Designed by its aristocratic Jesuit founder to offer “a program of moral beauty,“ the Olympic games are far less political today than they have been for most of their history. Is that a good or a bad thing?
Dislodging religion in the hearts and minds of men from industrializing countries since the late 19th century, the political relevance of sport has never been in question.
As the leader of the Berlin Sturmabteilung said in the 1930s, “Without politics there are no sports.”
And so as the Winter Olympics draw to a close this week, could the merging of the North and South Korean hockey teams really represent the first puck shot in the greater game of peninsular unification?
Though a hopeful step, it’s worth remembering that attempts at sport diplomacy often falter: while East and West Germany competed as a single team at the Rome Olympics in 1960, the Berlin Wall still went up a year later.
Though today’s squabbles are rooted in the very real divide at the 38th parallel, the recent posturing in Pyeongchang by US vice president and Kim Yo-jong, sister of the North Korean leader, seemed in bad faith: headlines, more than anything, are the desiderata of the day.
Banning the Russian whilst welcoming the North Korean team with arms wide open, these Olympics have hardly eschewed the inherently political nature of the event. Nonetheless, they remain relatively less politically divisive than many previous Games.
A winter for discontent
Apart from the Korean question, whose overwhelming presence is to be expected when the games are held but 80km from the DMZ, very little seems at stake. What happened to the days of vast bilateral boycotts as a means of urging, if rarely bringing about, political change?
For starters, only rich countries tend to participate in the winter games, so there is less of a public uproar when funds are misappropriated for unjustifiable vanity projects (think Athens in 2004 or Rio in 2016).
Secondly, the only winter game capable of whipping the masses into a frenzy is hockey, a sport unlikely to have its Sarajevo moment anytime soon. And since the Chinese can’t play it and the Russians aren’t allowed to, the only hope for vindication is a Finnish victory over Sweden.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the end of the Cold War and the ideologies that sustained it.
Not only was sport essential to every 20th century ideology, whether fascism, communism, British imperialism, Turkish republicanism, or Boy Scout cold warrior liberalism; as a national organizing principle, it is almost irrelevant to those of the 21st—whether neoliberalism, Islamism, or petro-nationalism.
So it is worth taking a brief look back at ten of the least known, but most politicized, games in history. Seen in retrospect, the squabbles of today seem insignificant.
1896: The modern world’s inaugural games got off to a rocky start in Athens, where both France and Germany threatened not to attend because of lingering animosities from the 1871 Franco-Prussian War. Though they eventually did, neither the Games nor their mutual admiration for ancient Greece did much to reconcile Western Europe’s biggest feuding powers.
1904: Moved last minute at the behest of Teddy Roosevelt from Chicago to St. Louis to coincide with the latter’s hosting of the World’s Fair, minorities were not allowed to compete at the St Louis games. Instead, they were to duke it out in the ‘Anthropology Days,’ a competition in which “costumed members of the uncivilized tribes” were invited to test their competency in mud fighting, rock throwing, pole climbing, and spear throwing.
1908: Amidst a rising tide of anticolonial nationalism, the hosts of the London Olympic Games fought to prevent the Irish from raising their flag, whilst the visiting Russian delegation tried to keep the Finns, still under the yoke of St. Petersburg, from hoisting theirs.
1920: In a spirit of hope and reconciliation, the losers of the First World War, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Turkey, are prevented from partaking in the Antwerp games.
1936: After a protracted public debate, the US decides to participate in the Berlin Olympic games, which were fashioned to showcase Hitler’s regime to the world. In the words of the most vocal opponent, governor Earle of Pennsylvania, a former US ambassador to Austria during the rise of Austrofascism, “If you want your children to be taught that might is right, that woman is a lower animal than man, that free press, free speech, and religious freedom are false ideals… then send your boys and girls to Germany.” When Jesse Owens, a black American runner, took home four medals, it was hailed as the crowning rebuttal to ‘Aryan’ racial supremacy. Surprized by his treatment in Nazi Germany, Owens chafed upon return to the US: “Hitler didn’t snub me—it was Roosevelt who snubbed me.”
1940: Both the summer and winter Games of 1940 were scheduled to take place in Tokyo. But in order to punish Japan for its invasion of China, the summer Games were rescheduled for Germany and the winter ones for Helsinki. When Germany invaded Poland, the summer games were cancelled, and when the Soviet Union invaded Finland, the latter were too.
1956: A turning point in 20th century history, even Australia could not escape the fallout from the Suez Canal Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. While Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq boycotted the Melbourne Games to protest the former, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Spain pulled out in protest of the latter.
1960: The last time apartheid South Africa was allowed to participate, the Olympic Games in Rome were marred by controversy: China boycotted since Taiwan was allowed to participate; Germany participated as a unified country, and US sprinter David Sime famously tried to coax Russian athletes into defecting.
1976: In what might be the only negative press New Zealand has received in 150 years, 26 African nations boycotted the Montreal Games after the International Olympic Committee refused to expel New Zealand whose rugby team had recently toured apartheid South Africa.
1980: Everyone knows about the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the latter’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Less known is that while 65 countries participated in the boycott, the Afghan national team still sent 11 athletes to compete in the Soviet capital.
Though the USSR orchestrated a similar boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles games, only the Warsaw Pact, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, South Yemen, and a handful of African countries took part. Much to the home team’s pleasure, communist Romania ignored Moscow’s pleas and was doubly feted: met by jubilant crowds in southern California and walking away with 20 gold medals—twice as many as the country has won in any other games to this day.
Fast-forward three decades and things could hardly be more different. Granted, the Russians are now banned rather than boycotted, but the overall mood is far less riven in the era of neoliberalism.