Friday, August 10, 2012

Olympic Games as a Political Weapon

Rule 50.3 in chapter 5 of the Olympic Charter states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” However, the magnitude of the Games and the interest it generate has inspired some nations as well as individuals in utilizing the Olympics as a political tool. The Summer Olympics have seen protests, boycotts, walkouts and even terrorist attacks over the years.

Olympics for International Recognition

Nations and de facto states aspiring international recognition have seen the Olympic Games as a platform to further their claims. As Olympics are seen as a world event, participation in them as a separate entity is perhaps a step forward in full international recognition.

The first instance where such an event occurred was in 1908 London Olympics when the Grand Duchy of Finland participated separately from the Russian Empire and the Irish participated separate from the United Kingdom in certain events. The Finnish athletes refused to march behind the Russian flag at the opening ceremony and marched without a flag.

Two years before, in the 1906 Intercalated Games (which was considered as an Olympic event then), two Irish athletes had protested the raising of the British flag at the victory ceremonies after winning gold medals. Peter O’Conner and Con Leahy had their own green colored Irish flag raised instead of the Union Jack.

During the Cold War, The tension between the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) or West Germany created some controversies. The GDR was not recognized by many countries until early 1970s. For them, participation in Olympic Games as a separate team was an important goal in their campaign for international recognition. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) did not allow them to compete separately until 1968 Winter Olympics. Instead, the GDR athletes were asked to compete as part of a United Team of Germany with a compromise flag and anthem. The anthem used was Beethoven’s melody to Schiller’sOde to Joy”, which was the last part of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Even in 1968 Winter Olympics, the compromise flag and anthem were used by both teams. It was only in the 1972 Summer Olympics that the separation of the two states was complete with them adopting their respective national flags and anthems.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) boycotted the Games for a different reason after her initial appearance in 1952. The Chinese Olympic Committee (COC) was against the IOC decision to recognize both the COC and the Olympic Committee in Taipei. In 1956 the IOC allowed the Taiwanese team to take part in the Olympics albeit under a different name, Formosa. The use of alternative name instead of “Republic of China” was not enough to mollify the PRC and it withdrew from the games. In 1958, they walked out of the IOC. The issue was only resolved in 1979. The PRC participated in 1980 Winter Olympics. In 1984, both Chinas were at the Olympics, with Taiwan represented as “Chinese Taipei.”

On some occasions, certain countries have been either not invited or banned from the Olympic Games. After the First World War, the IOC, then dominated by the French, did not invite Germany for the 1920 and 1924 Olympics. However, within a few years, Germany was able to win a bid to host the Olympics. Meanwhile, until the end of the Second World War, the USSR and the IOC mutually neglected each other.

The emergence of numerous independent states in Africa and elsewhere after the end of colonialism did not help the prospects of South Africa and Rhodesia at the Olympics. South Africa was banned after the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution on Apartheid in 1962. This resolution itself was staunchly supported by the newly independent African states. South Africa was not to return to Summer Olympics until 1992. However, from 1964, South Africa took part in the Paralympics, until the Dutch parliament barred her from taking part in 1980.

It was the threat of a boycott by many African nations which forced the IOC to ban Rhodesia from the Olympics in 1972. The IOC decided on a 36-31 vote to ban the African country days before the opening ceremony. Four years later, 22 African nations boycotted the Games after the IOC failed to take action against New Zealand. The Africans protested against a tour of South Africa undertaken by the New Zealand Rugby team.

Olympics for National Prestige

Success in Olympic Games is always a source of national pride and free propaganda for a country. It is largely through Olympics that small states like Jamaica have become well known in the world. However, more larger and powerful nations perceive the Games as an opportunity to show their superiority. While this is common for any large nation, the former Soviet Union can be considered as a classic example. In late 1940s, when they decided to take part in international sporting events such as the Olympics, they believed that “victories over ‘bourgeois’ states would demonstrate the vitality of the Soviet system.” However, the USSR did not send athletes for the 1948 Olympics, uncertain as to the level of their athletes. From 1952, the Soviets did take part and until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cold War tensions would trouble the Olympics from time to time.

It is common knowledge that even the general public has followed, is following and will continue to follow the Olympics medal table to decide which country is the “Superpower in Sports”. The USA and the USSR were the great rivals until the collapse of the latter. After enjoying a spell of unrivaled superpower status in sports as well as other spheres, the USA is now being challenged by China.

Local rivalries are also common between different states. For years, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany was denied the opportunity to compete as a separate team. Once they were granted permission to do so, they actually surpassed the performances of the West German athletes and some of their Olympic records still stand. However, it is suggested that some East German athletes were aided by performance enhancing substances.

However, it should be noted that success in sports, while being a source of immense national pride, could not save both the USSR and the GDR from their failure as a nation.

1936 Berlin Olympics

Berlin had been awarded the 1936 Olympics before Adolf Hitler came to power. Some nations decided to boycott the Berlin Olympics and the newly elected Popular Front government in Spain organized an alternative “People’s Olympiad” which could not be held as the Spanish Civil War broke up. The United States was also considering boycotting but its Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage, was against a boycott. Whatever may have been his motive, his decision did not help Hitler’s objective of establishing the theory of “Aryan Supremacy.” Not only did the USA lead the medal table; the star athlete, Jesse Owens, was a Black American.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics also saw a political protest at the podium by two Korean athletes. Korea was at the time a province of the Japanese Empire. The best marathon runner from the empire was from Korea. Sohn Kee-chung won the marathon a fellow Korean, Nam Sung-yong, won the bronze medal. They stood on the victory podium with bent heads as the Japanese anthem was played.

1956 Melbourne Olympics: Blood in the Water

The 1956 Summer Olympics was held in December as it was held in the Southern hemisphere. It was held in the wake of two international crises and it was evident from various boycotts and tensions. Three countries each boycotted the Games as results of the two crises. The Suez Canal crisis prompted three Arabian states (Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon) to boycott the Games. The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland boycotted protesting the presence of the Soviet team after the Soviet crackdown in Hungary.

But the tensions rose during the water polo contest between Hungary and USSR. The players were increasingly violent as the game progressed. Hungary was leading the game when it was stopped and awarded to them when the situation was threatening to go out of control. The match has been named “the Blood in the Water match.”

1968 Mexico City Olympics: Deaths Outside, Fists Inside

The 1968 Mexico City Olympics could be described as the first Olympics held in a developing country. The country had been under the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for nearly four decades. As the spotlight moved to Mexico due to the impending Olympic Games, students of Mexico took to the streets. The government responded by shooting them in what was to be known as the Tlatelolco massacre. British journalist Robert Trevor, who arrived in Mexico City to cover the Games, ended up reporting about “the most terrifying night in [his] life” just ten days before the Olympics started.

Once the games started, political protest in USA, Mexico’s northern neighbor, reached the Olympic Stadium. Two African Americans, Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos won the gold and bronze medals respectively in men’s 200m sprint. At the victory ceremony, they raised their fists giving the black power salute when the US national anthem was being played. Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist also joined them in wearing Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges. The OPHR was an organization of mainly Black American athletes formed in 1967, initially to organize an African American boycott.

1972 Munich Olympics: Death inside the Olympic Village

The 1972 Munich Olympics is remembered for the terrorist attack by the Black September group which claimed the lives of 11 Israeli athletes and officials. This prompted some athletes to leave the Games but the Games were not suspended. Avery Brundage, the IOC President famously declared that “the games must go on.” He was also criticized for equating the Munich massacre with the banning of Rhodesia from the games.

The Israeli-Palestine conflict has been the source of some tension at the Olympics but it exploded in 1972. There has been no such terror attack on an Olympic village before or since Munich.

However, unlike the case of African countries threatening to boycott the Games over issues related to South Africa and Rhodesia, Arab countries have never organized a substantial boycott against the participation of Israel at the Games, even though many Arab countries did not recognize the State of Israel for a long time. Even in the notable case of 1956, only three countries took part in the boycott. A likely reason for this difference is perhaps the attitude of the Western countries. While they have been generally supportive of Israel, the West was generally critical of the Apartheid in South Africa and the Ian Smith regime in Rhodesia. The African countries could count on the sympathy of a substantial number of Western countries as well as almost all Eastern bloc countries. However, these sympathizers were not ready to join such a boycott in solidarity with the Africans. The Western bloc or the Eastern bloc needed a reason affecting them more directly and involving key players in Cold War politics to organize such a boycott.

Palestine was granted membership in the Asian Olympic Committee in the 1980s. It was only after the Oslo Accord that it was granted the membership of the IOC. In 1996, a Palestinian team took part in an Olympic Games for the first time in Atlanta.

1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles

The USSR gave a reason for the Western bloc to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics by invading Afghanistan in late 1979. More than 60 nations joined in the boycott of the Olympic Games, many but not all of them joining the boycott led by the United States. Only 80 nations took part in the Games, making it the Summer Olympic Games with the lowest participation after 1956 Summer Olympics. The Eastern bloc countries led by the USSR boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in reply. A notable exception was Romania, which ended up second in the medal table after winning 20 gold medals.

Politics after 1984 Olympics

The last occasion when several countries took part in an Olympic boycott at Summer Olympics was in 1988. North Korea boycotted the Games held in Seoul, South Korea. Cuba, Ethiopia and Nicaragua also boycotted out of solidarity with North Korea and there were a few more absentees. However, it was a great success. These Games were the last Summer Olympics where USSR and GDR took part. The Berlin Wall fell the next year and the GDR was reunited with West Germany in 1990. The USSR collapsed in 1991 and the newly independent states competed at Barcelona Olympics the following year as the Unified Team. It was informally called the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Team. The Unified Team led the medal table with 45 gold medals.

The 1996 Atlanta Olympics saw a terrorist attack, the Central Olympic Park bombing. This claimed two lives and injured more than a hundred. In 1998, the US Federal authorities charged Eric Robert Rudolph with the bombing.

Four decades after the Mexico City massacre, human rights activists were once again protesting the awarding of the Olympics to a country ruled by an authoritarian regime, China. Tibetan activists also staged huge protests and even attempted to disrupt the Olympic torch relay.

In 2004 Olympics in Athens, Arash Mirasmaeili, an Iranian judoka, was eliminated after failing to make the correct weight before a bout against the Israeli, Ehud Vaks. However, he was quoted as saying that he “refused to face his Israeli rival in sympathy with the ‘oppressed’ Palestinian people” Iran does not recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel.

Iran was once more in news as they protested the logo of the 2012 London Olympics, threatening briefly to boycott the Games charging that at the logo represented the word ‘Zion.’ However, Iran quietly dropped the threat of boycott and no change was done to the logo.

London Olympics were more notable for several issues concerning a reemerging threat in Europe, racism. Just prior to the Olympic Games got underway, a Greek female athlete was banned from the Games for her comments in the social media website Twitter which mocked African immigrants and expressed support to a far right party. As it was no lesson to be learnt, a Swiss footballer followed her example and followed her out of the Olympics, by posting racist comments on the South Koreans after the Swiss team was beaten by them. Just days after, a German female rower left the Olympics after it was revealed that her boyfriend had ties to a neo-Nazi group.

Although the end of the Cold War helped ease much of the political tension associated with the Olympic Games, it was not completely immune to political influences. With the recent racist incidents, a new threat seems to be emerging to undermine the Olympic spirit.


1. International Olympic Committee, Olympic Charter (In force as from 8 July, 2011) p. 91 (Accessed: Aug. 06, 2012)

2. Olympic Committee of Ireland (OCI), OCI History, (Accessed: Aug. 07, 2012)

3. Riordan, J. The Rise and Fall of Soviet Olympic Champions, Olympika, Vol II (1993) pp. 25-44. (Accessed: Aug 06, 2012)

4. Lewis, M., Obituary: Sohn Kee-chung, The Guardian, 30. 11. 2002 (Accessed: Aug. 07, 2012)

5. Corwin, M., Blood in the Water at the 1956 Olympics,, 01. 08. 2008., (Accessed: Aug. 07, 2012)

6. BBC, “The Most Terrifying Night of My Life”, 02. 10. 2008, (Accessed: Aug 07, 2012)

7. Zirin, D., “The Explosive 1968 Olympics”, International Socialist Review, Issue 61, September-October 2008, (Accessed: Aug 07, 2012)

8. Weiner, E., “The IOC Wrong Again: Munich Victims Should be Honored”, The Examiner, 22. 07. 2012, (Accessed: Aug. 08, 2012)

9. U.S. Department of Justice, “Eric Rudolph Charged in Central Olympic Park Bombing”, 14. 10. 1998, (Accessed: Aug. 07, 2012)

10. BBC, Mystery over Iran Judo ‘Protest’, 15. 08. 2004, (Accessed: Aug. 08, 2012)

11. CBSNews, “Greece Expels Olympic Athlete over Racist Tweets”, 25.07.2012, (Accessed: Aug. 08, 2012)

12. CBSNews, “Swiss Olympic Soccer Team Boots Player for Racist Tweet”, 30.07.2012, (Accessed: Aug. 08, 2012)

13. CBSNews, “Ties to Neo-Nazi Group Prompt German Rower to Leave Olympics”, 03.08.2012, (Accessed: Aug. 08, 2012)


  1. A good piece of Olympic history. The Olympics are to big to be left alone by all sorts of attention seekers. The ancient Greeks stopped wars during the Olympics our generation used it as a battle ground (Munich).

    1. Indeed Peter. This article is not a complete story by any means. There are certain aspects I have not included. But what you point out is a really nice point which did not occur to me.