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A History of Boycotts of the Olympic Games

by Katie Scott Aiton Aug 8, 2016

With the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea underway, we take a glance over past Games and ask: Should politics be benched at the Olympics, granting athletes the space to compete for their dreams?

Have your say. Can sports and politics ever be separated?

1936 Summer Olympics, Berlin, Germany

Proposed boycotts due to Nazi Germany’s human rights abuses and propaganda
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded Berlin the honour of hosting the games, not knowing Adolf Hitler would take power in Germany two years later. There was an international debate as to whether the 1936 Olympics should be boycotted in response to reported persecution of Jewish athletes and other racist policies.

Action taken
Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee (AOC), stated: “The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race.”

Individual Jewish athletes from a number of countries chose to boycott the Berlin Olympics. Short-lived boycott efforts also surfaced in Great Britain, France, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and the Netherlands. German Socialists and Communists in exile voiced their opposition. Mass movements sprang up in the US and other Western democratic nations, but their efforts were short lived as the Games saw 49 countries compete in Berlin, which was actually a better turnout than in previous years.

Host country’s stance
Nazi Germany took the opportunity to use the Games for propaganda purposes. The stadium was decorated with pro-Nazi banners and swastikas, and was filmed by the noted Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahi for her film Olympia.

1956 Summer Olympics, Melbourne, Australia

Invasion of Hungary, Suez Canal, and inclusion of Republic of China (Taiwan)
The Summer Games in Melbourne took place without the presence of several countries. Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands withdrew because of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq did not participate because of the Suez Crisis, while the People’s Republic of China refused to take part in the event due to the inclusion of the Republic of China (Taiwan).

Political event: Blood in the Water
The event most frequently remembered from this year’s Games is the “Blood in the Water” water polo match, which took place between Hungary and the Soviet Union. Just weeks before the Games, a revolt in Hungary had been put down by the Soviets at the expense of thousands of Hungarian lives. When the Hungarian team arrived at the Olympic Village, they removed the Communist Hungarian flag and replaced it with a Free Hungary banner.

Emotions were running high between the players. With time running out in the match and the Hungarians leading 4-0, a Soviet player blatantly punched Hungarian Ervin Zador in the eye. The pool deck flooded with angry Hungarian fans, and a referee ended the match early.

Restriction of equestrian events
On a side note, due to Australian quarantine regulations, the government barred foreign horses at the Games. The equestrian events were held separately in Stockholm in June.

1964 Olympics, Tokyo, Japan

Prohibition of South Africa due to apartheid regime
The Tokyo Olympics marked an earnest milestone in the history of the Games for the implementation of a ban against South African teams, as a response to the oppressive apartheid regime. This prohibition persisted until 1992.

1968 Summer Olympics, Mexico City

Inclusion of new nations
The Games this year saw the first ever Latin American host of the Olympics. Furthermore, it was the first time the nations of Barbados, British Honduras (Belize), Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa), Guinea, El Salvador, Honduras, Kuwait, Nicaragua, Paraguay, the United States Virgin Islands, and Sierra Leone attended. Singapore also made a return as an independent country, and East and West Germany participated as separate countries.

Tlatelolco Massacre
Although the International Olympic Committee’s inclusion of these new nations was a positive, the world was stunned when news hit of the Tlatelolco Massacre on October 2, 1968. Ten days before the opening ceremony, a protest took place. The movement was driven by students in an aim to voice their concern about the authoritarian nature of the Mexican government. The government responded by allowing the Mexican Army to open fire on the students. The death toll was recorded at 267, with more than 1,000 injured in the shocking attack.

Political event: Black Power Salute
In response to the massacre, Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a black-gloved fist — the black power salute — and lowered their heads in defiance on the podium. Some members of the IOC considered this political statement by the athletes to be in contempt of the apolitical principles of the Olympic Games. In response, both Smith and Carlo were expelled from the Games.

1972 Summer Olympics, Berlin, Germany

Political event: Black September attack
1972 saw another dark period for the Games in Berlin: the terrorist acts played out by the Palestinian militant group Black September.

Disbelief shook the Olympic Village and the world during the second week of the Games, when Black September gunmen entered the Israeli compound, capturing and eventually leading to the deaths of 11 Israeli Olympic team members, as well as a German police officer. The protest was carried out against the imprisonment of 234 Palestinians in Israeli jails.

1976 Summer Olympics, Montreal, Quebec

Debt for Quebec
The Montreal Summer Olympics is still a sore point for Quebecers. Now an eyesore on the cityscape, the stadium, coined “The Big Owe,” put the city into $2 billion of debt that it didn’t erase until December, 2006.

Boycotts from African and Caribbean nations due to apartheid-related politics
To twist the knife further for Montreal, the Games had a pretty small attendance as boycotts abounded. Almost all sovereign African and Caribbean nations, plus a few other countries, refused the invitation. A total of 28 countries united against the IOC’s refusal to exclude New Zealand, whose rugby team had toured South Africa during apartheid. Although the IOC had no control over the playing of rugby, they were loudly criticised for not including New Zealand on the ban list.

Exclusion of Taiwan
Taiwan was excluded from the party, as Canada did not recognize them as separate from China.

1980 Summer Olympics, Moscow, Russia

US-led boycott due to invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet Union
This was the only US-led boycott in Olympic history. President Jimmy Carter decided the nation would boycott the Games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979.

The decision still sits uncomfortably with most athletes and coaches. US Olympian swimmer and winner of two gold medals (1976) Brian Goodell questioned his couch, Mark Schubert, after Carter made the announcement of the boycott: “What are we doing this for?” No one really had a concrete answer for the US teams who were left frustrated and bewildered on the sidelines.

1984 Summer Olympics, Los Angeles, USA

Communist-led boycott against the US
Batting the ball right back at the US, the Soviet Union, East Germany, and other Communist countries boycotted the 1984 Games in response to the US boycott in Moscow.

Only months before the tournament was to begin, the Soviet government issued this statement: “It is known from the very first days of preparations for the present Olympics the American administration has sought to set course at using the Games for its political aims. Chauvinistic sentiments and anti-Soviet hysteria are being whipped up in this country.” The official line for the boycott was the Soviet Union’s claim that its athletes would be subject to protest and attacks. Ironically, China chose to return to the Games this year after a 32-year absence.

Luckily for the US, without the talent from the Communist teams, they managed to bag an Olympic record 83 gold medals.

1988 Summer Olympics, Seoul, South Korea

Boycott by North Korea
In anger over not being considered a co-host of the 1988 Games, North Korea boycotted. Only Ethiopia and Cuba joined them.

2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing, China

Worldwide rally against China’s human rights abuses
Although no boycott eventuated, worldwide protests were held against China’s treatment of the Tibetan people and their other acts of human rights abuses.

2014 Winter Olympics, Sochi, Russia

Worldwide rally and proposed boycott against Russia’s anti-gay law and reported human rights abuses
An international chorus of critics have forwarded a debate on whether there should be a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia due to reported human rights abuses and the enforcement of an anti-gay law in the nation.

Russia’s anti-gay law
The IOC asked Russia to clarify its stance on the law, which, passed by President Vladimir Putin, prescribes heavy fines for anyone providing information about homosexuality to people under 18. Critics say its loose interpretation effectively prohibits any kind of public gay rights event in Russia. Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko commented that Olympic athletes would “have to respect the laws of the country” during the Games.

Worldwide response
Gay rights campaigners have called for a global response and for the Games to be moved to another country in protest. Everyone from Stephen Fry, who wrote an impassioned letter to then British Prime Minister David Cameron, Lady Gaga, American author Dan Savage, who launched a popular #DumpRussianVodka campaign, to President Obama have spoken out and taken a hard stance on the issue.

The IOC maintained its position that Russia was adhering to the Olympic charter’s anti-discrimination mandates. “We are going to inform now all the national Olympic committees and all the athletes who want to have clarity,” the president of the IOC stated to the media, after addressing the UN General Assembly.

Putin’s response
In retaliation to the protests, Putin has put a ban on all demonstrations and rallies for two and a half months in Sochi around the 2014 tournament.

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