Playing Politics: Olympic Controversies Past and Present

Editor's Note

Long before athletes had been selected and construction finished, the Beijing Olympic Games became embroiled in political controversy. People all over the world have focused on the event to express their displeasure with China's human rights record and its policies in Tibet. While these are the issues of 2008, University of Wisconsin historian Al Senn reminds us that politics and sport have always been intertwined at the Olympics. His essay puts the politics of the Beijing Games in historical perspective.

Feel free to also listen to our History Talk conversation on The Politics of International Sports

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."

Television, in turn, offers opportunities for intruders to seize a moment on the world stage, whether the issue might be national oppression, aboriginal land rights, or self-publicity. Some of this is personal, as when people paint their faces for TV. Some of it is programmed: at American sporting events, like college football games, broadcasters have been known to bring signs for fans to wave for the camera. Whatever the source, TV encourages certain forms of eccentric behavior on fans' part, but it disapproves of the "excessive" eccentric behavior. As far as TV executives are concerned, political or religious demonstrations tend to fall into the category of excess.

Regardless, demonstrators seek out the TV cameras. If there is no TV coverage, is it worth the effort to stage a demonstration? I keep recalling the example of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. There the demonstrations were not outside the convention, where Chicago's mayor had banned television cameras, but rather downtown outside the delegates' hotels, where cameras abounded.

Cameras draw demonstrators. And the Chinese have learned this lesson well: as I understand it, the Chinese will permit no TV at Tiananmen Square.

To the impact of television's images of political agitation, we must now also add the impact of the Internet. Start a search of various combinations of "Beijing," "Olympics," "protest," "flame," "torch," "Tibet," and "relay," and it produces hundreds of thousands of hits – including radio interviews, video clips, web pages, and an ocean of news reports. Anyone can participate. To be sure, the Internet will not soon replace demonstrations in front of television cameras as a means of delivering a message to an uncommitted audience, but in this age of cyberinfo, the masters of the Olympic Games cannot hope to escape – or control – the web.

Protests Present and Future

This year's disruptions of the "Olympic Torch Relay" call for special discussion. Germany invented the Torch Relay in 1936. Considering the tenuous relationship that actually exists between the facts of the modern and the ancient Games, I look at the relay as simply advertising rather than as a "sacred" ritual. In 1984 the Torch Relay across the United States was a major factor in building enthusiasm for the Los Angeles Games after the Soviet Union had announced its boycott. The Soviet announcement came just as the magic flame arrived in New York for the beginning of the relay – one PR gambit pitted against another.

The Chinese plan for this year's relay was different. The Olympic Flame in fact traveled immediately by air from Greece to Beijing. The subsequent "relays" that occasioned demonstrations were set up in selected places. The flames that the "People's Armed Police" guarded in these "relays" were probably only distant relatives of The Flame in Beijing. The structure of the "relay" helped demonstrators program the times and places where there were sure to be television cameras and assured they could grab the world's attention.

The "Free Tibet" web page reports that the trouble in March arose from "the peaceful protests which began in Lhasa to mark the anniversary of the 1959 uprising." This 49th anniversary, of course, coincided with the lighting of the Olympic Torch in Greece. A report in The New York Times suggested that local Chinese authorities were at first hesitant in acting against the protests, but then struck hard when the demonstrations became violent. Then the earthquake of May 12 evoked considerable sympathy for the Chinese. Add to this the controversies over Beijing's polluted air. (Not a new problem, but one which affected both Mexico City and Los Angeles.) How will historians describe the interrelationship of these events? That story must await the completion of the Games.

Looking further into the future, we now see considerable tension between Russia and the Soviet successor state of Georgia. What can be the consequences of conflict here for the Winter Games scheduled for Sochi in 2014? (Georgia Map). There are already web pages devoted to protest in Sochi.

Ultimately, my argument is that politics – together with demonstrations and boycotts – have always constituted an inseparable part of the Olympic Games. In his memoirs, Lord Killanin declared that politics constituted "ninety-five percent of my problems" as president of the IOC. In 2008, even in decrying calls for boycott, IOC Vice President Thomas Bach declared that "a boycott would be the wrong way because that will cut lines of communication." That certainly sounds political.

If politics and boycotts have been a part of the Games from their beginning, the participation of television has made the Games a stage that welcomes world politics. World leaders now consider it desirable to attend. And even the demand to keep politics out of the Olympic Games is itself one of the most political demands a commentator can make. Politics, together with demands for action, are a natural part of any endeavor where a great many people care, where there is a great deal of money, and where there are lots of cameras to beam images across the world in an instant.

Important Figures

Olympic Heads

Pierre de Coubertin (France)

He was an early proponent of education (1880s-1890s), especially the role of sports in that education. He established the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894, at the Sorbonne. He overcame publicity issues as the Olympics competed with the World's Fair, and succeeded in making the Olympics a more renowned event by 1924. He was buried in Lausanne, France, the seat of the IOC, with his heart buried in a monument at Olympia, Greece.

Henri de Baillet-Latour (Belgium)

He became a member of the IOC in 1903 and co-founded the Belgian Olympic Committee. He led the IOC until his death in 1942.

Sigfrid Edström (Sweden)

Edström was a sprinter and became involved in Swedish sports, helping organize the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. He became a member of the IOC in 1920 became Vice President in 1931, and President in 1942, where he was known for championing amateurism in the Olympics. He retired in 1952.

Avery Brundage (United States)

Brundgage was a successful pentathelete and decathelete. He became president of the US Olympic Committee in 1929, where he refused to boycott the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. That year, he became a member of the IOC. He was scandalized by claims that he forced two Jewish runners off of the 400 relay team and the fact that the America First Committee expelled him in 1941 for his pro-Nazi leanings. He became Vice President of the IOC in 1945, and elected president in 1952, continuing Edström's push for amateurism. He opposed the inclusion of women in the games, and attempted to keep politics out of the games. He punished the "black power" salute at the 1968 games and lamented the political bent of the 1972 games after issues with Rhodesia and the Palestinian attack.

Michael Morris, Lord Killanin (United Kingdom/Ireland)

Lord Killanin had an Army background in Britain during World War II. Led Ireland's Olympic council starting in 1950, and became Vice President of the IOC in 1968, and became president just before the Munich games in 1972. He resigned after the 1980 games and the problems raised with the boycotts.

Juan Antonio Samaranch (Spain)

Samaranch had a business background in Spain under Franco, and became President of the Spanish Olympic Committee in 1967. He then became Vice President of the IOC in 1974. After serving Spain as ambassador to the U.S.S.R., became president of the IOC from 1980 to 2001, making the games more financially viable through new broadcasting and advertising deals and a new system of choosing host cities. Samaranch also oversaw the gradual acceptance of professional athletes in the Games.

Jacque Rogge (Belgium)

Rogge came from a sports and medical background, competing in the Olympics as a yachter, and playing on the Belgian national rugby team. He was President of the Belgian Olympic Committee and European Olympic Committee in the 1990s. He became President of the IOC in 2001, and has oversaw a system to allow developing countries a better chance at hosting the games.

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