At the heart of the Olympic movement are a number of idealistic universalist sentiments packaged as a philosophy. To wit the Olympic Charter:

“The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

The similarities between the Olympic Charter and the United Nations charter are quite striking. As the Olympic Charter outlines:

“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

Similarly, the UN charter states its aim as:

“(To) achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

As with the United Nations, the Olympic movement idealistically aims to position itself outside the pernicious grasp of politics, power and profit. Naturally, this idealism has formed a variety of conflicts over the decades.

The toughest obstacle to these idealistic goals has been nationalism, which is premised on self-determination and the development of an identity through shared cultural or ethnic characteristics. Nationalism is also concerned with the preservation of culture and political independence, and in more extreme forms can emphasize comparative national superiority. Many political regimes have tried to use the Olympics to boost their international reputation, or to prove the superiority of their country.

The Olympics and national shifts

The French attempted to ban the Germans from the first Olympic Games in 1896 – because the Germans had beaten them in a war over 20 years earlier. Budapest had been chosen to host the 1920 games, but the French-dominated International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose to move them to Antwerp at the last minute, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire was allied with Germany in the First World War. Germany was also banned from the 1920 and 1924 games for having the temerity to lose the First World War.

By the 1930s, the IOC’s position on Germany had softened and they agreed to allow Berlin to host the Olympics in 1936. This decision was made before Hitler rose to power. Once it was clear Hitler intended to use the Olympics to prove German racial superiority, the IOC kept its head down. The President of the American Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage was especially forgiving to Hitler – he even banned Jewish-American athletes from competing. Brundage, by all accounts, was a racist. The 1936 Olympics were also the first to be televised and Hitler was keenly aware of the power of images. The first Olympic Torch relay was held that year – Hitler wanted to flaunt the beauty of the German countryside.

The Olympic stadium in Berlin in 1936. (Photo by Nagyman)

Given its global reach, the Olympic Games were the perfect stage for marginalized nations to express themselves. After the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, the Hungarian and Soviet water polo teams squared off in the pool  in a match dubbed “the blood in the water game.” The Hungarians won the game, but lost their country.

In response to South African apartheid in the early 1960s, the rest of the African delegations threatened to boycott the games unless South Africa was banned. They invoked the Olympic Charter. Despite heavy protests from Avery Brundage – who was now the president of the IOC – the South Africans were banned.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith famously raised gloved black fists on the podium at the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968 in solidarity with the African American struggle. Brundage sent them home and banned them from any future Olympics. Only 10 days before the games in 1968, the Mexican government sanctioned the massacre of over 300 students who were intending to use the games to protest the military government. Brundage did not budge.

The 1972 games in Munich featured perhaps the most destructive and shocking effect of nationalism at the Olympics. Eight Palestinian terrorists infiltrated the Olympic Village and kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes. They made political demands, which were refused. The athletes were executed.

There was another an African-led boycott at those same Olympics, this time pushing for the expulsion of Rhodesia. This proved too much for Brundage, and in an incendiary speech in the aftermath of the Munich Massacre equated anti-apartheid activism with terrorism, Brundage famously stated:

“The games of the 20th Olympiad have been subject to two savage attacks. We lost the Rhodesian battle to naked political blackmail. We have only the strength of a great ideal. I’m sure the public will agree that we cannot allow a handful of terrorists to destroy this nucleus of international competition and goodwill we have in the Olympic Movement.”

The political shifts of the Olympics after the Cold War

The Olympic movement also became intertwined with the new politics of the era after the Second World War – specifically decolonization and the Cold War.

In 1962, Indonesia was hosting the Asian Games, a regional subsidiary of the Olympics. Under pressure from the Arab League and China, the Indonesians refused to allow Israel and Taiwan to compete. The IOC promptly suspended Indonesia. The Indonesians responded by establishing the Games of the New Emerging Forces. GANEFO, as it was known, was explicit about the links between politics and sports – while the IOC attempted to maintain its idealistic middle ground.

Commemmorative stamps of the “1st Games of the New Emerging Forces.”

Indonesian president Sukarno responded succinctly, “The IOC was itself political because it did not have the People’s Republic of China or North Vietnam as members – the IOC was simply a tool of the imperialists and colonialists.”

GANEFO folded in 1967 after the IOC banned any athlete participating in their events. It is worth noting that there has never been a non-European president of the IOC. Recall that membership to the IOC is determined by existing members, kind of like an exclusive club.  Sukarno was on to something.

The Soviets and the Olympics

The Soviet Union and America were in the midst of a global ideological struggle. The Olympics provided the perfect venue to showcase their political superiority.

The Soviet Union was especially keen to use sport to express their dominance. The Soviet sports committee aimed to “spread sport to every corner of the land, raise the level of skill and, on that basis, help Soviet athletes win world supremacy in major sports.” Or perhaps, in the words of a Russian sportswriter commenting before the 1980 Winter Olympics, “Olympic victories were one of the largest-caliber guns of the propaganda arsenal.”

In the late 1950s one journalist noted, “When it comes to shooting at the moon or at a basket, the United States cannot keep up with Russia.” Indeed, from 1956 until 1980 the Soviet Union was utterly dominant at the Olympics, almost consistently topping the medal charts.

Olympic Torch Tower of the Los Angeles Coliseum on the day of the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics.

Congress in America finally responded in 1978 with legislation granting more powers and funding to the American Olympic Committee. They could not bear to keep losing this valuable propaganda war. The Americans have topped the medal charts at every summer Olympics since 1992. Interestingly, the Berlin wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The Olympics continued to parallel world events and shifts in power.

Global geopolitics heavily influenced this sporting rivalry. The 1980 Summer Olympics were held in Moscow. In late 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. In response, the American government issued an ultimatum: leave Afghanistan or NATO will boycott the Olympics. The Soviets refused, America and her NATO allies pulled out of the games. This was a political decision made by the American government. The American Olympic Committee had no say. Conveniently, the next Summer Olympics were in Los Angeles in 1984. The Soviets led a boycott of those games. This seems a far cry from de Coubertin’s ideals of harmoniousness and peacefulness amongst peoples and nations.

Tomorrow, we will see how the Cold War conflict between the Soviet Union and America eroded the ideals of amateurism, and contributed to the growth of state-sponsored performance-enhancing drug programmes.

By Rashid Mohiddin

Rashid Mohiddin is Chief Executive with Pressed Magazine, a society and culture magazine in Toronto, Ontario.

This is the second article in  #OlympicOpinions, an Opinions takeover week that explores everything about the Olympics. 

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.


See the first featured article of #OlympicOpinions here:

Olympic Opinions: The good, the bad and Olympic Games