Boycotts Or Not, The Olympics Are Always Political

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Tommy Smith John Carlos Black Power Salute

It’s déjà vu all over again. With the 2014 Winter Olympics set to kick off in Sochi, Russia, next February, civil rights advocates are wondering as they did five years ago when the Summer Games took place in Beijing, why the International Olympic Committee has such an affinity for ruthless dictatorships.

Among other human rights violations, Russia recently signed into law a “bill banning ‘propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations’,” as CBS News describes it, which set off a wave of anti-gay violence there. That, naturally, has led to calls to boycott the 2014 Games, most notably from English actor Stephen Fry, who compared holding the Olympics in Sochi to “the stain on the Five Rings that occurred when the 1936 Berlin Olympics proceeded under the exultant aegis of” Adolph Hitler.

It’s controversial, of course. As Pres. Obama said last week, “We’ve got a bunch of Americans out there who are training hard, who are doing everything they can to succeed.” But whether or not you favor a boycott of the Sochi Games, can we at least dispense with the idea that the Olympics aren’t political in nature? Because they are, and always have been.

As an initial matter, the very goal of the Olympics is political. Scott Blackmun, Chief Executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee, described it this way: The Olympics, he said, “unite the world and break down barriers.” That may be laudatory; that may be unusual in the world of politics as we know it; but it is, nonetheless, a political goal: To promote world peace and international understanding. And how do you do that – how do you “unite the world and break down barriers” – when your host country has criminalized the mere acknowledgement that LGBTQ people exist?

More than that, though, a brief trip through history demonstrates that you cannot bring groups of people together to root for athletes based on national affiliation without politics, laudatory or otherwise, entering into the picture. Most of us are familiar with the 1936 Games in Berlin and the outstanding achievements of U.S. Track and Field athletes like Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. But make no mistake about it, to the Nazis, the Olympics were a political event:

The Nazification of all aspects of German life extended even to sport. A staunch Nazi close to Hitler, Hans von Tschammer und Osten, headed the Reich Sports Office, which oversaw all sports bodies and clubs, including the German Olympic Committee planning the 1936 Games.

“German sport has only one task: to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence.” — Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, April 23, 1933

The government harnessed sport as part of its drive to strengthen the “Aryan race,” to exercise political control over its citizens, and to prepare German youth for war. “Non-Aryans” — Jewish or part-Jewish and Gypsy athletes — were systematically excluded from German sports facilities and associations. They were allowed marginal training facilities, and their opportunities to compete were limited.

And while the U.S. declined to boycott the Berlin Olympics, it was impossible not to see political significance in Jesse Owens’ four gold medals that year, which debunked the Nazi theory of Aryan physical superiority. Sadly, however, few people realize that the U.S. Olympic Committee did, in fact, cave to Nazi pressure by dumping the only two Jewish athletes on the U.S. Olympic team – Jewish athletes who would have run with Jesse Owens in the 4-by-100 meter relay.

Good thing we didn’t let politics interfere with Adolf Hitler’s little track meet.

Nor did the confluence of politics and the Olympics end with the Berlin Games. For example, in 1968, African-American track stars Tommy Smith and John Carlos famously raised the Black Power salute on the medals stand at the Mexico City Olympics, an act of protest that got them banned from the Olympic Village by the IOC in one of those classic moments of political schizophrenia: They were punished for making a political statement, largely because IOC president Avery Brundage (who, as it turns out, was president of USOC when we decided to participate in the Berlin Olympics 32 years prior) didnt like the political statement they were making. Tommie Smith aptly summed up the situation this way: “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro.”

That same year, when Czechoslovakia played the USSR in ice hockey at the Winter Olympics in Grenoble, politics clearly were in the air. Though the Soviets would go on to win the gold medal, the Czechs beat the Russians 5-4 in the second to last round, in a game that was historical both in terms of its ferocity and its result.

Tell the Czech people there’s nothing political about the Olympics. Eighteen years later, after the downfall of the Soviet Union, the Czechs finally defeated the Russians to win the gold in Nagano, Japan:

In the predawn chill – the game started at 5:45 A.M. [Prague] time –70,000 Czechs stood shoulder to shoulder at the base of a bronze monument or perched on the narrow window ledges of surrounding Baroque buildings. The spectators craned their necks to watch the game on three massive screens specially erected in the square.

They erupted in joy when the Czech team defeated the Russians, 1-0. It was the only gold medal won by the Czechs in Nagano, so a victory over any country would have been worth cheering. But, of course, beating the Russians meant more.

When we compete against the Russians, it is more than just sport, said Linda Pavckova, 23, a newspaper sales representative. It is political.

Then, too, there were the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, in which nine Israeli athletes were kidnapped by Palestinian extremists and were eventually killed in a shootout at the Furstenfeldbruck air base; the highly controversial gold medal basketball game between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, also in 1972, which remains one of the most hotly debated, and undeniably political, sporting events in U.S. history; the widespread African boycott of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal; the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, followed by the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles; and the IOC’s controversial decision to award Beijing the 2008 Summer Games.

So the question isn’t, should the Olympics be political? They are, by their very nature, and the IOC, by scheduling the Olympic games in places like Berlin in 1936, Moscow in 1980, Beijing in 2008, and Sochi in 2014, bears a heavy measure of responsibility for politicizing the games. The real question is, since the games are scheduled to take place in one of the most repressive countries in the world, how should we respond?

David von Ebers

Dave von Ebers is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (BA ’83, JD ’87), and has practiced business law and litigation in the Chicago metropolitan area for more than a quarter century. After practicing with some of Chicago’s most distinguished law firms, Mr. von Ebers opened his solo practice in Oak Park, Illinois, in 2001. Mr. von Ebers is an established writer and blogger, having written extensively on civil rights, constitutional law, politics, sports and music – and often the intersection of some or all of foregoing – since 2005. Mr. von Ebers joined the award-winning This Week in Blackness team in 2013, and is the co-host of Sportsball with Aaron Rand Freeman and Rachael Parenta.

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  1. Vent Casey III August 14, 2013 at 11:47 am

    I want to touch on the question of how we should respond to the repressive politics in Russia. After considering two points in particular—whether the USOC should boycott the 2014 Games, and whether those Games should be moved from the site.

    Firstly, I find that it would be hypocritical, somewhat, if the USOC boycotted the Games, considering that there are several states here that support laws that are similarly repressive against LGBT people, and that government officials at every level, from city to state to federal office, support similar repression. So for the USOC to state that Russia’s repression of LGBT’s is a bridge too far—and thus boycotting 2014—would be a symbolic gesture that would impress a few people; it would also spark equally-countenanced outrage, as well as being seen as somewhat hypocritical.

    It would seem that the more plausible solution would be for individual athletes to boycott on their own, but that is a personal choice which requires sacrificing something for which they’ve worked years to get to, to make a political point. That’s not to say a point can’t be made by showing up; but either decision to boycott, whether by committee or individually, is a sacrifice of time put in by those athletes, and would require the support of those athletes—especially if we’re talking about a committee boycott—to take that stand.

    Then there’s the suggestion, as made by many, that the Olympics should relocate from Sochi. The Games are scheduled to begin in February. They were awarded to Sochi over four years ago, have gone through several stages of planning, and cost nearly $10 billion overall. Simply put: while I understand the sentiment behind it, there’s no way in hell you’re relocating an event of this scale, with the logistical hurdles that have to be done to put this event on, in six months. The Olympics aren’t a 14-day conference at a golf resort, where all you have to do is call another resort if you don’t like the one you’re at.

    Sorry, George Takei…that’s not happening. Not unless you got $20-30 billion lying around someplace to provide security (police and military), power grid infrastructure, hotel accommodations for guest and media alike, traffic control, arenas, stadiums, ski resorts, bobsled circuits, maps, literature, marketing, housing for the International Broadcast Centre, athlete accommodations, food, mass transit, cellular network towers, internet, airports, waste systems, credentials, paid staff, volunteers, and the ability to organize all of this and more in less than 90 days; then implement it with less than 90 days remaining.

    You’d have a better, more coherent argument in moving the 2018 FIFA World Cup from Russia than moving the 2014 Winter Olympics. Or simply canceling the 2014 Games…which isn’t likely to happen, either.

    So the only thing “we” can do…is leave it to the individual athletes to take a moral stand—either by showing up and defying the International Olympic Committee’s decree against political stances, or by not showing up at all. But those choices are left to the athletes. And if individuals here or elsewhere want to boycott watching the Games, I’d be fine with that, too. But we can’t expect much more than this, even though it would do much to mollify the moral anger many have over Russia’s virulently anti-gay stance.

    • David von Ebers August 14, 2013 at 12:09 pm

      Vent, completely valid points. Personally, I’m torn, but I can’t really refute anything you say. It aggravates me that the IOC is so clueless, though. Obviously, this particular law wasn’t in place when they awarded the games to Sochi, but they had to be aware of the overall state of oppression in Russia. It’s one thing not to boycott games after the fact; it’s quite another for the IOC to turn a blind eye to wholesale violations of human rights when it selects host cities.

  2. Tom Hilton August 14, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    “…there are several states here that support laws that are similarly repressive against LGBT people…”

    Gotta push back against this, somewhat: yes, LGBT people aren’t equal in most states, and some states are particularly hostile to LGBT equality, but nowhere in the US is homosexuality criminalized in the way it is in Russia today. (It used to be, certainly, but Lawrence took care of that.)

    Also, the explicit threat against gay athletes and tourists is a factor on the side of outright boycott (rather than individual athlete choice). US Olympic officials have a responsibility to protect their team members; if Russia is saying to them that certain of their team members will be subject to arbitrary detention and prosecution, then the only equitable way to protect all team members is for all team members not to attend.

    • Vent Casey III August 14, 2013 at 3:52 pm

      Point conceded on the laws.

      As for the athletes and the USOC: I’d agree with that, except that you’re not going to get assent for that from all team members. It would be nice if they did, but we know how that works in the country; never mind just the hundreds of athletes representing the USOC and other countries. Also: do not the other Olympic committees have the same responsibility to all of their athletes? Great Britain, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, and so on?

      That isn’t so much an argument against a committee boycott, as it is saying that for such an action to happen, you’re going to need the athletes to be nearly unanimous (if not absolutely unanimous) in taking that action, whether other countries follow along or not. And there are athletes within the USOC and other committees who don’t care about this as much as others do, and would not assent to a boycott. They want their Olympic moment, as it were.

      Hence, you’re not going to see very many athletes on any committee–let alone the USOC–take the position that the entire representation of the country not show up. It would be awesome if they did it, but understand: such a decision would garner as much backlash as it would get support. So it’s just not a feasible expectation to have, unfortunately.

      Again, it’s one thing for some athletes to take an individual stance and not attend, because they feel they have a moral duty to–or that they do attend, and take a stand there, for the same reason. It’s quite another for a committee to make that decision without consultation of the people whom they represent. So, if all team members aren’t going to attend, they’d better all agree to the reasons why they aren’t going to attend, and guarantee that they will have the committee’s back when they eventually get fried by pundits and citizens.

  3. Joel Berger October 11, 2013 at 10:00 am

    Avery Brundage was one of the great minor monsters of the 20th Century. His worst offense was allowing the Games to continue in 1972 after the terrorist attack and murder of the Israeli athletes. He didn’t care; he was a Nazi anyway.

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