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.