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Olympic Games and Politics: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Olympic Flag, Motto, Creed, Political? - Sam, Vancouver, Canada
Inspirational, high-minded, competitive, controversial – sports and politics are not separate entities, but are in fact inextricably interwoven.

Former President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Juan Antonio Samaranch, writing in Thesis, a Journal of Foreign Policy Issues in Autumn 1997, said the history of the Olympic movement provides examples of how “sport and politics influence each other, directly and indirectly”.

Diplomatic heights are often scaled in compromises, negotiating between factions, to get as many nations as possible to compete, leaving differences aside, albeit temporarily. This common interest, the IOC claims, enabled better relations between USA and China in the 70s, allowed People’s Republic of China and Chinese Taipei to be recognised equally; secured South Africa’s return to international sporting arena in Barcelona after 27 years of apartheid, and handled the team complexities of the states of the former Soviet Union.

The Olympic Ideal

The IOC point to other diplomatic successes: In Atlanta, a deal was struck allowing athletes US entry regardless of their countries-of-origin status with America. In 1992, they were more directly politically active by launching appeals for observance of the Olympic Truce – safe passage to and fro for all participants in the interests of global dialogue, reconciliation and peace.

These ideals have spread from the four-yearly big event into Winter Olympics and other sporting events in different world regions, frequently involving nations at odds with each other. Olympic organisers work with the United Nations, Organisation of African States, Organisation of American States, the European Union, among many intergovernmental organisations.

They can’t always achieve the ideal. At the 1972 Munich Games in Germany, a group of Palestinians infiltrated the Olympic Village and took hostage 11 Israeli athletes. A bungled rescue attempt led to the hostages being killed. It was an act of extreme political intensity that shocked the world, and is in the minds of international athletes to this day.

As the South African 2010 games opened, Israel’s Olympic Committee and Foreign Ministry organised their annual memorial service, this time in Beijing to recall the political price sportsmen and women paid. The IOC hasn’t officially absorbed the memorial into their calendar, and that’s a matter of continuing dispute: politics, in effect.

The event, acknowledged by Samaranch as ‘the blackest day in the long history of the Olympics’, was portrayed in a documentary film, One Day in September (1999). It was critical of German security services; and won the Academy Award 2000 for Best Documentary Feature.

City and Location Politics

There is fierce competition (with regular suggestions of bribery) to be chosen as an Olympic venue, as both society and sporting activities become ever more globalised. Media enables billions to watch events, so the rewards in prestige, infrastructure investment, tourism, promotion of healthy lifestyles, ridding sport of drugs, involvement of young people and the legacy of state-of-the-art sports facilities, are motives that make selection an Olympic event in itself.

When any winning host city is announced, the process began nine years earlier with a complex bid. If more than one city in a nation applies, the national committee must choose one to put forward. The building, planning, logistics, even the weather controversies gather increasing momentum until the two and a half weeks of Games, followed by the Paralympics. There is then a year’s debriefing.

Throughout all that time, politics local and national come into play. Compulsory purchase of land to build new facilities, roads, housing, sewerage, utilities, the environment, carbon footprints, how it will be funded, terrorism threats and general security. Every decision is fraught with difficulty and controversy: the very essence of politics.

Other Controversies

Nationalities competing in sports rather than war has always been contentious. Revolutionary France, used 1796’s to introduce the metric system into sports. The 1916 Berlin Games were cancelled because of the First World War; the 1944 London Games because of the Second World War. Between the two, in 1936 Berlin hosted again. Hitler’s governing Nazi Party saw the Games as an opportunity to showcase a peaceful Germany and Aryan (white) supremacy. This aim was destroyed when black US athlete Jesse Owens took four gold medals.

These same games were boycotted by Ireland as the IOC wanted teams from the Irish Free State rather than the whole island of Ireland. The former Soviet Union invented their own alternative, called Spartakiads, as they thought Olympics too capitalist. Not till Helsinki’s 1952 Summer Olympics did they enter, realising the propaganda potential to be exploited by winning medals.

Down the years, individual athletes have used Olympic appearances to make statements (like Black Power salutes, wearing badges or symbols, speaking to news-hungry media) to promote political views. Race relations, human rights, the Cold War and developing countries have been the main political issues given a platform by some Olympian aspect or other.

In English, the Olympic motto is: “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. The creed is: “The important thing is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle… essential… not to have conquered but to have fought well”.

Those are Olympic aspirations. In theory, politics shares them.

First published on Suite 101, 13 June 2010.

Photo: Olympic Flag, Motto, Creed, Political? – Sam, Vancouver, Canada

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2 Responses to "Olympic Games and Politics: Two Sides of the Same Coin"

  1. […] Olympic Games and Politics: Two Sides of the Same Coin […]

  2. […] individuals are trying to claim some shard of the spotlight. Politics and Olympics have always been close relatives. One day there may be an Olympic sport of ‘jumping on the […]

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