The Olympic spirit has a home in Mainz

5 October 2012

Professor Dr. Norbert Müller has played an important role in forming the modern image of the Olympics. He advises the International Olympic Committee in various posts, is initiating new projects, and has always been a passionate defender of the Olympic ideal, which he considers more important than all the medals.

Norbert Müller was, of course, in London – after all, he couldn't let this year's Olympic Games and Paralympics simply pass him by. And, of course, he was not alone but in the company of "his" students, who carried out an extensive survey of the visitors – as they have done since 1988. "When I go to the IOC Committee to present my findings they are always absolutely riveted," says the Professor Emeritus of Sports Science at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), who has been in retirement only since April 2012. The Olympic Committee has consistently placed great weight on the roughly 12,000 surveys he has completed to date.

Müller invited us to his home in Mainz. On the table in front of him are some of the writings and publications that he and his assistants have published on the topic of Olympia. There is also a CD containing 265 papers from his students. The professor sits in an easy chair, holding a copy of the Mainz Collective Report on Beijing 2008. Several busts of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern games, peer at us from a cabinet. They were created by the renowned Mainz sculptor Karlheinz Oswald.

The trauma of Munich 1972

Later Müller invites us up to see his office in the attic, where his accreditations from the Olympic Committee are hanging over his desk. Munich 1972 is included. Back then, he was the 25-year-old head of protocol for the Olympic Village. The assassination of the Israeli athletes was such a traumatic event for him that it took decades before he could talk about it...

But back to the present and back down to his living room. The London games fascinated him. "Everything was excellently planned down to the last detail." However, there was at least one detail that annoyed his students. "They told me that non-British athletes were largely ignored in the public outdoor screenings." British cameras focused on British athletes.

And, to stay with the subject of criticism for the moment, he added: "Sadly, catcalling and booing also now seem to have been imported into the Olympic Games – the British behaved very well, but some of the visitors acted atrociously." And then there were the reports in the German media: "I didn't see it myself directly, but the way that they chose to castigate the German swimming team was really deplorable."

About the creator of the Olympic values

The ideals behind the Olympics are one of Müller's favorite topics. From 1970 to 1974 he wrote his dissertation on Coubertin, focusing on his Olympic values and ideals. In the meantime, the sports researcher has produced various editions of the works of the French educator and published these in several languages. His latest effort is a CD-ROM with Coubertin's collected works, running to 17,000 pages. This took Müller decades to complete, but he managed it just in time for the 150th anniversary of Coubertin’s birth. "When I started, there were 300 known articles by Coubertin – now there are 1,300."

This is just one of Müller's many extraordinary accomplishments. Many more could be named but doing so would fill a book. He is also a member of the IOC Commission for Culture and Olympic Education, founder of the Olympic Research Group at the Institute of Sports Science at JGU, while in Olympia itself he helped an archaeologist colleague look for the site of the original ancient hippodrome. "I knew that it was located exactly where I go jogging when I visit Olympia every year."

Olympia as an outpost of Mainz

Müller was still young when he first got to know the site of the ancient games. From 1968, he attended summer courses of the International Olympic Academy there, while in 1975 he himself returned there as an academic instructor, and in 1982 he set up a summer academy for Mainz students. "We made Olympia an outpost of Mainz."

Already in 1966, Müller had enrolled at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. He joined the university sports club USC Mainz, where he was an effective track athlete. He managed a height of 1.96 meters in the high jump. "Sadly it wasn’t not enough to qualify to compete in the Olympic Games!" In the early 1970s, as a young research associate, he decided to specialize in a subject that was still largely ignored: sport for the disabled. This is a topic that still concerns him deeply today.

"When I sat on the IOC 2000 Reform Commission in 1999, I was the only one who discussed the Paralympics," he recalls. There was talk of integrating ten Paralympic disciplines into the Games. It didn't work out, but the Paralympics became ever more important, achieving its most recent pinnacle in London.

The human face of the Paralympics

"When the Olympic Games are successful, this generates an excitement that needs continuity." And this is exactly what the London Paralympics did. "People came back from their vacation, the school students all returned." And the stadiums were filled.

"The British have decades of experience when it comes to integrating the handicapped into society." And they played their trump card well. Plenty of handicapped people also attended the sporting events as spectators. "So I said: 'The Paralympics represent the human face of the Games.'" Of course, this is not something the IOC wants to hear, but I sit on a lot of committees including those of the IOC, where I make my voice heard."

"The Paralympics have brought about a lot of change over the past few years," says Müller. "Just look at China." It is part of the country's one-child-policy that parents are allowed to place a handicapped child in an orphanage. The handicapped did not play any role in society for a very long time. "Now China is way up there in the Paralympics medal count. It got even better in London. At last the handicapped have been allowed to emerge from the shadows in China."

"I would like to start a discussion"

Such topics are close to Müller's Catholic heart although as an expert he cannot refrain from voicing criticism of the London Paralympics. "The 800 gold medal competitions that there were in Athens in 2004 have been reduced to 480, and there is a mixing of handicap classifications which can lead to massive unfairness." Athletes with handicaps that are not strictly speaking comparable have to compete in the same events. Müller thinks this is ridiculous. "I want to start a discussion about this."

Our talk flows from one subject to another under the watchful eyes of Pierre de Coubertin. There is the medal with the likeness of the founder of the Olympic Games. During his daughter's graduation ceremony, Müller had realized that prizes were awarded for all sorts of subjects, but none for extraordinary performances in athletics. So he created a prize which is now awarded at around 3,500 schools throughout Germany.

And to stay with the subject of schools: in 1995, Müller had the idea of creating a network of so-called Coubertin Schools around the world. He talked to IOC President Samaranch about it and now there are about 100 such schools in 40 countries.

A day with Nelson Mandela

"I always sought out special situations and then took advantage of the resulting opportunities," states Müller. Life brought him together with people who enlightened and helped him. "In 1997, it was I who was lucky enough to personally present the Fair Play Award to Nelson Mandela. We spent the entire day together." Müller pauses for a moment. "I have been very lucky in my life."

But one day in 1972, it looked like his luck had run out: Palestinians attacked the Olympic Village and murdered Israeli athletes. The 25-year-old was there when it happened. "I wasn't able to talk about it for a very long time." His students helped him: "Professor Müller, just tell us about it."

And he does. For two hours he held us enthralled in his home in Mainz. However, he still much prefers to talk about other things than what happened in Munich in 1972. As he says: "Talking alone is not enough."

And this is a tenet he intends to follow in the future. Rio is ahead, students have already asked if they can come along to the Games. "In Rio, it will be the better-off who will be celebrating at the Games," Müller notes gravely. "If it becomes necessary, the favelas will simply be moved."

It is impossible to conceive of this man in retirement. He is still driven by his interests and there is still so much he wants to change. He has just been appointed to the Chair of Olympic Studies at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain for 2012. The University of Kaiserslautern has also recognized the importance of Olympic research and appointed Müller a Senior Professor following his age-related retirement from JGU.