Politics have long been at play in the modern Olympics
By Robert Nicolais
Rule 51, Subsection 3 of the Olympic Charter plainly states, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
For the last five Summer Olympics, the rule has gone without challenge as peaceful games have passed. However, facing an Olympiad hosted by a nation cited for multiple human rights violations, Rule 51-3 may face some challengers this summer in Beijing.
Former International Olympic Committee Vice President Dick Pound wants to send out a warning to those planning to make political statements on the winner’s podium.
“When you go to the Olympics, part of the deal is that it is not a political manifestation,” Pound told the Canadian Olympic Committee at a board meeting earlier this month. “You’re there as a member of your national Olympic Committee to compete in accordance with the rules. You’re entitled to your private opinion, but if you feel so outraged by what’s going on in Darfur or in Tibet that you can’t bear going to China, then don’t go.”
But if Pound’s position had held throughout Olympic history, we would be without some of the most momentous events in Olympic history. Picture an Olympics without the powerful image of Tommy Smith and John Carlos holding their gloved fists high in the air as the national anthem played. Imagine having the United States and its allies participate in the 1980 Moscow Olympics while the host nation was invading Afghanistan, or the socialist U.S.S.R. participating in the wildly commercialized 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
While the ideal Olympics would have no protesting and no reason to protest, the reality is that there is no better platform for protest than the Summer Olympics. Trying to separate politics and the Olympics would curtail the ability of nations to present local issues on an international stage.
“The Olympic Games are political, if nothing else,” Harry Edwards states in his 1969 book The Revolt of the Black Athlete. “The fact that all participating nations do not compete under a single flag, the Olympic flag, but under their respective national flags, heightens their political flavor.”
Politics and the Olympics were first notably tied together in 1936, when the Nazi Party used the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin as a way to promote Adolf Hitler’s belief in racial supremacy. The United States considered boycotting the Olympics, a move that had yet to be carried out in the modern games by an international power.
It was the first evidence of a conflict between using the games as a reflection of political views or as a peaceful “time out” from worldly issues. American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage took a stand against a boycott, while Jeremiah Mahoney, President of the Amateur Athletic Union, led the campaign for a U.S. boycott, believing that attendance would show support for Hitler’s Nazi Germany. In the end, Brundage won, and the U.S. sent its athletes to the Olympics.
Among the U.S. Olympians to compete that year was Jesse Owens, an African-American sprinter who won four gold medals in track and field events. While in Germany, Owens enjoyed many rights that he did not have in the United States. Owens had free access to the Olympic Village and was not segregated against when using public transportation or in many of the Berlin establishments. Upon returning to the U.S., these discriminatory practices resumed, and Owens had to deal with racial discrimination despite his Olympic triumphs.
Three decades later, at the 1968 Mexico City Games, racial tensions returned to the forefront of Olympic discussion. Following the 200-meter race, gold medal winner Tommy Smith and bronze medal winner John Carlos each raised a gloved fist as a symbol of black pride while the national anthem played. Following the event, Avery Brundage once again took the stance that politics and the Olympics should not mix. Brundage, who at the time was the president of the IOC, rules that Smith and Carlos had 48 hours to pack their bags and leave the Olympic Village.
No Olympics were more boycotted than the 1980 and 1984 Games. The 1980 Olympics, held in Moscow, were played in the shadow of the U.S.S.R.’s invasion of Afghanistan. President Jimmy Carter responded by announcing that the United States would not participate in any capacity unless the U.S.S.R. removed its troops from Afghanistan prior to the Opening Ceremonies. Canada, Japan, China and West Germany joined the U.S. in boycotting the games. Most other Western European nations, including the U.K. and France, allowed their athletes to participate under the Olympic flag, while refusing to be represented as a nation in Moscow.
The decision was not without controversy in the U.S.
“Sports fans wanted the U.S. to participate, non-sports fans wanted the boycott,” says Stephen Mosher, a professor and coordinator of the sports studies program at Ithaca College. “Given the Munich Massacre in 1972, most people in the U.S. simply thought the Olympics were an idea that had outlived its usefulness.”
Four years later, the U.S.S.R. and Soviet Bloc nations would return the favor, electing to skip the Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles citing a “chauvinistic sentiment and an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States.”
The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics also marked a turning point in the economic structure of the games. Many believed the games had become overly politicized and fiscally irresponsible. In the 1976 Summer Olympics, the city of Montreal attempted to publicly finance the construction of facilities in order to host the games. Overambitious in its plans, the city was left with a debt that would take two decades to pay off. After Montreal, few cities were eager to host the Olympics.
In contrast, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee relied on previously built facilities in the city to host events, while obtaining corporate sponsors to provide the vast majority of funds needed to construct new arenas for the games. The result was a wild financial success — the second largest profit in Olympic history at nearly $200 million. Using the corporate assistance of the Los Angeles Olympics as a guide, the commercialization of the games took off, resulting in a fiscally responsible event that would serve as a protest antidote.
“The commodification process has overwhelmed sport,” says Mosher. “There is so much money for everyone involved that it’s not in their best interest to protest.”
The decision to let corporations in has forced many in the IOC, such as Dick Pound, to encourage athletes to focus on their athletic events and not on the international issues facing the nations they represent. Furthermore, Olympic athletes, many of whom are strictly amateur in status, risk having one of their few spotlight moments construed negatively by making a political statement. They risk not only opportunities to score endorsements but also their reputation in the international athletic community.
One athlete who took the risk was Australian track star Cathy Freeman. In the 1994 Commonwealth Games, Freeman followed victory in the 400-meter dash by taking a celebratory lap around the track while waving her native aboriginal flag before carrying the national Australian flag. Her decision to stand up for her heritage against a deep-rooted racism received a mix of praise and criticism, but following the games Freeman’s temerity helped garner an apology from the Australian prime minister to Australia’s “Stolen Generation” of aborigines. Six years later, Freeman was selected to light the Olympic torch at the Sydney Summer Olympic Opening Ceremonies.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics is the first time since the commercialization of the games in 1984 that the host country is facing international criticism over human rights issues. Comparisons will be drawn to the Berlin, Moscow and Los Angeles Summer Games of years past, but this summer’s Olympic Games will have a different feel than any of the previous celebrations. Athletes will face the difficult decision of whether or not to speak out on these injustices when it’s their turn at the microphone, and the battle of greed and righteousness will be played out before our eyes by the athletic representatives of nations across the world.
Robert Nicolais is a senior journalism major. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.