Politics on the Podium

by Rick Bretz

The International Olympic Committee attempts to sprint from politics every year but since the beginning of the modern games in 1896, it has always hit a wall.  Right out of the starting blocks from the first Olympics, international leaders didn’t want to play nicely. As the committee wants to be neutral, try as they want to be, nations and individuals can’t keep the focus on just athletics.

Photo by Jim De Ramos on Pexels.com

The 1896 games in Athens, Greece, was a small event by today’s standards with only a few hundred athletes participating. This year’s games saw more than twice as many participants just from the United States alone. Nevertheless, the organizer of the first modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, had trouble convincing Germany and France to send athletes due to left over animosity from the Franco-Prussian War 20 years earlier.  From there, protests, boycotts and a nation’s headlining bad behavior have been the normal rather than the exception.

The list is long of politics interfering with the high concept of competition among several nation’s athletes at a designated city.  It seems that politicians and national leaders couldn’t resist making a statement by using the Olympics as a platform.  Instead of doing their jobs, they took the easy way out and boycotted. To use a current term, leaders weaponized the Olympics.

Olympic Boycott Matrix

Year/Country HostingBoycottReason
1936-GermanySpain and IrelandSpain due to differences with host nation/Ireland due to the division of Northern Ireland from the team (Note: US considered boycott due to reports of mistreatment of Jews.)
1956-AustraliaLiechtenstein, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden/Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq/People’s Republic of ChinaSoviet Invasion of Hungary/Suez Crisis/Refused to participate with The Republic of China (Taiwan)
1964-JapanPeople’s Republic Of China, North Korea and IndonesiaBoycott of first Games held in an Asian country after the IOC declared it would disqualify athletes who competed in the 1963 Jakarta-held Games of the New Emerging Forces.
1976-Canada26 African NationsDue IOC refusing to ban New Zealand for participating in a Rugby tour in in then banned South Africa.
1980-Soviet UnionUS and 62 other countriesSoviet invasion of Afghanistan
1984-United StatesSoviet Union and Eastern Bloc countriesSoviet Union stated, “for security reasons” but generally known as retaliation for US 1980 boycott.
1988-South KoreaNorth Korea, Cuba and EthiopiaDue to North Korea not being considered as a co-host for Olympics

Security in the Olympic Village didn’t become an issue until the Black September terrorist attack on the Israeli team at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  The killing of Israeli team members competing in the games demonstrated to the world what criminals could do given an international stage.  It’s a tragedy that organizers have been vigilant to prevent it from happening again.

https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israelis-killed-1972-munich-games-remembered-opening-ceremony-2021-07-23/

In addition to boycotts, the list of bans, protests, terrorists’ attacks and other political events are a part of the historical record.  These boycotts and protests and worse, terrorist incidents, have never been effective and probably delayed a resolution by angering countries who were banned or were targets. Boycotting never worked that well either.  For instance, the US and other countries’ 1980 boycott of the Soviet Olympics for the Afghanistan invasion didn’t resolve the issue near term. The Soviets didn’t exfiltrate that country until 1988 and not until after the Soviet government realized it was hemorrhaging hard currency to support a pro-communist government against the rebels.

This article explains the ineffectiveness of Olympic political events.

One of the more effective but subtle protests occurred at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics by Czechoslovakian gymnast Vera Caslavska. The games were televised extensively then by international media and broadcasted worldwide, including America’s ABC Sports.  Caslavska had earned many medals, many of them gold, by the 68 Olympics.  The Soviets had invaded Czechoslovakia due to increased social freedoms, the loosening of travel restrictions, and more freedom of the press by their country’s leadership.

Czechoslovakian gymnast Vera Caslavska bows her head on podium.

This “Prague Spring” brought on the Soviet tanks moving in and a harsh crack down.  Caslavaska, a blonde, television ready, charismatic gymnast, bowed her head and looked down on the podium stand when the Soviet anthem was played and the flag raised.  The whole world knew what the gesture meant and it was effective.  This article gives an interesting comparison to the other medal stand protest by John Carlos and Tommie Smith of the United States in the same Olympics.

https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/09/05/nfl-players-anthem-protest-cold-war-219632/

When countries began boycotting and corrupting the games beyond what it was meant to be, then individual athletes followed the example.  This prompted the Rule 50 by the IOC.  What is Rule 50?  Let’s go to the slow motion replay.

Rule 50 in the Olympic Charter document governs advertising, demonstrations, propaganda and states among other things that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”  Rule 50 was added in 1975. It was a way to keep demonstrations from overtaking the reason for everyone getting together in the first place; competing in athletic events. When the media rushes to an event, the cameras, announcers,  and writers are just waiting for a story and for someone to make a statement.

Olympic Charter Rule 50 Information

https://stillmedab.olympic.org/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/General/EN-Olympic-Charter.pdf#_ga=2.201997329.143367809.1618221951-1005385768.1610703980

https://olympics.com/ioc/news/ioc-athletes-commission-s-recommendations-on-rule-50-and-athlete-expression-at-the-olympic-games

Athletes can set the example

Sometimes, the athletes are the only adults in the room.  Take 1936 for example, when Adolf Hitler wanted to showcase German efficiency, Aryan athleticism and engineering, the world met for the Berlin games.  Jesse Owens competed against Luz Long in the long jump and after the competition, when Owens placed first and long second, Long was the first to congratulate him. Long befriended Owens and walked out of the stadium as friends.  Long did this in front of the Nazi power elite.  Owens and Long became friends until Long’s death during World War II. 

https://scroll.in/field/967461/a-friendship-that-triumphed-over-racism-luz-long-jesse-owens-and-a-lesson-for-humanity

The athletes seem to set the example by acting humanely and with respect toward other nation’s competitors. Maybe the athlete knows what kind of sacrifice and hard work is needed just to make it the Olympics, let alone medal at one. This year’s 2021 games at Tokyo has shown many examples of athletes giving each other a fist bump or even an embrace despite these COVID times.  Maybe national leaders can learn something from their behavior.

Notable Links:

https://www.history.com/topics/sports/olympic-games

https://www.jstor.org/stable/25827166

https://origins.osu.edu/article/playing-politics-olympic-controversies-past-and-present

https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/history-political-activism-olympics-rio/

https://www.statesman.com/story/news/politics/politifact/2021/06/29/olympics-ban-political-expression-all-forms-athletes-fact-check/7794786002/

https://www.history.com/news/olympic-boycotts

https://brainly.in/question/8775530

https://scroll.in/field/967461/a-friendship-that-triumphed-over-racism-luz-long-jesse-owens-and-a-lesson-for-humanity

https://olympics.com/ioc/news/ioc-athletes-commission-s-recommendations-on-rule-50-and-athlete-expression-at-the-olympic-games

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Olympic_Games_boycotts

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