official bylaws against "political
behavior" at the Olympics, there has been no shortage of attacks, boycotts, and
demonstrations in the 116 years since the first modern Olympic Games.
Nationalism, racism, and a host of other political sentiments have repeatedly
found their way into the competition, inciting everything from flag burning to
bloody fistfights to the tragic murder of athletes.
human rights groups urged boycotts of the 2008 Beijing games because of the Chinese government's human rights record, suppression of protests
in Tibet, and coziness with dictators in countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe, the
competition ultimately provoked relatively little political activity. So far, the
London Olympics have not been dogged by many boycott threats, but it hasn't
exactly been controversy-free either -- they've mainly centered on whether London
has enough security
and whether to hold an official moment of
to mark the 40th anniversary of the Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Munich
Olympics. Indeed, the competition has already produced some striking -- if
ultimately empty -- solidarity. On Monday, Iran announced that Iranian
athletes will compete against Israelis, after some members of the country's
delegation refused to do so during the 2004 Athens games and 2008 Beijing games.
(The catch: Athletes from the two countries are not scheduled to
in any events).
cooler heads haven't always prevailed during the Olympics. Here's a look at
eight games where politics took center stage, relegating sports to the
Britain (1908): The fourth official Olympic competition was the
first to feature an opening ceremony, which called for the flag bearer from
each nation to dip their flag in respect to King Edward VII as they passed by his
box in the 68,000-seat stadium. But the American flag bearer, a shot-putter named
Ralph Rose (pictured above), did not tilt the Stars and Stripes toward the ruler,
and legend has it that U.S. discus thrower Martin Sheridan defiantly
declared that the American flag "dips to no earthly king." American athletes have not dipped their flag to the host
nation's leaders since.
Anglo-American tension erupted once again during the
marathon event when Italian runner Dorando Pietri collapsed in the final
moments of the race and had to be carried across the finish line by medics. U.S.
competitor Johnny Hayes was initially declared the runner-up as British and
American officials argued over Pietri's disqualification for over an hour, while spectators brawled in the stands.
Eventually, Pietri was disqualified and Hayes crowned the winner.
These weren't the only political incidents at the
London games. Finland, which at the time was under Russian control, chose to
march in the opening ceremony without a flag rather than bear Russia's colors.
Athletes from Northern Ireland boycotted the competition altogether because
Britain refused to grant the territory independence.
Germany (1936): Adolf Hitler planned to showcase his theories of Aryan racial superiority
at these Summer Olympics. But things didn't go exactly as planned, with the
competitor Jesse Owens (pictured above) winning four gold medals during the games. A legend soon emerged that Hitler snubbed Owens during the awards
ceremony -- but that's only partly true.
On the first day of the track-and-field events, Hitler
only congratulated German winners and refused to acknowledge African-American high-jumper and gold medalist Cornelius
Johnson. When International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials told Hitler he needed
to congratulate all medalists or none at all, he opted for the latter. When
Owens won his medals, Hitler had already chosen to skip the awards ceremony.
Owens later said that he felt more insulted by U.S. President Franklin
D. Roosevelt's failure to acknowledge his victories than he was by Hitler's
absence from the medal ceremony. "The president didn't even send me a
telegram," Owens noted. He was never
invited to the White House to receive the honors traditionally bestowed on
Olympic medalists. Eventually, 19 years later, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower
named Owens an "Ambassador of Sports."
Melbourne, Australia (1956): Several
incidents disrupted these summer Olympic Games, which were the first to be
hosted by a country in the Southern Hemisphere and the first to hold closing
ceremonies. China boycotted the games
because of the participation of Formosa (Taiwan), while Egypt, Iraq, and
Lebanon stayed away from the competition in response to Israel's invasion of the Sinai
Peninsula earlier that year.
between Russia and Soviet-occupied Hungary were even more volatile during the games.
Before the Olympics began, disaffected Hungarians staged major protests against communist rule in Budapest, sparking a crackdown by Soviet forces that left more than 5,000 people dead. The
Hungarian Olympic team only heard about the developments back home after
arriving in Melbourne and then promptly tore down the Hungarian flag with the communist insignia in the Olympic Village, raising the free Hungarian flag in
countries urged the IOC to cancel the games, but then-IOC President Avery
Brundage insisted that they continue. Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands boycotted
the games over Russia's suppression of the Hungarian Revolution.
no event epitomized these bitter games more than the water polo match between Russia
and Hungary, in which a scrappy match turned
bloody when a Russian player sucker-punched Hungarian opponent Ervin Zador
(pictured above after the brawl) in the eye. Hungarian spectators broke out of
the stands to scream at the Russian players, and the referees had to cancel the
game -- which came to be called the "blood in the water" match -- while Hungary
was up 4-0. The Hungarian team went on to win the championship game against
Yugoslavia and take the gold medal.
City, Mexico (1968): Ten
days before the Olympics -- the first in a Latin American country -- regular
clashes between Mexican police and students came to a head when leaders of
the student movement, hoping to feed off media attention surrounding the
Olympics, drew thousands of young people to Three Cultures Square in the
Tlatelolco district of Mexico City. Tanks and helicopters surrounded the
demonstrators, and shots soon rang out (it's still unclear who started it),
prompting the army to fire into the crowd and attack students with bayonets.
The government stated that the number of dead was in the dozens, but students
claimed they saw hundreds of bodies
trucked away from the scene.
The games also took place during the climax of the
American civil rights movement. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had
been assassinated six months prior to the opening ceremony and U.S. President
Lyndon B. Johnson had recently signed the Fair Housing Act to ensure equal housing opportunities.
During the awards ceremony for the men's 200-meter
event, the African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos (who took
the gold and bronze medals, respectively) raised their gloved fists in the
Black Power salute to protest racism in the United States. Peter Norman, the
white Australian silver medalist in the race, wore an Olympic Project
for Human Rights emblem in solidarity with Smith and Carlos.
President Avery Brundage, whom some athletes called "Slavery Avery" for his known
white supremacist views, had the committee deliver a fiery message excoriating Smith and
Carlos for "advertising their domestic political views" in a "deliberate and
violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit." After the
IOC threatened to dismiss the entire U.S. Olympic team, the U.S. Olympic
Committee apologized and gave Smith and Carlos 48 hours to leave the games and
athletes were ostracized for years afterward and had difficulty finding work.
It wasn't until the early 1980s that the sports community began hailing their
salute as a moment of bravery. In 2008, Smith and Carlos received ESPN's Arthur Ashe
Germany (1972): With more than 7,000 athletes representing more than
120 countries, these Olympics were the largest games ever held at the time. Although the Munich games
were intended to celebrate postwar peace, that illusion was shattered when eight guerrilla fighters from
Black September, a movement affiliated with the PLO, stormed the Israeli
delegation's living quarters, killing two members of the team and taking nine
more hostage as part of an effort to demand that Israel release 200 Palestinian
prisoners. (Above, one of the terrorists is seen on a balcony in the Olympic Village
during a standoff with police). In a botched rescue attempt, the remaining
hostages and five of the terrorists were killed.
suspended the games for a day and held a memorial service for the victims
during which he barely
the deaths of the Israeli athletes, but the games went on -- a fiercely contested
the death of the Israeli athletes, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir sent
Mossad teams to assassinate the perpetrators of the Black September plot. On
Oct. 16, 1972, Mossad agents fatally shot Abdel Wael
Zwaiter, the PLO's representative in Italy, in his apartment building, the
first of several targeted killings in retribution for the Munich attacks.
during the Munich games, Cold War tension popped on the basketball court during
the match between the United States and the USSR, which saw the previously
undefeated American team defeated by one point after a series of hotly
contested fouls and clock technicalities.
Montreal, Canada (1976): These
summer games were the scene of several political scuffles. Ukrainian athletes,
for instance, demonstrated against the Soviets multiple times and burned the Soviet flag
outside the Olympic Village.
notably, much of Africa -- 30 countries in all -- boycotted the Olympics over
alleged racism, stemming from the IOC's decision not to disqualify New Zealand
from the competition. New Zealand had recently sent its rugby team to tour in
South Africa, which at the time had been blocked from the Olympics for more
than 10 years because of the government's apartheid policies. It was not until the
1992 Barcelona games that South Africa would once again be allowed to
participate in the Olympics.
Moscow, Soviet Union (1980): After
the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, the United States sent a
message to the IOC insisting that the Moscow games slated for the following
summer be postponed, canceled, or relocated. The IOC overruled President Jimmy
Carter's request, and the U.S. Olympic Committee decided to boycott the Moscow games. The 1936 gold medalist Jesse Owens begged the U.S. Olympic
Committee to send a team, but his request fell on deaf ears.
65 countries -- almost half of the world's competing nations -- did not
participate in the Moscow games, whittling the number of represented nations
down to 80, the lowest level of participation since 1956. One of those in
attendance? Moscow's Olympic mascot Misha, pictured above.
Angeles, United States (1984): This was the tit-for-tat Olympics. Fourteen
socialist countries, led by the USSR, boycotted the games in retaliation for
the U.S.-led boycott of Moscow's Summer Olympics four years earlier.
Adding to the controversy was the inclusion of South
Zola Budd (pictured above) in the 3,000-meter race at a time when South African
athletes were banned from participation due to apartheid sanctions. Budd, a
young runner distinguished for competing barefoot, had applied for British
citizenship in order to compete, a process that was expedited despite mounting
opposition both within and outside Britain.
3,000-meter women's final that year became a hotly debated event after
Budd and her American rival Mary Decker collided at the halfway point, ending
the race for Decker. Budd kept running but finished seventh, appearing demonstrably
upset as crowds jeered at her. After the race, demonstrators held signs that
said, "White trash, go home."
* * *
unclear to what extent the athletes themselves internalize these geopolitical
tensions. Budd and Decker played down their rivalry when they competed again in 1992. Even Ervin
Zador, the Hungarian polo player who got punched in the eye at the 1956 games, lamented that he wished "sports
could be exempt from politics" after he got wind of plans to disrupt the torch
relay for the 2008 Beijing games over China's crackdown in Tibet. "But that's
just a dream," he added. "It'll never happen." If Zador is right, London may
yet witness some Olympic-sized politics of its own.