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.

Always Political

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.

In 1972, American athletes threatened to boycott track and field events in Munich, in protest against Rhodesia's racial discrimination policies – and an ABC employee even helped them to formulate their complaint. Twenty-eight African teams refused to participate in Montreal's 1976 Summer Games to protest the New Zealand Rugby team's earlier tour of apartheid South Africa, some walking out of Olympic housing after the Games had already begun. North Korea has been a regular boycotter, and Cuba joined in boycotting the Seoul Games in 1988.

Parisian politics forced Coubertin to take over the Organizing Committee for the 1900 Games. The conflicts between American athletes and their British hosts colored the London Games of 1908. The exclusion of Germany from the 1920, 1924, and 1948 Games obviously constituted political action, no matter how one cares to justify it. Student riots compromised the Mexico City Games of 1968, when 300 student protestors were killed by police and soldiers only ten days before the start of the Games. Also tragic were the 1972 Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israeli athletes in Munich, which left 11 dead and which continue to haunt the Games today.

The political flashpoint this year is the vexed question of Tibet. Although the "Free Tibet" Internet site calls for full boycott, most other protestors seem satisfied to call on leaders of foreign governments to boycott at least the opening ceremonies. At one level, this marks a considerable retreat from past calls for boycotts. It may represent some recognition of the investment of time and effort on the part of the athletes, and it may represent recognition of China's economic power. But it certainly does reflect a notable change in the way the Olympics are seen as a stage for international politics.

There was a time when the Games were not deemed important enough for US presidents to include them in their schedules. In 1932 Herbert Hoover decided that attending the Los Angeles Games would interfere with his campaign to be reelected president. In 1936, however, Adolf Hitler showed that hosting the Games offered a great opportunity to publicize the Nazi regime.

In 1980 Jimmy Carter, threatening to boycott the Moscow Games altogether, did not attend the Winter Games in Lake Placid. (Lord Killanin at that time declared that he could not understand why the United States refused to change its constitution so that presidential elections would not conflict with staging the Olympic Games.) In 1984 wild horses could not have kept Ronald Reagan from the Los Angeles Games, despite or because of the fact that the Soviet Union boycotted those games.

Only recently have presidents and prime ministers begun to travel to Games held in other countries, just as they have begun gathering in great numbers for a variety of other special occasions, such as Moscow's celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. All other things being equal, the Beijing Games now seem "the place to be" for the world. This, in turn, has generated the call from protesters that they stay away, thereby denying the Beijing Games the status of "world stage."

Some would-be reformers have suggested that one way to "de-politicize" the Games would be for athletes to participate as individuals rather than as members of national teams. To do away with national teams would not be reform; it would be revolution. It would require the reinvention of Olympic Games.

Since many national teams are financed by their governments, such a restructuring would require establishing a different manner of selecting athletes, a different structure to finance both the athletes' training and the competition. Would there be team sports? There would certainly be a much smaller television audience, and therefore the supply of money would shrink significantly. No one wants that.

Indeed, the Games would not be the same without a patina of nationalism. The national configuration of the Olympic stage has been particularly important for new and small states. Seeing their representatives in the parade of national athletes is a magic moment for fans around the world.

I once asked the president of Lithuania what he considered the significance of Lithuania's prominence as a world basketball power. (Lithuania's population is roughly one percent of the population of the United States, a negligible percent of China's population.) He responded with the thought that a small country has very few opportunities to win positive attention on the world stage: basketball constitutes a powerful instrument for making the world aware of Lithuania's existence. In my opinion, the vast majority of National Olympic Committees (NOCs) around the world would oppose any move to change the present structure that is built on national teams.

So as long as the Olympics continue to be organized around national teams and nation states, political disputes involving those states will be part and parcel of the Games.

Sport, Business, and Politics in a Media Age

The IOC has traveled a long road to win this place at the center of world affairs, where news media breathlessly await the official judgment whether these particular Games were in fact the best of all time. In fact, in the 1950s, the International Olympic Committee – the private, essentially self-chosen, international organization that owns the Games – was considering whether it could impose a tax on sporting events around the world in order to finance the staging of the quadrennial Games. Now the IOC calculates its income in billions of dollars.

The history of the relations between the Games and business is filled with very interesting events and developments. When Avery Brundage was president of the IOC (1952-1972), he objected to skiers displaying the makers' labels on their equipment in front of television cameras. In Nagano in 1998 members of the IOC proudly wore coats displaying the name of their maker. The Games have become a giant commercial playground.

The Games feature competition between businesses as well as athletes. In Munich in 1972 television networks battled for satellite time to show coverage of the hostage crisis to the American audience. Now TV audiences are cajoled: "Leave your other credit cards at home because these Games belong to OUR card."

In Nagano, CBS announcers wore jackets that featured a shoe company's logo, but because that company had not given money directly to the Games' treasury, those jackets could not show the Olympic rings. A business may find it preferable, cheaper, to join the Games by sponsoring, say, a national ping pong team than by paying the IOC directly. In the United States, sports are "big business," and in the world arena the Olympic Games are Big Business. Money is the name of the game.

The first explanation of today's riches and fame is obviously television money; the second is the money from corporate sponsors who want to exploit the Olympic symbols for their own businesses; and this year the third is of course the interest of the multinational concerns with business investments in China.

Ultimately the major factor that has intensified the visibility and thus the political potential of the Olympic Games has been television. Television did not invent the Games; despite their media sponsor, Ted Turner's Goodwill Games failed to offer serious competition. For many years, live media coverage was not a part of the Games at all; in the 1920s IOC members were leery of radio broadcasts of the competition because that might reduce the income from tickets. But after the IOC had successfully argued that it owned the Games, and that the Games did not constitute "news" that television had a right to observe free of cost, the two – the Games and TV – have grown in a symbiotic relationship.

Roone Arledge built ABC's sports coverage – in my opinion using techniques gleaned from "The Triumph of the Will," Leni Riefenstahl's classic film of the Berlin Olympics – and today the Olympics are big time "show business," TV's most popular "reality show."