Olympics and Politics
“The Purpose of the International Olympic Committee is to:…Cooperate with the competent public or private organizations and authorities in the endeavor to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace;…Act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement;…Encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women;…”– From the Charter of the International Olympic Committee
There are many who claim we should make the Olympics as apolitical as possible. This is a time for sports and athleticism to be held up and to separate the athletes from the political policies of their member nations. And while I see the importance of this argument, I do not agree with it entirely. There are indeed dangers of confusing the athletes for the national government leaders they represent, much like the 1972 tragedy in Munich when members of the Israeli Olympic Team were taken hostage and killed by the Palestinian group Black September
Athleticism and sportsmanship can be an excellent venue to bring people together to celebrate. And there are times when the successes of athletes can be a political inspiration for many. The games themselves can be a source of political motivation and encouragement for national growth. Throughout the last 100 years of Olympic Games, we have seen athletes inspired us to rise to the challenge of peace and equality.
Take for instance the perseverance of Stamata Revithi, the Greek woman considered to be the first female Olympic athlete. Although women were not permitted to participate in the first Olympic Games in 1896, she ran the marathon regardless of the rules. The next year, women were allowed to participate in the Games. Revithi was able to prove to the world the strength and capability of women to participate as equals with men.
Another example politically inspiring athletics is the success of Jesse Owens during the 1936 Berlin Games. Owens, a Black American, defeated Hitler’s prized athlete, Luz Long, in the long jump. This was a notable moment in the years leading up to World War II in which a Black American succeeded over a celebrity of the Third Reich. It is even more notable that Owens’ success was due to advice from Long himself. Long’s sportsmanship and sense of fair play outweighed political pressures to uphold white supremacy. Owens went on to win four track and field gold medals that year, smashing the Nazi myth of Aryan racial superiority.
During the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, Italy, the Ethiopian marathon star Abebe Bikila won gold in the nation that once held his nation as a colony, showing the strength of former colonies in a post-colonial world. In this same year, Black American athletes Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) and Wilma Rudolph met Soviet criticism of racial segregation in the United States with gold medals. However, it was precisely because of the Olympics and Soviet criticism that these athletes were able to take such a pivotal role in American culture. 1960 also marked the first time the Paralympics were played for athletes with physical, mental and sensory disabilities.
Eight years later in Mexico City, Black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos held Black Power salutes while on the victory blocks for their gold and silver medals respectively. This was a message to their home nation that they were not to be seen as second-class citizens.
During the height of the Cold War, The United States boycotted the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow while the Soviets boycotted the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. But these were not the first Olympic boycotts. In 1956, the Games were boycotted by several nations due to the Soviet repression of Hungary.
In 1980, the US Ice Hockey Olympic Team beat the USSR Olympic Team in the final round at the Lake Placid Winter Games. The Russians were heavily favored to win. But the team of largely amateur athletes defeated the Soviet team completely composed of active duty Red Army by scoring the winning point in the last five seconds of the game. This was seen as a major political victory for Cold War era United States.
I understand the allure of letting the Olympics be the Olympics. I understand why we may not want politics to get in the way of the athleticism. However, just as we ask our athletes to be the best they can and strive as hard as they can, we must also ask the nations of the world to strive to be the best they can. The Olympics are an excellent opportunity for international dialog and discussion apart from embassies and statesmen. To ignore this space for growth is foolhardy. Today, the Olympics are an excellent forum for our nations. We must demand further accountability of China for its human rights abuses and its involvement in Darfur and Myanmar/Burma. We must call upon the United States to recognize international environmental policy. We must decry Russia’s attack on Georgia during the opening ceremonies. And we must recognize the successes on the international stage.
No matter how much we try to pull politics out of the Olympics, we will fail in that endeavor because it is inherent in the IOC charter that the Olympics will always be a political event–one that promotes peace, prosperity and equality.