Olympics, politics have intertwined throughout history

The political unrest in Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff appears on the verge of losing office after a congressional vote to impeach her, will inevitably impact the upcoming Olympics in Rio. But this is not a new narrative.

Boycotts, protests and terrorism have marred past Games

Brazilian Prime Minister Dilma Rousseff, centre, may not be in office by the time the Rio Olympics start amid calls for her impeachment. (Buda Mendes/Getty)

The political unrest in Brazil, where President Dilma Rousseff appears on the verge of losing office after a congressional vote to impeach her, will inevitably impact the upcoming Olympics in Rio.

But this is not a new narrative.

The Olympics have been marred by political jockeying and protests leading up to and during the Games. In one tragic case, it led to the murders of 11 Olympians. The Games have even been cancelled in 1916, 1940 and 1944 due to the two World Wars.

So, in advance of what will likely be another Olympics influenced by politics, here are examples of other Games where the competition took a back-seat to pressing political issues.

1936: Hitler's Games

In 1934, Avery Brundage, the head of the American Olympic Committee, wrote "the Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians."

Clearly Brundage was not part of the host committee for the 1936 Games in Berlin, which turned the Olympics into an opportunity to broadcast a 'polished' version of Nazi Germany to the international community.

Germany's discriminatory laws were not kept quiet during the Games, despite efforts to divert attention from them. These laws excluded many Jewish, part-Jewish and Roma athletes from German athletic organizations and from qualifying despite strong results. In an effort to appease international concerns, Helene Mayer, whose father was Jewish, was begrudgingly added to the German team. Mayer would win silver during the Olympics.

The United States considered boycotting the Games, and there were similar discussions in Great Britain and parts of Europe. However, despite protests from groups like the American Jewish Congress, the Amateur Athletic Union voted to participate.

1968: Saluting the struggle

American sprinters Tommie Smith, centre, and John Carlos, right, strike the "Black Power" pose during the 200-metre sprint medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. (Associated Press)

Human rights issues literally took centre stage in Mexico City during the 1968 Olympics. After finishing first and third respectively, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos took to the podium wearing black gloves, and proceeded to make the "Black Power" salute during the medal ceremony.

In an act of solidarity, Australian silver medallist Peter Norman stood alongside Smith and Carlos during the ceremony wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. Beatified by civil rights activists and demonised by the press and their national team, Smith and Carlos were sent home immediately after their act of defiance. 

This event marked the second major instance of racial politics surrounding the 1968 Games; Brundage, who was the president of the International Olympic Committee at the time, rescinded an invitation to South Africa after boycott threats due to the country's apartheid policies.

1972: 'They're all gone'

Jim McKay's solemn broadcast that included the infamous line 'they're all gone,' were the closing remarks to the harrowing ordeal that took place during the 1972 Munich Olympics.

While staying in the Olympic Village, 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and later murdered by the terrorist group Black September. The massacre became synonymous with how those Games are remembered, especially considering that coverage of the situation was broadcast live.

After a 24-hour postponement, the Games resumed with heightened security.

Mark Spitz, the Jewish-American swimmer who set a then-Olympic record with seven gold medals at a single Games, was asked to leave by Olympic officials before the closing ceremony for fear of a second attack.

1980 and 1984: Duelling boycotts

The United States and 64 other countries boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

In repsonse, the USSR and 13 other countries boycotted the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. While the Eastern Bloc countries (excluding Romania) and Cuba allied themselves to the boycott out of solidarity to the Soviet Union, countries like Iran and Libya cited different reasons for boycotting.

While speculation over the motives behind the Soviet boycott remain, neither country would rest their athletes during the boycotted years. The U.S. hosted the Liberty Bell Classic in 1980 while the Friendship Games of 1984 were held in various locations around the world.

2000: Freeman's two flags

Australian sprinter Cathy Freeman experienced tremendous pressure heading into the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In addition to competing against French phenom Marie-José​ Pérec, the narrative surrounding the Games focused on protests against Australia's mistreatment of Aboriginal peoples.

Freeman, who never shied away from her Aboriginal heritage, was drawn into the commotion after being asked to boycott the Games. She chose to participate, hoping her success would shine a light on the accomplishments of Aboriginals. 

Freeman lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony and won gold in the women's 400-metre sprint. During her victory lap, she carried both the Australian and Aboriginal flags.

2008 and 2014: Human rights headlines

Protests surrounding the Beijing and Sochi Olympics in 2008 and 2014, respectively, focused on the human rights records of the host countries. 

Ahead of the Summer Games in China, issues such as Tibetan independence and other internal human rights violations were the focus of protests. Talks of boycotts ultimately dissipated and the Games went on.

The discriminatory policies of Vladimir Putin's government drew the ire of international protesters in advance of the 2014 Winter Olympics. These issues, embodied in the Pussy Riot saga, drew attention to the country's record of controversial arrests and anti-LGBT laws.


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