When it comes to the Olympics, politics intrudes more often than not.
President Obama has decided not to attend the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in February. The official U.S. delegation will not include a president, vice president, first lady or former president for the first time since 2000.
Instead, Obama asked athletes including openly gay tennis great Billie Jean King and two-time hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow to represent the country. American gay-rights groups, angered by an anti-gay law Russia enacted in June, applauded the move.
The Olympic charter bans any “kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” from Olympic sites, yet political protest and international gamesmanship have been a near-constant during modern games.
The Council on Foreign Relations even hosts a slide show highlighting controversies over the past century, narrated by NPR contributor Frank Deford.
“I am frequently asked, ‘Must politics be a part of the Olympic Games?’ ” Alfred Senn, an Olympic historian, once wrote. “My answer is, ‘Yes.’ ”
A Clash Of Nations
The Olympics are intended to be a pure celebration of sports and goodwill. But with nearly every country in the world participating, politics inevitably intrudes.
The 1972 Summer Games in Munich, for example, are remembered mostly for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists.
And at an earlier Olympics, in Berlin in the summer of 1936, Adolf Hitler’s plans to showcase his theories of racial superiority were blown apart by African-American sprinter Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals.
“After the 1936 Olympics or the ’72 Olympics, how could anyone expect politics wouldn’t intrude?” asks historian and journalist Eric Marcus.
Later, the Olympics provided propaganda value during the Cold War. The U.S. took great pride in its “Miracle on Ice” upset win by the men’s hockey team over the Soviets in the winter of 1980.
Conversely, the Soviets trumpeted their victory in men’s basketball in the summer of 1972 — the first time the Americans had lost an Olympic basketball game, let alone the gold medal.
The Whole World Is Watching
The last Olympics held in Russia — during the summer of 1980 in Moscow — saw a U.S.-led boycott by more than 60 nations in protest of the invasion of Afghanistan by what was then the Soviet Union.
In retaliation, the Soviets led more than a dozen socialist countries in refusing to participate in the 1984 Summer Olympics, which were held in Los Angeles.
The 1988 games in Sydney, in fact, were the first Summer Games since 1972 that were not the subject of a formal boycott.
In 1976, some African nations were angry that the International Olympic Committee allowed New Zealand to participate in the games despite the fact that its rugby team had recently toured in South Africa. Because of apartheid, South Africa’s racial segregation laws, South Africa was barred from the games from 1964 until 1992. Some 30 African nations stayed home from Montreal to protest New Zealand’s inclusion.
Meanwhile, China and Taiwan have had frequent spats over the freedom to compete. China stayed home between 1956 and 1980, after Taiwan was admitted as a separate entrant. For its part, Taiwan withdrew from the 1976 games after China pressured Canada not to allow the island nation to compete.
China was eager to showcase its economic success at the Beijing Summer Games in 2008. Many groups protested the country’s human rights record, but formal boycotts didn’t get off the ground.
President George W. Bush attended the Beijing Olympics, but both Obama and his GOP presidential rival that year, Arizona Sen. John McCain, said they would have stayed home if they were in the White House.
Last year, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who had proved his managerial mettle in helping to run the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, earned himself public rebukes from British Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson by suggesting there were “disconcerting” signs that London wasn’t quite ready to host the Summer Games.
Other individuals have used the Olympics as a political platform — notably Tommie Smith and John Carlos, African-American athletes who had finished first and third in the 200-meter race at the 1968 games in Mexico. On the winner’s stand, they raised their fists in the black power salute as a protest against racism back home.
For the most part, though, it’s been nations themselves that have used the games as a political platform.
U.S. relations with Russia may not be as bleak as during the Cold War days, but given recent differences, some sort of political squabbling around the upcoming games may have been inevitable.
Back in 2008 — long before Russia passed its “homosexual propaganda” law — two Pennsylvania representatives called for the games to be moved out of Sochi, because of Russia’s movement of troops into Georgia.
“The Olympics has a long history of issues that intrude from the outside,” says Marcus, the historian. “It’s always been incredibly naive to think somehow you can screen out everything that’s going on in the world during a given period of time, particularly in a part of the world that’s problematic.”