Olympic Protests Are As Old As The Games Themselves

The Free Press    May 1, 2008

Citius, Altius, Fortius. Swifter, Higher, Stronger. The Olympic motto, and the goal of world-class athletes for over a century. Athletes who dedicate their lives to training for those few fleeting moments of competition that will forever define them. The best of the best will be Olympic champions, and national heroes, seen by an estimated four billion people expected to watch 24/7 coverage of the Beijing Games in August.

But on this grandest of all international stages, sports and politics are once again inextricably intertwined, given the host nation's abominable human rights record. Supporters of Tibet's struggle for freedom from Communist China used the torch ceremonies in London, Paris, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, and New Delhi to focus worldwide attention on their cause. In fact, the Games have been the center of controversy over nationalism, race, religion, and gender since the modern competition began over a century ago. For those who believe that sports and politics should be separate, Olympic history is against you...

Back in 1908, the London Games made more headlines off the field than on it. This was the first Games with a formal opening ceremony, and Finland, then ruled by Russia, was not permitted to march with its own flag. The furious Finns made their own statement by entering with no flag at all. Irish athletes boycotted because Britain denied Ireland its independence. The American delegation refused to dip their flag to British royalty, an insult in those days, but now a tradition.

The 1916 Olympiad scheduled for Berlin was cancelled because of WWI, but the competition resumed in Antwerp in 1920 with major political statements. The site itself was chosen because Belgium had been occupied for four years by Germany and Austria, which were banned from participation until 1928. Those Games, in Amsterdam, focused on women's rights, when, for the first time, females were permitted to participate in track and field despite objections from Pope Pius IX, and others, who cited concerns that they would become masculine, or ruin their health, or be unable to have children.

The Berlin Games of 1936 were planned by Adolf Hitler, and his Nazi followers, as a grand demonstration of Germany's self-styled racial superiority. They spent millions on the finest facilities, and removed (temporarily) all outward signs of their anti-Semitism. Of course, the master race's master plan backfired when Jesse Owens, a black sharecropper's son, won three individual gold medals, and added a fourth in a relay. Hitler refused to shake his hand. American blacks won 7 golds, but Avery Brundage, the despised president of the US Olympic Committee, gave in to Nazi pressure and refused to allow the two Jews on the American team to run.

The 1938 Games, scheduled for Japan, were cancelled by WWII, and didn't resume until 1948, with London chosen for the same political reasons as Antwerp after WWI. And, again, aggressor nations Germany and Japan were banned. The Soviet Union was invited despite having invaded Finland twice during the war, but declined.

Political boycotts returned in 1956, as Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon stayed away from the Melbourne Games in a dispute with England and France over the Suez Canal. The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland refused to participate in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary. The People's Republic of China pulled out because Nationalist China was allowed to compete, using the name "Formosa".

Ten days before the 1968 Games in Mexico City, army troops opened fire on demonstrators protesting the government's lavish spending on the Olympics, while millions of Mexicans lived in poverty. Two hundred protestors were killed. But the most enduring image of the Games came from Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who finished first and third in the 200 meter run, then bowed their heads and gave the Black Power salute during the national anthem to protest racism. They were immediately thrown off the team by the US Olympic Committee.

Politics turned to violence in 1972, when Arab commandos entered the Olympic Village in Munich, and seized eleven Israeli team members. The hostages and terrorists were all killed in a shootout with West German police, following which Brundage, who was now president of the International Olympic Committee, stirred worldwide controversy by callously declaring "The Games must go on!" Fortunately, Brundage retired afterward.

Racism again was the issue in Montreal in 1976. Just days before the opening ceremonies, 32 nations, most of them from black Africa, demanded that the IOC ban New Zealand because its national rugby team was touring racially segregated South Africa. When they were refused, they walked out. Taiwan also withdrew, as part of its continuing battle with Communist China over who actually represented the Chinese people.

More than 60 nations, including West Germany and Japan, stayed away from the 1980 Moscow Games in support of the American-led boycott to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, strictly as payback, the Soviet Union, and 13 communist allies, ignored the Los Angeles Games. And in 1988, Cuba and Ethiopia shunned Seoul, South Korea, in support of North Korea, which had been turned down by the IOC to co-host the competition.

Of course, the big losers in all of these boycotts were the athletes, who became pawns in the International One-upsmanship Games. So, with the eyes of the world on China this year, we must balance the spectacle of sports with the spectre of repression. America, and other nations, must make a statement about human rights, and still maintain the integrity of the Games.

The answer - don't target the competition, target the opening ceremonies, which will be nothing more than a propaganda extravaganza anyway. World leaders like British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek have already said they will not attend. Many American politicians have urged President Bush to do the same. Olympics sports, and politics, have become inseparable, but, like our 1908 delegation that refused to dip the flag, we should not compromise our nation's values for the sake of either.