The Olympics have long been a stage for political statements and upheaval.
The controversies surrounding the upcoming games in Sochi, Russia are just the newest in a long saga of unrest accompanying what is meant to be the greatest exhibit of athleticism in the world. To say the Olympics, or sports themselves, exist outside the realm of politics is inaccurate.
While commenting on Amy Bass’ Not the Triumph but the Struggle, a book on the history of black athletes in sport, Bob Costas of NBC Sports said, “In addition to being competition, entertainment, business, and shared experience, Sport has often been a stage where significant social issues were played out. In the twentieth century, those issues often pertained to human rights and race. Sometimes the dynamics of sports served to clarify those issues, sometimes to muddle them.”
The Games are meant to be a global event where countries come together in the name of competition, an impartial arena for the pursuit of excellence. But in bringing together countries with diverse political, religious and ethnic backgrounds, the Olympic Games are not immune from national and international conflicts.
The affair between the Olympics and politics began at the 1906 Games in Athens, when Irish athlete Peter O’Connor was forced to compete for and under the flag of Great Britain. In protest, O’Connor scaled the flagpole during the medal ceremony and waved the Irish flag.
Olympic controversy has since run the gamut from boycotts to political statements, terrorist attacks to all out fights between athletes from embattled nations.
Despite the International Olympic Committee’s attempts to remove politics from the games, the link persists.
One of the biggest concerns surrounding the 2014 Winter Games is Russa’s stance on LGBTQ issues. The host nation passed legislation in June 2013 which bans distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors.
But Russia is not the first host to be reprimanded for its stance on human rights. Most recently, the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing brought attention to China’s less-than-illustrious human rights record. The 1936 Games held in Berlin, Germany were criticized for taking place under Nazi party rule.
In each of these cases there were calls to boycott the games that never came to fruition. Boycotts in these instances are meant as a sign of protest, but attending the games often makes more of a statement.
The Berlin Olympics was one of Hitler’s major propaganda machines used to spread the Nazi ideology, specifically the superiority of the Aryan race. This ideology was challenged when African-American sprinter Jesse Owens won four gold medals in track and field events.
African-American athletes considered boycotting the 1986 Games held in Mexico City to protest racial inequality in the United States but the boycott never materialized. Instead, Tommie Smith and John Carlos made a much bigger impact by attending the games.
After placing first and third respectively in the 200-metre race, Smith and Carlos made their political statement on the podium when they raised their fists and bowed their heads in a Black Power salute as the U.S. anthem played in the background.
As for what will happen in Sochi, Rule 50 in the International Olympic Committee Charter states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas,” but this doesn’t mean the athletes will follow suit.
IOC President Thomas Bach said athletes will not be denied their free speech but are not permitted to make political points while competing or during ceremonies. Individual views can, however, be expressed during press conferences. If any athletes violate this rule, they are subject to sanctions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that there will be no discrimination on the grounds of sexuality at the Olympics but, due to the recent negative backlash surrounding Russia’s laws and practices, the public perception of this matter is undoubtedly already tained.
With openly gay athletes competing in the Winter Games and travelling to Sochi as delegates, it’s only a matter of time before personal views rise to the surface and are broadcast for millions to see.
Graphic: Stephanie Mah