A History of Politics and Protest at the Olympics – NBC Chicago
Ten years after the start of the modern Olympics, Irish long jumper Peter O’Connor climbed a pole in an Athens stadium and replaced the Union Jack with a green flag celebrating Ireland. Defiant after learning he was to compete under British auspices, he put politics at the heart of international competition.
The ancient Games were also entangled in political intrigue. In 668 BC, a tyrant named Pheidon captured the site of the Games, the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, from the city-state of Elis and presided over them, according to the account of a Greek traveler that the museum of the University of Pennsylvania present on its website.
The International Olympic Committee insists the Games are apolitical, but as activists draw attention to China’s record of human rights abuses – the US calls its crackdown on its people Uyghur in the Xinjiang Genocide – here’s a look at what is now a long history of protests, boycotts and tragedy.
1906 Intercalated Games
Peter O’Connor and his compatriots arrived in Athens for the 1906 Intercalated Games, meant to be a separate set of Olympics in the intervening years, in green blazers and caps with shamrocks. They thought they were competing for Ireland, but there was no Irish Olympic Committee yet. After O’Connor won silver in the long jump, he hoisted his flag which read “Erin Go Bragh” or Ireland Forever, the rallying cry for independence from Britain.
1908 London Olympics
This time, some Irish athletes boycotted the Games, which were being held in London. Again, they didn’t want to represent Britain.
1916 Berlin Olympics
The Summer Games that year were canceled due to World War I.
Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games
Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary and Turkey – all on the losing side of World War I – were not invited to participate. Germany’s ban remained in place four years later.
Berlin Olympics 1936
Spain refused to send athletes but efforts to organize a wider boycott against the Nazi regime failed. In a debate that would be familiar today, Avery Brundage, then president of the US Olympic Committee, argued that the Games belonged to the athletes. He also claimed that a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” was working against the United States. Other leaders, including prominent Catholics, favored a boycott. Jesse Owens, the sprinter, won four gold medals, but some Jewish American runners did not compete.
Games of 1940 and 1944
Not all Games were held due to World War II. The 1940 Summer and Winter Olympics were to be held in Japan, but were moved after Japan invaded China: Summer Games in Helsinki, Winter Games in Germany. But then the Soviet Union attacked Finland and Germany entered Poland.
1948 London Games
Japan and Germany have both been banned, although the International Olympic Committee has argued they should be included. Johannes Sigfrid Edstrom, President of the International Olympic Committee, wrote: “I am surprised that you are adopting this attitude three years after the end of the war. We sportsmen must show the way to the diplomats.
Melbourne Olympics 1956
Politics has imposed itself on different fronts. Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq stayed at home during the Suez Canal crisis, in which Israel invaded Egypt after nationalizing the canal. The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland protested against the Soviet invasion of Hungary. China pulled out just before the opening to protest Taiwan’s inclusion.
Tokyo Olympics 1964
Indonesia and North Korea did not participate after the International Olympic Committee ruled that teams that had competed a year earlier in a new gathering of athletes, the New Emerging Forces Games, could not participate . The New Emerging Forces Games had banned athletes from Israel and Taiwan.
South Africa is banned and will not return to competition until 1980.
Mexico Olympics 1968
American runners John Carlos and Tommie Smith saluted the Black Power on the podium as the American national anthem played. Australian Peter Norman wore an Olympic Human Rights Project pin as a sign of solidarity. Carlos and Smith were suspended from Team USA, but in 2019 they were inducted into the United States Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame.
That same year, Czechoslovakian gymnast Věra Čáslavská turned her head away from the Soviet flag as the Soviet national anthem played in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia.
1972 Munich Games
Eleven Israeli athletes and coaches were taken hostage and killed after members of the Palestinian Black September faction stormed into the Olympic Village and negotiations to free them failed.
Montreal Olympics 1976
Twenty-five African countries boycotted the Games because New Zealand was allowed to participate. The country’s rugby team toured South Africa, which had been banned since 1964 due to apartheid.
Taiwan withdrew when it could not compete with the Republic of China.
Moscow Olympics 1980
The United States boycotted the Summer Games following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Australia and Britain supported the United States although in the end they sent athletes to compete, but more than 60 countries, including Japan and West Germany, joined them.
1980 Lake Placid Olympics
Taiwan boycotted again when invited to compete as Chinese Taipei in the Winter Games
1984 Los Angeles Olympics
The Soviet Union, East Germany and other Eastern Bloc countries have in turn boycotted the Los Angeles Games, officially citing security concerns.
Seoul Olympics 1988
North Korea boycotted the Games, as did Cuba. North Korea, supported by Cuba, had demanded to be the joint host.