Politics and the Olympics

Ryan Day

When I was younger, I was always a fan of the Olympics. My first Olympic memory is watching the 1996 Olympic Games held in Atlanta in the basement of my parents’ best friends’ house.
More specifically, I remember Kerri Strug’s awe-inspiring performance on the vault-one. She landed on one foot, looked to the judges and then collapsed, clearly in pain. It was later announced that she had torn two ligaments in her ankle on the jump. I continued to watch the Olympics until I got older, skipping the 2006 Winter Games almost entirely. Still, I look back on the Olympics with a comfortable feeling of childhood nostalgia.
Today, I can’t help but feel a little bit disappointed. For the first time in my life, the Olympic games have become political; people are protesting the Olympic Torch Procession in response to China’s relationship with Tibet and continuing human rights violations. The first thought that comes to my mind is, Politics do not belong in the Olympic games, a throwback to the childlike innocence that pervades my memories of the Olympics. But the question should be asked; do politics belong in the Olympic Games?
One should first look to the Olympic Charter, which outlines the rules and goals of the Olympic Games. In the Charter can be found the “Fundamental Principles of Olympism.” The second principle states: “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
Though a bit ambiguous, I think that it is fairly clear from this principle that there is a goal in mind. The two phrases, “promoting a peaceful society” and “the preservation of human dignity,” both seem very much like agendas set by the Olympic Games. If this is true, then this alone should allow political criticism to be leveled towards the Olympics.
But what about past precedent? Have the Olympic Games been used for political purposes in the past? The answer to that question is a resounding, “Yes.”
In fact, politics have played a major role in the Olympics for many years. In 1936 the Olympics were held in Berlin, and they were a major platform for Nazism and Hitler’s brand of racism. In 1968 at the Olympics held in Mexico City two American athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, gave the Black Power salute while on the medal podium. In 1972, terrorists from Palestine kidnapped and killed 11 Israeli athletes, and in 1980 even the U.S. joined the politicizing of the games by boycotting the Olympics to be held in Moscow. If the Olympics were once put forth to be above politics, that certainly doesn’t hold true any longer.
It is important to acknowledge the potency of a symbol such as the Olympic Games. Perhaps it is too cynical to say that such a symbol could never rise above politicizing, but I think that that is the fact of the matter at hand. The Olympics are meaningful; they represent unity, cooperation and peace. To suggest that that country that hosts the Olympics should be committed to those principles is perhaps not so unreasonable.