The hot topic of this year's Olympics seems to be "boycott." Protesters argue that China's human rights policies, especially in Tibet, make Beijing an unworthy host for the celebration of human athletic prowess in the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. Olympic officials, on the other hand, speak piously of keeping politics out of sports competition.
I am frequently asked "Must politics be a part of the Olympic Games?" My answer is "yes." Why are world leaders planning to meet over gold medals rather than a "cloth of gold"? My answer is that the Games in many ways have always been a major international political playground, and the events of 2008 simply follow in that tradition.
Arguments that the Olympics have a sacred character fuel all sides in the dispute over the Beijing Games. Defenders say that politics should not sully this "sacred" event and its "sacred" attributes such as The Flame. Attackers argue that the decision to give China the Games was itself obviously political, and that China does not deserve to host this special and mystical celebration. Defenders invoke the Games' mystique and conjure up visions of "Olympic truce" in ancient Greece. "Sport – you are peace!" "Keep politics out of sport!"
Olympic leaders have on occasion invoked religious images. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Games, called sport religio atletae (the religion of the athlete), the perfection of the human body, a "religion with its church, dogmas, service … but above all, a religious feeling." The former president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Juan Samaranch, declared on American TV: "We are more important than the Catholic religion." Beset with criticism, he later insisted that "I was misunderstood. Some say that the Olympic Movement is almost a religion, but we do not say that. But the Olympic Movement is more universal than any religion." Lord Killanin, Samaranch's predecessor, quoted a terrorist as calling the Games "the most sacred ceremony" of the "modern religion of the western world."
There is no question that the Olympic Games indeed radiate a powerful mystique. The first time a champion let me hold his gold medal, I sensed that mystique: the medal almost seemed to be alive. To be first or second in the world, or even to take part in such competition, is a tremendous honor, and sports fans do enjoy watching the events.
The Olympic Games have a magic appeal for people around the world. Yet, there is also a secular political dimension of this enchanting process that remains just as important a characteristic of the Olympics, even if it is at times shrouded in the pomp and circumstance.
Boycotts are more a part of the Games' history than most commentators seem to realize. There are the better known protests that repeatedly receive publicity, such as Berlin in 1936 (when Americans almost boycotted in protest of the Nazi regime and its racialist and anti-semitic policies), Moscow in 1980 (when 62 countries did not participate, many to demonstrate their objections to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), and Los Angeles in 1984 (when the Soviet Union and 14 other countries, mostly its eastern bloc allies, stayed home, likely as payback for the 1980 boycott). (Map of Olympic Games)
But these are hardly the only moments when politics has injected itself into the Olympics. In 1896, at the first modern Games, Coubertin had trouble persuading Germans and French to compete against each other in Athens because of long-standing animosities dating to the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). A number of teams – including Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon – boycotted the Melbourne Games of 1956 in response to the Suez Crisis.