Olympic politics

The Olympic Games represent a sense of idealism for international harmony. The World comes together to celebrate healthy competition, sportsmanship and athletic achievement. The global attention on the Olympic Games often makes them targets for protests, with such common themes as anti-commercialism, environmentalism and human rights.
For as much attention as these external protests may draw, some of the most poignant gestures are made by participating (or non-participating) athletes and nations. The Olympics attempt to be a haven where hostility can be set aside, but is often a stage for political symbolism and activism.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has played a geopolitical role by leveraging its control over admission for nations to participate. For London 2012, the IOC threatened to ban several countries if they did not send female athletes. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei acquiesced to allow females to participate, a progressive moment in gender equality.
The IOC also plays a role in recognizing nationhood by allowing semi-autonomous territories to represent themselves. Alongside 192 countries recognized by the United Nations (absent is South Sudan because they have yet to form a National Olympic Committee), 12 other territories are recognized. This includes American, British and Dutch territories, the Palestinian Authority, Taiwan (Chinese Taipei), Hong Kong and the Cook Islands.
London 2012 also allowed four athletes to participate as independents under the Olympic flag. One competitor came from South Sudan and three were from the Netherlands Antilles, whose Olympic recognition had been withdrawn in 2011.
Political symbolism has produced many memorable moments. Some have been subtle, such as the 2012 French delegation walking into the Opening Ceremonies waving both French and British flags, symbolizing friendship between the two countries. Some have inspired hope for international relations, such as South and North Korea marching together into the 2000 Sydney Games under a common banner.
In the 1936 Berlin Games, African-American Jesse Owens and German Luz Long shared a lap of honour in effect challenging the bigotry of the Nazi regime. Owens’ performance of four gold medals and Long’s gesture of friendship have been touted as one of the greatest moments in Olympic history.
Boycotts have been a common tactic by nations, either in opposition to IOC decisions or due to political tension with other nations. Individual protests have occurred for these reasons as well as to contest event results.
Cold War rivalries between the Soviet Bloc and the West marred participation in the 1956 Melbourne, 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Olympiads. Boycotting nations have also organized alternative competitions.
The 1976 Montreal Olympics were boycotted by 22 African nations over New Zealand’s participation. New Zealand’s Rugby team had recently toured South Africa under the apartheid regime. South Africa itself had been banned from the Olympics since 1964 over apartheid issues. The People’s Republic of China’s relation with Taiwan also led to their withdrawal from more than one Olympiad.
In one of the darkest moments in Olympic history, Palestinian terrorists seized control over part of the Olympic village at the 1972 Munich Games. They held hostage and later killed 11 Israeli athletes and representatives.
Protests from athletes themselves have also added to the Olympic narrative, with some athletes either refusing to compete or accept their medals, or turning their backs during flag raising ceremonies. One of the most famous protests by athletic competitors was the 1968 Black Power Salute by Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City. The raised right fists during the American national anthem was a significant event in the civil rights movement, and one of the relative few demonstrations by athletes on the world stage against their own government’s actions or policies.
Whether protests have been on the wrong or right side of history, it shows that the Olympic Games often have much more at stake than Gold, Silver and Bronze medals.

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