Politics and the Olympics

When admitting new members, the International Olympic Committee requires them to take an oath. In this, they promise to keep themselves ‘free from any political or commercial influence and from any racial or religious consideration’. With this solemn promise, a hard line is drawn between the political and sporting arenas. In practice, however, this separation soon loses its meaning. There are few aspects of life that are truly apolitical. Sport, with its emotion, allegiance systems, and prominence on the global stage, is certainly not one of them.

This month’s Winter Games in South Korea seem to embody this issue. The nasty legacy of Russia’s doping ban remains in the air. The increasingly fraught Korean peninsula is inextricably tied to the event: Kim Jo-young, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was all smiles, kindling hopes for peace, but there is little doubt that she is but a soft-power extension of that regime’s foreign policy. The world is too connected now, perhaps, for the Games to be depoliticized.

It must be noted, however, that the politicization of the Olympics did not begin in Pyeongchang. The first and most obvious example would be the Berlin Games of 1936 – a golden opportunity, successfully exploited – to showcase the power and grandeur of the newly-created Nazi state. Threatened with a boycott, Adolf Hitler eventually gave up his attempts to ban Jewish athletes from competing, but was able to prevent German Jews from doing so; many other nations acquiesced and sidelined Jewish athletes to avoid offending the hosts. The regime draped the city in swastika banners and built a massive new Olympiastadion. A glaring chink in Nazi armor was exposed when Jesse Owens, the black American track athlete, reportedly infuriated Hitler by winning four gold medals, a resounding rebuke to the regime’s ideological bedrock of Aryan racial superiority.

The destruction of that race-obsessed society did not see the end of racial oppression, and that deeply political issue again reared its carbuncled head in Mexico City in 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos, American track and field medalists, raised gloved fists in black power salutes on the podium. Second-place finisher Peter Norman, a white Australian, covered his track jacket with human-rights badges. Avery Brundage, head of the IOC at the time, was incensed, condemning the politicization of the Games, and forced the US Olympic Committee to expel Smith and Carlos. Brundage had expressed no such qualms about the Nazi salutes of the 1936 Games.

The horror of the killings at Munich in 1972, when Black September terrorists murdered eleven members of the Israeli delegation plus a police officer, shook the world, a hateful spillover of geopolitical conflict into an officially neutral sporting event. In the following years, the Games could not avoid being contaminated by the Cold War, with the main adversaries, America and the USSR, boycotting each other’s editions in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984. The 2008 Beijing Games were criticized as a climate-controlled bubble in a totalitarian state – climates both meteorological and political. The same accusation was leveled at Russia’s hosting of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

Political doctrines are placing an increasing emphasis on ‘soft power’, and the Olympics, globally revered and scrutinized, are an ideal forum to emphasize, and grow, authority and influence. The medal podium is now as much of a political stage as the UN podium. The difference is not always clear.

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