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Olympic History: Boycotts, Protests, Scandals and Violence

The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of
practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which
requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play
.”

–4th Fundamental Principle of Olympism, from The Olympic Charter

Sochi Olympic Rings at Olympic Park
by Atos International [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The XXIII Olympic Winter Games open tomorrow in PyeongChang, Republic of Korea. The Olympics provide a platform for nations from around the world to unite in celebrating athleticism and sports achievement. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) aims to promote sports competition and education free of any discrimination, and theoretically at least, all political disputes are set aside during the Games. Despite the IOC’s goals for international peace during the Games, there have been many disruptive and controversial incidents that have been associated with the Olympics throughout history. Below are some notable events that have challenged the Olympic ideal of promoting international peace and understanding.

Discrimination

Women were not permitted to compete in the first modern Olympics, held in Athens, Greece in 1896. Four years later, at the 1900 Paris Olympics, female athletes made their debut, but only 22 women out of a total of 997 athletes competed in just five sports. Since then, more sports and events were gradually introduced that allowed women to participate. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei had never had a female athlete compete in the Olympics until the 2012 Summer Games in Sydney, when all three countries included women in their delegations for the first time.

Jesse Owens via Library of Congress [public domain]

The 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany offered Chancellor Adolf Hitler a chance to promote his claims of Aryan racial superiority. Jewish athletes were banned from Germany’s Olympic team, and African American Jesse Owens became the first U.S. track and field athlete to win four gold medals at a single Olympics. Owens was only one of 18 African American athletes on the U.S. team that year, and despite winning 14 medals (eight of them gold), they received little recognition when they returned home. While white Olympians were invited to the White House to be congratulated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the same honor was not extended to the black athletes.

Bribery

Frank Joklik, head of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah, resigned after admitting payments were made to members of the International Olympic Committee during the bidding process to select the location of the Games. The bribery allegations also resulted in the expulsion of six IOC members. The Games were still held in Salt Lake City, but under new chief executive Mitt Romney.

Doping

At the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, U.S track and field athlete Marion Jones became the first woman to win five track and field medals at a single Olympics—three gold and two bronze. In 2007, after an investigation, the IOC stripped Jones of all of her medals after she admitted that she had used a banned substance.

14 Russian athletes who competed in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia were disqualified for violating anti-doping rules and stripped of their medals (ten total, including four golds). 19 Russian athletes have been banned from the Games for life as a result of an IOC investigation into allegations of widespread doping among Russian competitors. The scandal resulted in Russia’s Olympic team being barred from the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Protests

Olympic History at SJSU (San Jose, CA 2009)
by mksfly [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Foter.com

While many Olympic celebrations have been the target of protests, one of the most iconic took place in the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. After two U.S. sprinters earned medals in the 200-yard dash, they decided to take a stand for human rights. Tommie Smith (gold) and John Carlos (bronze) mounted the medals podium wearing no shoes and black socks to symbolize poverty among black Americans, beads and scarves to protest lynching, and Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. Then each bowed their heads, raised a black-gloved fist and stood silently as their national anthem played. Amid international outrage and condemnation within the U.S., the two Americans were suspended from the U.S. team, given 48 hours to leave Mexico, and were later stripped of their medals. In 2005, the San Jose State University alumni were honored when a bronze statue was erected on the campus, and in 2016, they were invited to a reception at the White House.

Boycotts

During the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, Germany, the U.S. men’s basketball team entered the gold medal game against the Soviet Union with seven gold medals with a perfect 63-0 record in Olympic competition.  With the U.S. leading as time expired, the officials granted an improper timeout to the Soviets and put three seconds back on the clock, allowing the Soviet team to score another basket and win the game 51-50. The team boycotted the medal ceremony, refusing to accept their silver medals. Nearly 50 years later and despite numerous invitations to the athletes to accept them over the years, the medals remain in a vault in Lausanne, Switzerland.

President Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. would boycott the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow, Russia to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. 64 other nations also refused to attend. In retaliation, the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles, joined by 14 other Communist bloc socialist countries. Other boycotts of the games occurred for various political reasons in 1908 (London), 1936 (Berlin), 1956 (Melbourne), 1964 (Tokyo) and 1976 (Montreal).

Violence

On September 5, during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, a group of Palestinian terrorists stormed the Olympic Village apartment of the Israeli team, killing two and taking nine others hostage. A failed rescue attempt at the Munich airport resulted in the death of all of the hostages, along with five of the terrorists and one West German policeman.

Plaque in front of the Israeli athletes’ quarters commemorating the victims of the Munich massacre. The inscription, in German and Hebrew, reads: The team of the State of Israel lived in this building during the 20th Olympic Summer Games from 21 August to 5 September 1972. On 5 September, [list of victims] died a violent death.
Honor to their memory.
by High Contrast (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 DE], via Wikimedia Commons

On July 27, during the first week of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, a homemade pipe bomb exploded during a late-night concert at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. There were two deaths, and at least 111 others were injured. The bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph, wasn’t captured until 2003, despite an intensive 5-year nationwide manhunt and a $1,000,000 reward.

Scandals

On January 6, 1994, just one month before the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, figure skater and Olympic contender Nancy Kerrigan was leaving the ice after practice for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit. A mysterious man attacked and struck above her right knee, forcing her to withdraw from the competition due to the injury. Tonya Harding was crowned the 1994 Champion, and just five days later, the attack on Kerrigan was linked to Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. A media frenzy ensued, with countless reporters following and harassing Harding constantly.  Kerrigan went on to win a silver medal in the 1994 games, while Harding finished in eighth place, was later stripped of her national championship and permanently banned from all amateur skating competitions.

Possibly the biggest Olympic scandal ever was in the news recently. Three USA Gymnastics board members resigned after former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar pled guilty in November 2017 to multiple counts of molesting female athletes, many of them children. Several Olympic gold medalists were among the 156 victims who gave impact statements at his pre-sentencing hearing. Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison on January 24. MSU president Lou Anna Simon also resigned in the wake of the scandal. The U.S. Olympic Committee then called for the resignations of the entire 21-member board of USA Gymnastics.

* * *

The upcoming Games in PyeongChang have already stirred controversy. North Korea’s decision to send a delegation to the Olympics, and the agreement by the two Koreas to compete with a combined women’s ice hockey team have sparked protests in Seoul where activists and defectors from North Korea have burned and ripped photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea also pulled out of a planned joint Olympic cultural event and appears to be planning a huge military parade on the day before the opening ceremonies.

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The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics

1936 Summer Olympics Research Topic via ProQuest eLibrary

1936 Summer Olympics Research Topic via ProQuest eLibrary

For the past two weeks all eyes have been fixed on the 31st Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro‎, Brazil.  More than 11,500 athletes from 207 countries including a Refugee Olympic Team participated in 28 sports earning 306 sets of medals.  The diversity represented and celebrated at these Olympic Games harks back to an Olympiad where similar diversity was not celebrated and was almost stifled.

Eighty years ago in 1936 the Olympic Games were held in Berlin, Germany.  Three years prior the Nazis had taken control of the country under the leadership of Adolf Hitler.   The games had been awarded in 1931 to the democratic Weimar Republic government, and the Nazi government did not want to host them.  Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, persuaded Hitler the games could be exploited to further Nazi ideology in Germany and throughout the world.

The “Nazi Olympics” as the Berlin games came to be known were surrounded by racial and political tensions.  A year before the games the Nuremberg Race Laws had stripped Jews of their German citizenship.  Citizens in the United States and Europe called for a boycott.  Hitler agreed to allow Jewish athletes to participate to appease the International Olympic Committee who threatened to move the games to Rome or Tokyo.  Jewish athletes were indeed allowed to try out, but most were disallowed to compete due to technicalities.  In the end, only one Jewish athlete, fencer Helene Mayer, reluctantly competed for Germany in the 1936 Olympics.  She was tall and blond and declared an “honorary Aryan.”

Jesse Owens Research Topic via ProQuest eLibrary

Jesse Owens Research Topic via ProQuest eLibrary

One of the stars of the Berlin games was African American track and field athlete, Jesse Owens.  Owens won four gold medals, set world records and gained international fame.  He also challenged the notion of Aryan supremacy.  A story that is often told is that Adolf Hitler was so angered by the success of Jesse Owens that he refused to shake Owens’ hand after his 100-meter victory.  However, this is a myth.  Hitler stopped inviting winners to his personal box fearing some of those winners would be black.  Instead, Owens said the Fuhrer waved to him.  Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American president, never congratulated the gold medal winner.  It was, unfortunately, still a time of racial segregation in the United States.

The Nazi propaganda machine was in full force using the Olympic games to promote “Aryan racial superiority” and physical skill.  In the end, the Nazi campaign was successful despite the accomplishments of Jesse Owens and other African American athletes.  Germany won the most medals with 89, eclipsing the United States which won 56.  The 1936 Olympic Games were the first to be televised.  Foreign visitors who attended the Olympic games came away with a positive impression of Germany and the Nazi regime.  However, these would be the last Olympic games for 12 years as World War II would start three years later with the German invasion of Poland.

 

 

Loving the LOVE at the Olympics!

Brazilian Flag and Olympic Logo

Brazilian Flag and Olympic Logo (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

What makes the Olympics so beloved?

Perhaps it is because we, the spectators, are satiated with incredible competition and mind-blowing athleticism.

Perhaps it is because we enjoy witnessing the thrill of victory…and yes, even the agony of defeat.

Perhaps it is because we want to feel as if we are a part of something magnificent, something bigger than ourselves, something shared with most of the world.

Perhaps it is because we are inspired by the edited Olympic coverage of athletes’ personal lives…our heartstrings are pulled and our own dreams come into focus–if only for a moment.

But I think there is something more that keeps us watching, keeps us coming back, keeps us gratified. Something absolutely grand.

Joy. Harmony. Peace. LOVE.

Open hearts abound during the Olympic Games. Like when…

Michael Phelps hugged his teammate Caeleb Dressel, the young swimmer who was overcome with emotion after their team won the gold in the Men’s 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay.

…gymnast Louis Smith of Great Britain sincerely congratulated gymnast Alexander Naddour of the United States for winning the bronze medal in pommel horse.

…Jen Kish, the team captain of Canada’s women’s rugby team, found her father in the stands after the team’s bronze-medal win.

…gymnast Laurie Hernandez of the United States held up her team-winning gold medal to her father…and he ecstatically and emotionally fist-pumped back to her.

Filipina weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz celebrated with her coach, Alfonsito Aldanete, after her second lift of the competition. She won the silver medal.

…gymnasts Diego Hypolito and Arthur Mariano of Brazil tearfully and exuberantly rejoiced after winning silver and bronze for their floor routines, respectively.

…Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa set the world record in the men’s 400m–and we watched his 74-year-old great-grandmother (who is his coach) celebrating in the stands. And then larger-than-life runner Usain Bolt congratulated him.

These astonishingly genuine moments are, simply put, human moments. They transcend the thrill of victory…these moments are sincere human connections, which is what makes them so gratifying to witness.

They are why I watch the Olympics.

How about you? What keeps bringing you back to the Olympic Games?

SKS and SIRS Discoverer honor the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with Spotlights of the Month, featuring articles and Web sites on Olympic history, athletes, and moments. Join us in celebrating this international event.