How not to boycott the Olympic Games

Russia's new anti-gay law has incited calls to boycott the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, but history shows such tactics rarely get the Games' non-discrimination message across.

Russia's anti-gay law draws criticism, but historian says Olympic boycotts haven't been effective

Riot police detain gay rights activists during their rally in St. Petersburg, Russia, on June 29, which proceeded with official approval despite recently passed legislation targeting gays. The law has led to calls for a boycott of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

Human rights groups and gay activists began calling for a boycott of the February Olympic Winter Games in Sochi shortly after Russia enacted a new law in July that discriminates against gays or anyone speaking in favour of what the law calls "non-traditional sexual relations."

Petitions at the website (over 100,000 signatures) and the White House website are being signed, and pro-boycott op-eds are appearing in influential newspapers and politicians and celebrities are adding their voices.

Although there has never been a boycott of a Winter Games, boycotts are nothing new for the Olympics itself, and the gatherings have often become a prime target for political protest.

As Dick Pound, a Canadian International Olympic Committee member, wrote in 2004 in Inside the Olympics, "From the very beginning, the Olympic movement has embraced two elements: ethics and internationalism."

The ethics, Pound went on, are based on universal principles of fair play and a prohibition against discrimination.

Russian nationalists attack a gay rights campaigner at a park in Moscow on May 25, during a protest against the Kremlin's bill banning 'propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.' Polls suggest the law is popular with Russians. (Evgeny Feldman/Associated Press)

Of course, the IOC has had difficulty living up to these ideals, which Pound concedes, while claiming the Olympic record is still very good by comparison with what else goes on in the world. Pound has spoken out against the Russian law and a boycott.

Still, those ideals do offer a rationale to call for a boycott under certain circumstances, and today it may also matter that the whole world is watching live, raising the bar for those who might want to join in.

The first boycott

The ancient Greek Olympics experienced boycotts, historians say. But in the modern era, which began in 1896, there are different opinions about which Olympics experienced the first boycott. 

The BBC and some others claim it was London in 1908, "when Irish athletes, angered at the refusal of Britain to give Ireland its independence, boycotted the Games in London."

However, there was no Irish team per se that could boycott those games, so it was really individual athletes, members of the host team, who did not participate.

Two women in Vancouver participate in a 'kiss-in' outside the Russian Consulate to protest Russia's new anti-gay law, Aug. 2. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Others say the first modern boycott was the Berlin Games in 1936, but it is remembered more for the debate about boycotting than the boycott that, arguably, took place.

Berlin was awarded those Olympics before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933. At the time there was little enthusiasm for the Games, outside of Germany, Italy and Japan. But the Olympics movement "just took the position that you take part in the Olympics, period," David Wallechinsky, the president of the International Society of Olympic Historians told CBC News.

Wallechinsky is known for his books The Complete Book of the Olympics and The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, with editions published every four years. The next edition on the Winter Games comes out in November.

In 1936, the debate about a boycott was most intense in the United States, but their Olympic movement was divided. The issue then, as it is now, was discrimination, in particular on Nazi Germany's discriminatory policy towards Jewish athletes.

The 2014 edition of historian David Wallechinsky's The Complete Book of Winter Olympics is due for publication in November. (Canadian Press)

Working in Hitler's favour was the presence of certain individuals who were somewhat sympathetic to Germany within the leadership of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "You had people like Avery Brundage who were kind of sympathetic to the Nazis and didn't see it as a problem," Wallechinsky said.

Brundage was the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1928 to 1953, and then president of the IOC until 1972.

American sports organizations divided over the boycott issue. Hundreds of thousands signed petitions. When it came time for the executive committee of the American Athletic Union to decide the issue, Brundage's anti-boycott side won by just a couple of votes.

Brundage even wrote that what he called "the active boycott by Jews and Communists" was beneficial in some ways, especially for fundraising.

Jeremiah T. Mahoney, the AAU president who lead the campaign in favour of a boycott, resigned after the vote and then went on to support holding a People's Olympiad in Barcelona, along with Spain's Republican government, which said it would boycott. (Barcelona had competed with Berlin to host the 1936 Games.)

Gold medal winner Jesse Owens of the U.S., centre, Germany's Lutz Long, right, and Naoto Tajima of Japan, left, on the podium at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, after winning medals in the long jump. Afterward, Owens, the star of the Games, and Long walked arm in arm around the playing field. (Associated Press)

Athletes from 22 nations registered to attend, but just before the games were to begin, the military coup that started the Spanish Civil War took place. The games were hastily cancelled.

Three boycotts in 1956

For Wallechinsky, the first Olympic boycotts were in 1956, when the games were in Melbourne, Australia. (He says the chaos in Spain at the time the Berlin Games began, two weeks into the Spanish Civil War, makes it uncertain that Spain did indeed  boycott. The Soviet Union didn't begin to participate in the Olympics until 1952.)

In 1956, the three boycotts were not aimed at the host country.

Spain, The Netherlands and Switzerland boycotted the event because of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, while Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon boycotted because of the Suez crisis. China boycotted because Taiwan was allowed to compete.

What Olympic historians call "the boycott era" began in 1976 with the Montreal Games. This time Taiwan and China both boycotted. Even the U.S. threatened to boycott over Canada's initial decision to refuse entry to the Taiwanese team, in violation of IOC policy. The IOC brokered a deal with Canada that satisfied other countries, but not the two Chinas.

With a sweep of his arm, Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau shows off the Olympic Velodrome to IOC President Lord Killanin in 1976. In a private letter to then prime minister Joe Clark, Drapeau took issue with Clark's call for a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. (Doug Ball/Canadian Press)

The biggest boycott of the 1976 games was by African nations, upset that New Zealand was allowed to compete after its rugby team had played in South Africa, a country barred from the Olympics since 1962 because of apartheid.

Although the IOC takes issue with boycotts, they do have a history of barring teams from their Games.

The losing sides in both world wars were not allowed to compete in the games that immediately followed both wars, and Indonesia was barred in 1964 because it had barred Taiwan and Israel from competing in the 1962 Asian Games, which it had hosted.

1980: the biggest boycott

Soon after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, then U.S. president Jimmy Carter threatened a U.S. boycott of the Games scheduled for the following summer in Moscow, if the Soviets didn't withdraw their troops.

Allies like the governments of Canada, the U.K. and Australia quickly fell in line, but Wallechinsky says Carter "bullied" other nations into supporting his boycott, and U.S. athletes were thrown "under the bus." British and Australian athletes did end up competing in Moscow but Canada's Olympic Committee was persuaded to observe the boycott after initial reluctance.

During this era, it was uncertain who was actually boycotting an event and who just wasn't showing up, usually because of the cost, Wallechinsky argues.

Dick Palmer, secretary of Britain's Olympic team, right foreground, carries the Olympic banner to represent the British Olympic Association as he marches in the parade of teams, without the British team following, in a show of protest during opening ceremonies at the Moscow Games, July 19, 1980. The Hungarian Olympic team is at left. Many teams did not march with their national flags in the ceremony to protest the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, while other countries joined the American-led boycott. (Associated Press)

The IOC eventually created a program that funds at least two athletes from a country in need.

In 1980, he says, some countries told the U.S. that they were boycotting the Games. Meanwhile, they told the Soviets that they wouldn't be able to show up because they didn't have the money.

Joe Clark, then Canada's prime minister, wrote in January 1980 to then Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau to ask if would be feasible to move the games from Moscow to Montreal. Clark's request and Drapeau's response only became public this year.

Drapeau's reply invoked the lofty language of Olympic idealism. "I therefore venture to state that such an ideal ... is incompatible with any proposal to boycott the Games in any way or anywhere."

He also told Clark it would be possible to stage a games, but "absolutely impossible to organize and hold properly the Olympic Games" in Montreal at an acceptable level.

Are boycotts effective?

Wallechinsky argues that the 1980 boycott, like all the Olympic boycotts before and after, was not effective.

If the goal in 1980 was to humiliate the host country, he says, it didn't work. "The Soviet government controlled the media so they were able to spin it so that it wasn't a humiliation, it was just typical American belligerence."

An aerial view shows the Olympic Park under construction on Feb. 4, in the lead up to the upcoming winter games in Sochi, Russia. David Wallechinsky tells CBC News a boycott of Sochi would be useless. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

He asks rhetorically, "Did the Soviets feel humiliated in front of their people? No!"

The Soviet Union and its allies responded in 1984 with a boycott of the Los Angeles Summer Games. Iran, Libya and Albania boycotted for their own reasons. (Iran and Albania have the distinction of being the only two countries that boycotted both the 1980 and 1984 Games.)

By the time of the South Korea Games in 1988, the boycott era was winding down.

North Korea boycotted because the IOC refused its demands to be a co-host, and Cuba, Ethiopia and possibly a few other countries boycotted in solidarity.

In 1992, Barcelona finally got to host an Olympics and there were no boycotts, and there have been no major boycotts since.

By 1992 it had become clear whether a country was boycotting or just staying away. The IOC funding program was now in place and nations were expected to attend the Summer Games.

For Wallechinsky, "I don't see these boycotts as ever having worked, as much as I've appreciated the point of view of some of them, they just don't work."

U.S. gold medalist Tommie Smith, center, and bronze medalist John Carlos, right, make a black power salute alongside and with the support of Australian silver medalist Peter Norman during the playing of The Star Spangled Banner following the 200-metre race at the Mexico City Olympics, Oct. 16, 1968. (Associated Press)

Rather than boycott, he advises, "If you want to make a political statement, you go to the Olympics and you hold up signs, you don't not go, particularly in a tyrannical regime that's going to control all media coverage."

Although a human rights advocate, he considers boycotting Sochi useless but advocates going there and making a statement. And he notes gay athletes want to compete in the Sochi.

"Imagine what would happen if they [LGBT groups or athletes] smuggled banners into one of the stadiums" and held it up, he asks. "What are the Russian authorities going to do, arrest people right in the middle of the Olympics?"

In 1968, at the Mexico City Games, two American medallists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos made a gloved Black Power salute on the podium to protest racism.

The Mexican authorities took no action, but Brundage ordered the athletes suspended by the U.S. organization or he would suspend the entire team. They were suspended and Brundage banned them from the Olympic Village. In 1936 Brundage had defended athletes giving the Nazi salute from the podium.