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Politics and the Olympics

Learn about how politics have occasionally intruded into the Olympic Games in this article from Grolier Online’s New Book of Knowledge.

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

Vocabulary

Clenched: close tight

Conflict: a battle or war

Convict: prove guilty of a crime

Foremost: ahead of others

Glaring: (1) to stare at, (2) to be obvious

Incursion: an aggressive invasion

Intruded: to come in without an invitation, usually by force

Host countries have tried to use the Games as a showcase for the merits of their political systems. The most glaring example of this was at the 1936 Games in Berlin, Germany. Adolf Hitler, dictator of Nazi Germany, tried to make the Games a Nazi propaganda show. He believed Germans belonged to a "master race" and that German athletes were superior to all others, especially blacks and Jews. But to Hitler's embarrassment, a group of African American track-and-field athletes won eight gold, three silver, and two bronze medals. Foremost among them was Jesse Owens, a sprinter and long jumper. He won four gold medals; no other male track-and-field athlete in these Games won more than one.

At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Americans politicized the Games. Two African American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, placed first and third, respectively, in the 200-meter dash. As the national anthem played during their medal ceremony, each man raised a clenched fist above his head in support of the Black Power movement and to protest racism in the United States. They were suspended from the Games and expelled from the Olympic Village.

Boycotts

Over the years, numerous countries have boycotted (refused to participate in) the Olympic Games, usually for political reasons.

The 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne, Australia, were boycotted by seven nations. Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon refused to participate because of a dispute over the Suez Canal. Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands boycotted the Games in protest over the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary. And China (The People's Republic of China) boycotted the Games after a flag for Taiwan (The Republic of China) was raised in the Olympic Village.

Twenty countries, most from Africa, boycotted the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, Canada, because the IOC refused to ban New Zealand from the Games. A New Zealand rugby team had played in South Africa, which had been banned from the Olympics since 1964 for its policies of racial segregation. The track-and-field competition was especially affected because some excellent runners were from the boycotting African nations.

More than sixty nations invited to the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow did not take part as a protest against the host country's military incursion into Afghanistan. Among the boycotters were countries with traditionally strong teams, including Canada, Japan, West Germany, and the United States. The Soviet Union and 16 other nations (mostly Communist) then boycotted the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, the official reason being a fear over the lack of security provided.

In 1988, North Korea objected to its neighbor South Korea hosting the Games, so it boycotted. In support of North Korea, Cuba also declined to participate.

Terrorism

The worst intrusion of politics into the Games occurred at the Summer Games of 1972 in Munich, Germany. In the early morning of September 5, eight Arab terrorists slipped into the Olympic Village. The terrorists were members of a militant group who sought freedom for Palestinians jailed in Israel. They broke into the sleeping quarters of the Israeli team and killed two athletes who tried to resist them. For the next 24 hours, the terrorists held nine Israelis hostage. German officials tried to negotiate their release. But all nine hostages, five of the terrorists, and a German police officer were killed during a shootout.

Olympic competition had been suspended while the negotiations were going on. Because of the massacre, many people wanted the Games to stop altogether. But after a memorial service for the slain Israelis, the Games were resumed at the request of the Israeli government.

At the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Georgia, a small bomb exploded in the middle of Centennial Olympic Park during a concert. One person was killed and 111 were injured. The motive behind the bombing was never known with certainty, and no one was ever convicted of the crime.

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