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Politics and the Olympics


While the Olympics are intended to bring countries together through sport, in reality, they have provided a forum to highlight geopolitical, civil rights, and political issues.

The summer Olympics in Tokyo start this Friday, July 23 with a live, televised opening ceremony. As NBC said, this event “will be the first major global gathering since the worldwide pandemic began last year.”


Despite confirmed COVID-19 cases in Olympic Village among athletes, coaches, and officials, First Lady Jill Biden will attend the opening night festivities. The official U.S. Olympic delegation is somewhat smaller than in previous years, however. Raymond Greene from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo is the only other member of the official White House delegation. In 2008 in Beijing, seven people joined President George W. Bush to launch the Olympiad. Five people accompanied former Secretary of State John Kerry to the opening ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.


Presidents rarely attend the games themselves. In fact, President Ronald Reagan was the first sitting commander in chief to attend an opening ceremony. He was on hand to open the summer games in Los Angeles in 1984. President George W. Bush was the first sitting president to travel abroad for the Olympics when he flew to Beijing.


The jockeying for a place in the White House delegation is not the only time politics mixes with the Olympics, of course. While the whole point of the Olympics is to bring nations together through sport, the games have actually been a forum for geopolitical sparring, the quest for civil rights, and concerns about public debt over the last 100 years.


The Olympics and Civil Rights

The first modern Olympiad was hosted in Athens in 1896. Only men competed in those games.


Women were allowed to compete in the Olympics four years later in the summer games in Paris. Only two sports, lawn tennis and golf, were open to women, however. The number of events for women expanded from there. According to Reader’s Digest, “The London 2012 Olympics signified a new gender milestone with the debut of Women’s Boxing, and it was the first games in Olympic history with female athletes from every competing country.”


The 1948 London summer games were a catalyst for the rights of the disabled. In an effort to rehabilitate World War II veterans, English doctor Ludwig Guttmann created the International Wheelchair Games. Those events eventually led to the establishment of the Paralympic Games, which will see more than 4,000 athletes compete this year beginning in late August.


While President Franklin Roosevelt was criticized for not boycotting the 1936 summer games in Germany, track and field icon Jesse Owens broke world records and racial barriers at those games. Olympic historians captured the drama of that Olympiad, which was overseen by German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. As historians said, Hitler had “hoped” the games would “profile the supremacy of the Aryan ‘master race.’” Instead Owens won the 100 meter dash in 10.30 seconds, the 200 meter dash in 20.70 seconds, and the long jump with a leap of 8.06 meters. Owens capped his gold medal run with the 4x100 meter relay, which the U.S. team won in a world record time of 39.80 seconds.


Civil rights for Black athletes also were at the center of the 1968 summer games in Mexico City and in Montreal in 1972.


As Reader’s Digest explains, “At the height of the civil rights movement in the United States [in 1968], Black American athletes were encouraged to boycott the games. Instead, African-American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith staged a non-violent protest by raising their fists in a Black Power salute while the national anthem played during their medal ceremony.” That protest led to the two being barred from Olympic Village.


Four years later, 22 African nations and 10 other countries boycotted the Montreal summer games because the New Zealand rugby team, which was participating in the games, recently had played the national team from apartheid South Africa.


For the Tokyo games this year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) originally forbade any type of political activism by athletes. Specifically, athletes were told they could not use “gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling.” (The long-standing Olympic Charter also states, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”)


The IOC amended that policy earlier this year. Athletes now will be allowed to make political statements — just not from the awards podium, during play, or in Olympic Village. Athletes are allowed to share political opinions in interviews and news conference and in digital, traditional, and social media. They can also demonstrate peacefully on their field of play if competition has not yet started.


Foreign Policy and the Olympic Games

The first boycott of an Olympiad came at the 1956 summer games in Melbourne, Australia. After Israel, Britain, and France attacked the Suez Canal, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon refused to participate. Spain, the Netherlands, and Switzerland also boycotted the games, but for a different reason entirely: the Soviet Union invaded Hungary. And, not to be left out, the People’s Republic of China sat the games out because Taiwan was allowed to compete.


There was no boycott in 1972, but the conflict between Palestinians and Israel was on full display in Munich. Eleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists and two were killed. The games continued anyway.


The Soviet Union was at the center of the U.S. boycott of the summer Olympics in 1980 in Moscow. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan a year earlier. President Jimmy Carter issued a strong statement after the invasion, calling it an effort “by a powerful atheistic government to subjugate an independent Islamic people.”


After Soviet officials refused to relent, President Carter announced on March 10, 1980 that the United States would not participate in the games. Canada, West Germany, and Japan were among the 62 other countries that joined the United States in protest. As a result, the 1980 games had the fewest number of athletes since 1956.


Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union responded to the United States’ decision by boycotting the summer games in Los Angeles four years later.


North Korea boycotted the summer games in 1988 after Olympic officials refused to recognize the country as a co-host, with South Korea, of the games. Cuba and Ethiopia joined North Korea in its boycott.


The 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona were the first summer games since 1972 that did not face a boycott, but boycotts are back on Americans’ minds today.


The 2022 winter games will be hosted by Beijing, China. While Reuters reported the U.S. State Department has denied it is considering a boycott, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wants the Biden administration to consider some sort of protest. The speaker said she does not want to prevent athletes from taking part in the games, but instead would like to see a “diplomatic boycott.” In May, Speaker Pelosi argued, “For heads of state to go to China in light of a genocide that is ongoing — while you’re sitting there in your seat — really begs the question, what moral authority do you have to speak again about human rights any place in the world?”


Bringing the World Together Ain’t Cheap

Increasingly, it is not foreign policy, but domestic matters that are at the heart of Olympic controversy.


Japan and the host city Tokyo are expected to lose as much as $20 billion on this pandemic Olympiad. Much of that loss will result from the fact that, due to concerns about COVID-19, spectators, including athletes’ family members, are banned from attending the games. (U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee officials even refused a request from the mother of blind and deaf Paralympian to accompany her daughter to the games. The athlete dropped out of her events rather than travel alone.)


But even Olympics held in normal times may not economically benefit their host country. According to researchers at the Council on Foreign Relations, a year after the 2016 Olympics in Rio, that city was struggling “with debt incurred, maintenance costs for abandoned facilities, underequipped public services, and rising crime.” The 1976 summer games in Montreal were projected to cost just $124 million. But “construction delays and cost overruns for a new stadium” left the city’s taxpayers with $1.5 billion in debt that took 30 years to pay off. The cost of the 2014 winter Olympic games in Sochi, Russia cost five times the original estimate. Some commentators have even argued the 2004 summer games in Athens led to Greece’s debt crisis a few years later. (The Athens games cost $11 billion to stage.)


Los Angeles was one of the few cities to turn a profit. The 1984 summer games netted the city $215 million.


Taxpayers are becoming more and more skeptical of hosting the games. A May 2021 Fortune headline said “the biggest Olympic hurdle” is “finding host cities.” Heather Dichter, associate professor of sports history at De Montfort University in Leicester, U.K. and an expert on Olympics bids, told the magazine, “Bid committees often underestimate the costs, and the costs always overrun by enormous amounts. People think, why is this money being spent on sporting events rather than infrastructure, or health or education?”


Despite the costs – and, in many cases, the geopolitical controversy – that accompany the games, the Olympics live on. The IOC announced earlier today that Brisbane, Australia will host the 2032 Summer Olympics.

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