The most important thing at the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part, just as the important thing about life is not to conquer but to struggle well. The words spoken by Pierre de Coubertin, father of the Modern Summer Olympic Games. Baron Pierre de Coubertin may have intended for the new Olympic Games to be a period of concord in which all differences of status, religion, politics and race would be forgotten’ but unfortunately as the Games have progressed, so too have the political overtones associated with them.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, by reviving the ancient Olympic Games hoped that competition in sports would lead to a new international friendship and better cooperation amongst the nations, whilst also allowing athletes to be exposed to different values than those of their own.’ It is with misfortune that the Olympic Games have taken an unexpected turn and are used time and time again as another measurement for the ultimate victory, the ultimate dominance, the ultimate triumph on the world stage.
In the commotion of the promotion of the Olympic Games, it is often forgotten that the original principles of the games included that individuals were to be contested against one another, and that countries played no part. In fact, in the first Olympiads, there were no formal teams of nations, rather an assortment of individuals who came to Athens on their own expense for their own purposes.
As the Olympic Games progressed, it became more and more apparent for participating nations that it was an excellent opportunity to promote their country. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the Olympic Games is relayed to countries all over the world, exposing it onto a world audience. Even before technological advances of television, the Olympic Games were used by the countries to elevate themselves amongst one another. Even in the first Olympiad of 1896 in Athens, the realisation of the chance or promotion was evident, the Greek royal family of George I used the games as a device to build its power.’ In addition, when television was initially introduced, the prospect of exposure was heightened. Although television was first used to transmit images from one country to another in the Summer Olympic Games of 1960 in Rome, it was further intensified in 1964 in Tokyo. The mayor of Tokyo announced that “without the Olympics, Japan would not have risen to its high position so fast.” Nowadays, it is obvious that television and the Olympic games intertwine with each other, all scheduling of events and ceremonies are processed with television in mind, athletes now wear numbers not only on the front and back of their uniforms, but on the side as well to provide for the television audience.
The opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, similarly are now used to publicise the host countries accomplishments, and to reveal the countries culturally elements. In 1932 the Olympic Games in Los Angeles overcame the problematic times of depression, and what was to become known as the “Hollywood Extravaganza” set the tone for the world. The tone was that Los Angeles was now on the map as a city of power and prestige, and that the Olympics was a vehicle that publicized and promoted its site as no other sporting event could. The notion of cultural publicity has become increasingly popular- Gershwin’s music in Los Angeles in 1984, a taekwondo display in Seoul in 1988, flamechuo in Barcelona in 1992- have become increasingly prominent.’
Indeed, smaller nations realised that victory in the Olympic Games would lead to a lifting of their stature. In 1928, smaller nations were able to distinguish themselves. For example, the soccer gold medal was known by Uruguay; Argentina and New Zealand won gold medals in boxing; India was won the gold for field hockey, Ireland won the hammer throw, and the small nation of Haiti won a silver medal. This recognition of the games for exposure has paved the way for significant funding for the athletic development in many countries. In Romania, they are seeking to gain a national identity and thereby further political integration through its sports champions’
Unsurprisingly, as the Olympics are a contest between the nations, it is understandable that nationalism plays a colossal role. Medal tallies, the victory stand where the playing of nation’s anthem, coupled with the display of their flag, provokes emotions of nationalism, which can lead to passionate acts that often result in violence. Also, the mentality that one nation is more deserving, or has more authority over another is heated up in moments of nationalism. Take for example 1900 in Paris, France; the opening ceremony was scheduled for a Sunday, however the Americans refused to participate, the date was then changed to July 14, a Saturday, which coincidentally was Bastille Day, an important day for the French. Although the opening ceremony was to be on a Saturday, the actual competition was to begin the following day, a Sunday. Once again many Americans refused to compete.
Another influence upon the Olympics is the issue of flags and anthems. As time passes and governments change in various countries, so to do their symbols and songs. In 1908, London England, in the opening ceremony the officials from Britain neglected to display the flags of America and Sweden around the stadium. When the Americans matched past the reviewing stand containing King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, they carried their own small flags and Martin Sheridan, the standard- bearer refused to lower the U.S flag saying “this flag dips to no earthly king”. The tradition of not dipping the flag continues. Also in London, the Finns refused to carry the Russian flag, and chose not to carry a flag at all. The Irish were also required to march under the flag of Great Britain. Fifty years later and disputes concerning flags continued. In 1956 Melbourne Australia, the flag of Taiwan was accidentally raised over their camp, mainland China then withdrew from the games. The Hungarians also demonstrated over their requirement to compete under the communist flag, they retaliated by taking down the flag that flew over their camp, tore off the Communist symbol and sent up the flag Olympic free Hungary.’ In 1976, in Montreal, there were various demonstrations staged by the Ukrainians against the Soviets, by the burning of the flag outside the Olympic village. After the events of the games in Moscow Soviet Union in 1980 where sixteen of the eighty-one teams refused to carry their national flags, many critics objected to flags being raised and anthems played, stating that these nationalistic symbols only increased the political nature of the games.’
Attempts made by officials have been futile in providing that the Olympic Games be free from the events of war. The fact of the matter is that as an international event, the games will always be effected by war, also an international event. World War 1 and 2 caused the cancellation of the Olympics in 1916, and then 1940 and 1948, as it left Europe in ruins, and the economical position of most countries in severe depression. As the First World War ended, many also predicted the end of the Olympics. Even though the objective of the Olympic Games was to keep as free from politics as possible, that did not stop the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from forbidding the losers of the first world war; Germany, Austria, Hungary and Turkey from competing. Actually due to the First World War, there were many introduced improvements to the games in an attempt to heal the wounds from the war. These improvements include, a mass prayer for humanity, the five-ringed Olympic flag was establish based on an ancient Greek motif, it was meant to symbolize the friendship of mankind, with the colours representing all nations as every national flag contained at least of these colours’ of black, red, green, blue and yellow. The Olympic slogan of Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger), was also established. The significance of the Antwerp Games in 1920 was to show that not even a world war, lasting longer that the period of a whole Olympiad, could stop or weaken the Olympic movement’
During 1900 in England, a rugby football match was staged at Vincennes a suburb of Paris. The French sought revenge from the Germans, as they were defeated in the Franco-Prussian War. They achieved what the wanted. The French defeated Germany 25 to 16 by some reports, 27 to 17 by others. In 1936, Berlin Germany, a civil war broke out in Spain, their athletes, already in Berlin had to be sent home even before the games began. In 1956 during the Melbourne Olympiad, Hungarians began to protest over Russia controlling their nation in Budapest, Hungary’s capital. The Soviets then sent troops and tanks to the attempted Hungarian Revolution. When the struggle broke out, members of the Hungarian Olympic team were on their way to Melbourne. They were unable to return home to fight as the Russians had tightly secured the Hungarian borders. Although many nations called the Olympics to be cancelled, Avery Brundage, the then president of the IOC was adamant that the games continue. “We are dead against any country using the games for political purposes whether right or wrongthe Olympics being to the people. They are contests for individuals and not of nations every civilised person recoils in horror at the savage slaughter in Hungary, but that is no reason for destroying the nucleus of international cooperation.’ This was the foundation of the brutal confrontation of the now infamous water polo semi-finals between the Soviets and Hungary. Hungary was leading 4 to nil with two minutes left. In a loose-ball struggle, a Russian hit a Hungarian, blood poured over the Hungarians’ eye. The Russians exited the pool before the match even ended. Wally Wolf, a veteran polo player from America claimed “They were lucky to get of the stadium alive.”
With World War 2, it not only caused the XII and XIII to be cancelled, it was the basis of the Cold War. This split the world between the capitalists, led by the United States and the Communists, led by the Soviet Union. In 1948, the Olympic Games were hosted by London, England. The Russians announced that they would not be competing in the games but they preferred to observe the games of 1948. Between 1948 and 1952, the Soviets spend millions of dollars to develop sports champions. For the Soviets, Olympic competition was seen as a test of strength between themselves and the United States.’ Likewise, the United States were anticipating the competition between themselves and the Russians as was the world waiting. “There will be 71 nations in the Olympics at Helsinki in 1952. The United States would lead to beat all of them, but the only one that counts is Soviet Russia. The Communist propaganda machine must be silenced so that there cannot even be one distorted bleat out of it in regard to the Olympics. In sports the Red brothers (the Soviets) have reached the put-up-or shut-up stage. Let’s shut them up” Matters were further escalated as the Helsinki Games were staged during the Korean War, where both Russia and the United States were involved. The Russians sided with the North Koreans, and the United States supported the South Koreans.
The Helsinki Games was the pinnacle of the contest between the communists and non-communists. The Communists consisting of Russia, Hungary, Poland, Rumania, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria were separated from athletes of the west, living in an Eastern Camp, which was surrounded by barbed wire. No visitors were allowed, and large pictures of Joseph Stalin, the Russian ruler hung on the wall of the buildings. The Soviets viewed the Helsinki Games, and all athletic competition as a test for their political system. “Each new victory is a victory for the Soviet form of society and the Socialist sport system, it provides irrefutable proof of the superiority of socialist culture over the decaying culture of the capitalist states.” The contest between the Russians and Americans led to this statement, “There were many pressures on the American athletes in 1952 that there were in 1948 because of the Russians. They were in a sense the real enemies. You just loved to beat em. You just had to beat em. It wasn’t like beating some friendly country like Australia”
This battle between the two superpowers continued into 1960 when the games were held in Rome. The final standings left 103 medals to the Russians, with the Americans with only 71, sparking a debate all over America. Many in the United States read the Soviet Olympic triumph as a sign that America was weak.’ An American Legion spokesman announced “we should stress victory, not merely participating. In the Olympics and international meets, only the winners are honoured.” This statement totally contradicted Pierre de Coubertin quote about what the Olympics should have been about.
In 1980 when Moscow was selected over Los Angeles as host of the Olympic Games, the Americans had no choice but to cooperate. However in 1979 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. President Jimmy Carter was outraged and declared that the if the Soviets had not withdraw their troops then the Americans would not be taking part in the Moscow Olympics. This added to another element of the Olympic Games- protest by boycott. The United States also placed extreme pressure to other nations to boycott the Moscow games, by the time the games began sixty two nations were missing.
In 1956 when Hungary was being attacked by the Soviet Union, and there was a calling for the Olympic Games to be cancelled, to no avail, Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands withdrew. And in 1976 in Montreal, the United States threatened a boycott if Taiwan was excluded, as Taiwan was not permitted to compete under the flag or name of the Republic of China, but they recognised the People’s Republic of China (Communist China).
In 1964, during the Tokyo Games, the South African delegation was banned from the Games for their racial policies of Apartheid. In 1968, when South Africa was allowed to compete in the Mexico City Olympiad, many nations from Africa as well as those from the Third World and also the Soviet Union, and many black athletes from America threatened to boycott. The IOC then decided to ban the South Africans once again from the Olympics. In 1972, Munich several African nations again threatened to boycott the Olympics if Rhodesia, ruled by whites was allowed to compete. The IOC barred them from the Olympics. In 1976, Montreal the Apartheid issue also involved New Zealand. New Zealand had sent a rugby team to compete with South Africa in 1976. many African nations insisted that New Zealand be banned from the Montreal Games for competing against South Africa who practised Apartheid. The IOC refused, claiming that rugby was not an Olympic sport and New Zealand did not practise apartheid. In response, two days before the games were scheduled to begin, 24 African nations and their supporters withdrew from the Montreal Games. Some African athletes paid for their own way to compete, hoping to compete under the Olympic flag, the IOC refused to allow them to compete.
The issue of apartheid and South Africa is not the first time in which the IOC has acted as arbitrators. In 1924, the IOC banned Russia from competition in the Paris Olympics for they had undergone a communist revolution and in 1952during the Helsinki Games, the IOC rejected East Germany as a participate although allowed West Germany to participate. Red China and Taiwan were both allowed to participate. In 1956 in Melbourne after Egypt, backed by the Russia tried to gain control of the Suez Canal, a long time free passage way of oil to Western Europe, Israel, Great Britain and France united to keep the Canal open. Both the Soviet Union and the United states supported a cease-fire order by the United Nations. Egypt then demanded that Israel, Great Britain and France be banned from the Melbourne Games. The IOC refused. Egypt, along with Iraq and Lebanon boycotted.
Reminiscent of the Olympic Games being used as a platform to elevate stature and prominence on the world stage, the Olympics have given way to opportunity’s to making political statements. Indeed in 1936, during the Berlin Games Hitler say the Olympics as a way of making a political statement.’ Nazi flags flew over every building Berlin. However the Jewish quarters were not allowed to display the German Flag due to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 denying Jews the permission to display the flag. Prior to the games in Mexico 1968, many students took the occasion to protest that the money spent on the Olympics could be better spent on things that would help the people and improve the quality of life. Also in Mexico, one of the most controversial events where the Olympics, in this case the victory stand was once again used for a political stand. After finishing first and third in the 200 metre run, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium to receive their gold and bronze medals. As the American anthem was played, they raised their black-gloved fists in a Black-Power’ salute. Carlos explaining that he wanted to let the world now that blacks “were not some kind of work horse who can perform and then can be thrown some peanuts and say good boy, good boy. When Tommie and I got on the stand, we weren’t’ alone. We knew that everyone was watching at home was upon that stand, we knew we weren’t alone. We wanted to let the world know the problems about black people, and we did out thing and stepped down. We believe we were right. We’d do it again tomorrow.” However, both men were consequently suspended from the games and expelled from the Olympic village.
In 1972, undoubtedly the worse event throughout the Olympic history is the moment when eight Arab terrorists, representing the Black-September guerrilla group broke into the quarters of the Israeli team taking them hostage. In total, nine of the Israeli terrorists and three terrorists were killed.
Perhaps if the Olympic Games were staged on a neutral site, the Olympic Games would be taken away from the realm of politics, preventing many of the massacres and boycotts that have happened over the years. No doubt a neutral site would save millions of dollars for host countries. However Pierre de Coubertin’s vision was for an Olympic movement that could be shared with every nation from all walks of life. It is unfortunate that the Olympics have become associated with politics and will continue to do so as long as it is exposed to the world audience. The freer the Olympic Games become from world politics, the more capability the games can achieve for friendly competition, international friendship, and better cooperation between the nations of the world.