom Brundage claimed won 95% of Olympic Medals, were actually vastly underrepresented in the Olympics, he “simply ridiculed empirical studies of sports and blames sociologists like Gregory Stone and Guenther Lueschen for not doing their scholarly work properly and for contaminating youth “by their laxity in enforcing regulations.”” But even if empirical analysis was not to his liking, Brundage could simply have talked to his coworker, the Olympic gold-medalist David Cecil, the Marquess of Exeter. Alas, he did neither, instead writing that he had “never known nor even heard of one single athlete who was too poor to participate in the Olympic Games,” the message being that the Games were accessible to anyone willing to make the necessary sacrifices to get there.

The Protestant Work Ethic

Max Weber

The connection between the American Dream, the Protestant roots that defined it, and the economic system that Brundage championed are made most explicit in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber’s work is in reaction to Karl Marx’s material analysis. Weber claimed that capitalism actually grew out of Protestant beliefs. Protestantism taught that only a few predetermined ‘Elect’ would be saved, and that those chosen few could be identified on Earth by their impressive work ethic and ascetic, or frugal, lifestyle. This led to Protestants in both Europe and North America increasing their productivity and reinvesting newly acquired capital into the community for the first time in efforts to prove their Electedness. From these beginnings rose the capitalist system that spread across much of the Western world.

Though Brundage certainly did not lead an ascetic life as ascribed by Weber, instead building one of the world’s most impressive private collections of East Asian art, his belief in hard work as a moral prescriptive fits neatly in with Weber’s work. And though “the absence of bibliographic resources […] in the first half of the 20th century makes it impossible to gauge how widely Weber’s essay was read and discussed”, we do know that it first came to the United States in 1930. This, coupled with the image of the cosmopolitan icon that Brundage viewed himself as, makes it eminently possible that he read Weber’s work. Guttman reported Brundage’s agreement when a Russian athlete told him, “Sports without self-denial and self-conquest are merely amusement.” Combined with Brundage’s fetishization of the grueling labor of his youth, we can see how ingrained this Protestant capitalist ideal was in him.

The Neoliberal Olympics

Neoliberalism is a concept so sprawling that it escapes easy definition, but is, generally speaking, an economic system that is representative of the styles of capitalism that has dominated the 20th century. As Kessler wrote, it is as “economic discourse that advocates for the freer movements of goods, limited governmental intervention, creation of an unencumbered global market, easier free trade, and the maximization of profits and efficiency.” Kessler cites anthropologist Richard Robbins in providing five key principles of neoliberal ideology:

1) human progress is best achieved through sustained economic growth; 2) free markets — i.e., markets without governmental interference — are the most efficient and socially optimal allocation of resources; 3) everyone all across the world would benefit from economic globalization; 4) privatization removes public sector inefficiencies; and 5) governments’ main economic function should be to provide infrastructure designed to advance the rule of law, especially law concerning property rights and contracts.

Neoliberalism was seen as a cure for many of the world’s ills, from hunger to poverty. Perceptions of neoliberalism by those that adhered to it closely mirrored Brundage’s views on Olympism detailed earlier. We can see from Brundage’s record during his time in the public eye that he championed several of these principles during his time in the IOC. And Brundage’s reign was prior to neoliberal ideology becoming totally mainstream during the two-pronged assault on human dignity that was the Reagan-Thatcher era. Kessler states that the rise of ‘the neoliberalism discourse’ was a direct precursor to globalization, and remains a driver of it, but Brundage’s work in the IOC seems to be an example of globalization preceding the neoliberal discourse. Globalism specifically, along with freedom from government intervention, are the pillars that Brundage aggressively championed during his time at the helm of the IOC.

Brundage in the IOC

Brundage was a self-proclaimed capitalist outside of his Olympic duties. He clearly never meant for that to impact his precious Games. But many of the moves he made to insulate the Games from the outside world actually brought them more in line with neoliberal ideals. The first was his desire to aggressively spread Olympism to all corners of the Earth, to effectively make every nation a market for the Olympic Movement. Hoberman defined this concept as ‘amoral universalism’, “the traditional Olympic dogma that all human tribes must take part in the Games, no matter how repressive or inhumane their governments may be.” This trend was accelerated rapidly during Brundage’s time. When he first rose to international prominence for his role in the 1936 Olympic Games, there were 49 nations participating. By the time he retired in 1972, that number had almost tripled to 127 nations. Examples of his active role in spreading the tendrils of Olympism abound. He was an early proponent of women’s sports in the Olympics, writing in a 1930 letter to Knute Rockne,

Anyone who observed the exhibitions put on by girl athletes in connection with the Olympic Congress in Berlin would be a strong advocate for sports of all kinds for girls under proper supervision. They are really doing some wonderful things in the athletic line in Germany today.

He was also a longtime detractor from the Winter Games, seeing that, as those sports were much more dependent on a nation’s geography and climate, they could never achieve the type of universalism that the Summer Games could (this was the only type of structural access issues he ever deigned to recognize). He invested much of his time to ensure the participation of both East and West Germany, as well as both mainland China and Taiwan. In 1958, Brundage is recorded in the IOC Executive Board meeting minutes as arguing in favor of the participation of territories separately from their larger nation, a position that would further increase the market for the Olympics. This is consistent of his stance on the issues of German inclusion in the Games in 1936 and South African inclusion during apartheid as well. Similarly, Brundage was quick to get the Olympic Games to Japan after the Second World War, reincorporating them into the Movement. As discussed previously, it seems the only act a nation could commit that would warrant anything but enthusiastic support from Brundage would be to be communist, to exist outside the neoliberal order.

Additionally, Brundage worked fanatically to eliminate government oversight of the Olympic Movement. Brundage had a longstanding desire to have national flags lowered during the Opening Ceremony when the Olympic flag was raised, as well as to replace national anthems during medal ceremonies with an Olympic anthem. These are symbolic of his belief that the Olympic Movement existed outside, or above, national governments. He insisted that Olympic representatives were delegates from the IOC to the various nations, not the other way around. In one meeting of the Executive Board in 1961, Brundage went even further, suggesting they remove nations from the equation entirely, and IOC member-ambassadors would instead represent the committee to specific sports. At a similar meeting three years prior, he emphasized the importance of national committees being financially solvent so as not to be dependent on, and thus indebted to, national governments. As he said on a different occasion, “Government subsidy too often means governmental interference which, of course, is quite contrary to the spirit of the Olympic Movement.”

Finally, Brundage stood firmly against the organization of athletic unions for amateurs as well as organized bodies of national committees. In that they can be viewed as similar to labor unions, Brundage’s behavior is consistent with that of a neoliberal businessman looking to suppress labor costs. Throughout the 1960s, he often had to work to quell rebellion from within the Olympic ranks, as national committees attempted to organize a Permanent General Assembly to more equitably have their voices heard by the Executive Committee.


It would be untruthful to say that Brundage actively, or knowingly, worked for the neoliberalization of the Olympic Games. But it would be similarly irresponsible to cast him as the purist crusader against the prevailing tide. On the aggregate, he certainly did less to monetize the Games than any of the men that came after him, but he was also clearly more neoliberal than his predecessors. He repeatedly voiced his concerns about the effect television money would have on the Games. But as much as he groused about it, he certainly abetted their early development. Brundage’s acceptance, however reluctant, of television revenue was a clear inflection point for the Games. As sport sociologist Howard Nixon wrote on the subject, “Bureaucracies become commercial enterprises when they are organized to generate financial revenues and profits.” It can be said for certain that Brundage enjoyed the fruits of a commoditized Games. In 1964, when the television money was starting to trickle in and the impact was showing, he expressed his appreciation by referring to the newly constructed Olympic venues as a “cathedral of sports.”

Hypocrisy exists between Brundage’s state ideological beliefs and his recorded actions. But this hypocrisy almost seems appropriate for the world of smoke and mirrors that he lived in. The very Olympism that Brundage based his whole personal identity on was in many ways a sham. Despite the preening of de Coubertin, the modern Olympics were really revived as a political tool. Boykoff argues that for de Coubertin, they were “the means to reinvigorate the French nation after the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War.” Similarly, the roots of amateurism that Brundage spent much of both his life and social capital defending were much shallower than he seemed to believe. As late as the 1960s, he would argue that “The amateur code coming to us from antiquity embraces the highest moral laws.” But regarding amateurism in the Ancient Olympics, Nixon wrote,

The association of amateurism with the Olympic Games is somewhat ironic because the birth of professionalism in sport can be traced to the ancient Olympics. In 594 B.C., Solon decreed that any Athenian who was a victor in the Olympics should receive 500 drachmae, which was equivalent to 100 oxen.

So it should not come as a surprise that the consummate champion of Olympism was himself a walking contradiction. Brundage’s term as President of the IOC inarguably heralded a rise in globalization, as well as an aggressive attack on all sorts of governmental influence. So while these things are not in and of themselves the same thing as the outright commercialization that would soon come to the Games, they were certainly harbingers of it.