The Olympic Soapbox
The 2014 Winter Games, hosted by Sochi, Russia, became an ideological soapbox in mid-2013, when the Russian government outlawed “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.” Would-be protesters were thwarted by arrest threats as well as the Olympic Charter, which forbids “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda.” But the Olympics medal platform has often served as a political stage. Sochi wasn’t the first—and won’t be the last—international clash of protest, politics and sport.
Germany hosted the 1936 Olympic Games less than a year after the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws had stripped Jews and others of rights and property. Many demanded a boycott. A German American group declaimed Hitler had “barred all but Nazi sports activity in Germany, having dissolved labor, liberal, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and all other independent athletic groups [and] confiscated their property.” Nevertheless, the games went on; “100,000 hail Hitler,” the pro-boycott New York Times reported, the “new Caesar of this era.” Britain’s foreign secretary lamented afterward that the Games had not appeased the “Reich menace.”
After Berlin, the International Committee for the Preservation of the Olympic Ideal affirmed a tenet all hosts should remember: “Respect for the Olympic rules must not be limited to a special period of time…they must control the ordinary sport life of a nation.” Yet before the Beijing Games, the Chinese government (which had revealed totalitarian tendencies during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of student protesters) preemptively removed dissidents, arrested human rights activists and forcibly displaced thousands of residents to make way for construction. To avoid pre-Games bad publicity, the authorities also purportedly suppressed news of melamine-tainted infant formula that was sickening and killing babies.
During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese government designated protest zones, where those with grievances—and a permit—could hold demonstrations. The gesture was bogus: No permits were approved, and no protests occurred in the zones. Some citizens who applied were arrested and detained; a few were sentenced to “reeducation through labor.” While Chinese authorities squelched dissent from within, the International Olympic Committee fretted about disruptions from human rights activists, such as Students for a Free Tibet and the “Genocide Olympics” movement, which urged China to pressure Sudan to stop the killings in Darfur.
Protests also preoccupied officials preparing for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The nation’s new law forbidding gay “propaganda” and allowing for violators’ detainment conflicted with Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter: “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” As the charter also prohibits demonstrations, however, protests took a more subversive form. Several gay rights groups urged athletes and spectators to display the words Principle 6 (or P6) on clothing and accessories to underscore the true spirit of sportsmanship.
In 1968 the United States was in turmoil, mired in Vietnam and shaken by political assassinations and the racial strife that accompanied progress in the civil rights movement. Several prospective African American Olympians considered boycotting that year’s Summer Games in Mexico City as a protest against racism in society and sports, but most attended. Track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and silver medalists in the 200-meter sprint, respectively, carefully choreographed their medal platform appearance: Shoeless, they wore black socks to recall poverty and beads to invoke lynchings, and each raised a glove-clad fist as a gesture of racial unity. Their stance was decried as disrespectful, defiant, a “black power salute”; they were suspended from the team. The 2014 Sochi Games also coincided with a turbulent time for human rights. As same-sex marriage was being legalized state by state in the U.S., and gays and lesbians pioneered openness in new spheres in most of the Western world, Russia enacted punitive antigay laws that had Olympians again considering protests against oppression. Actor Harvey Fierstein, calling for a boycott, referenced the 1936 Nazi-hosted games as a lesson against acceding to tyranny, warning, “There is a price for tolerating intolerance.”
The Nazi Party took power after Germany had been chosen to host the 1936 Olympics. Many Americans opposed sending a team, but U.S. Olympic Committee head Avery Brundage supported the selection. Meanwhile, the Amsterdam News, a Harlem weekly, urged black athletes to boycott: “Humanity demands that Hitlerism be crushed, and yours is the opportunity to strike a blow.” Instead, the star of Berlin’s Summer Games, African American sprinter Jesse Owens, struck a definitive blow against Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals. He gave a traditional hand-to-brow salute on the medal stand, while the German silver medalist extended his arm in a Nazi heil.
Owens later admitted, “I came back to my native country and I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus.… I couldn’t live where I wanted. Now what’s the difference?” By 1968 Brundage was head of the International Olympic Committee, and he condemned African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos for bringing politics to the podium when they raised their fists on the medal stand. Owens himself was sent to implore the runners not to protest. Carlos rebutted, “Mr. Owens…if you had stood up in 1936 a little more, we wouldn’t have to in 1968.”
In 1933 Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared, “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.” Goebbels intended the 1936 Berlin Games to showcase Aryan supremacy; most other countries hoped the honor would forestall Adolf Hitler’s despotic advances. Germany’s hosting of the Games in 1936 and again in 1972 was strongly promoted by Olympics committeeman Avery Brundage, who so admired the Nazi athletes’ discipline that he tried to institute a similar national regimen in the U.S.
The XX Olympiad in Munich, West Germany, was meant to reveal a different side of the nation that had murdered millions of European Jews. But in the Games’ second week, Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed 11 members of Israel’s contingent. German authorities bungled attempts to rescue the Israelis, and several terrorists escaped. The host was harshly criticized for the lax security that allowed the kidnappers to infiltrate athletes’ housing, for continuing the Games after the massacre and, later, for purportedly having ignored warnings of the attack. The incident ushered in a new era of antiterrorism security initiatives at large-scale international events.
The horrific terrorist act of 11 murders perpetrated at the 1972 Summer Olympics by Black September, an arm of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, rightly but sadly overshadowed these Games’ compelling sports stories: Jewish American swimmer Mark Spitz (who was rushed from Munich after the attack against the Israeli team) earned a record-breaking seven gold medals; gymnast Olga Korbut, a pigtailed 84-pound member of the Soviet Army, mesmerized spectators with her athleticism, grace and expressiveness. Unlike the typically severe Eastern Bloc athletes, Korbut smiled, cried and laughed. Her golds testified to the disciplined training then common behind the Iron Curtain—demonstrated even better in 1976, when Romania’s Nadia Comaneci received unprecedented perfect scores.
Soviet and Romanian women dominated again at Moscow’s 1980 Summer Olympics, which ushered in a decade of boycotts and defections. The U.S. sat out the Moscow Games, but Americans were still celebrating their underdog hockey team’s triumph over its Soviet nemesis at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The following year, Comaneci’s coaches defected to the U.S. (as Comaneci would in 1989), where they coached Mary Lou Retton to the individual all-around gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games—which the USSR boycotted.
China staged the 2008 Summer Olympics as a display of nationalistic pride in its communist regime. The slogan “One World, One Dream” seemed to portend global ambitions. China’s well-trained athletes recalled the participants who had emerged from behind the Iron Curtain in the Cold War years, when the Games again offered opportunities to flex political as well as physical superiority. The USSR sent team after team of scrupulously disciplined athletes drilled with militaristic precision to conquer more fallible Westerners used to less rigorous fields of play. Shortly after the USSR’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. announced a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The Eastern Bloc teams still attended the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, where the Soviet men’s ice hockey team, largely Red Army members, expected to win its fifth straight gold. Instead, spurred on by chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” a seventh-seeded team of American college students trounced the defending champions. A sportswriter noted that U.S. coach Herb Brooks spoke of fostering “capitalistic ideals—competition, exuberance, youth.” The “Miracle on Ice” was a slap in the face to government-run sports regimes and a victory for the amateur play that defines the Olympic ideal.