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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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Leading Issues in the News: Protests in Sports

Washington Redskins Kneel During the National Anthem

By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA (Washington Redskins National Anthem Kneeling) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At the beginning of the 2016 NFL preseason, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited a firestorm of controversy by sitting down during the national anthem. He explained his reason for sitting as follows, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.” In the 49ers final preseason game, Kaepernick kneeled during the anthem instead of sitting as a way to show more respect to military members while still protesting the anthem. Throughout the 2016 season, several NFL players joined Kaepernick in “taking a knee” during the anthem.

The protests became more widespread at the start of the 2017 season after President Donald Trump said NFL owners should fire players who kneel during the national anthem. In the games following Trump’s comments, more than 200 players kneeled while other teams linked arms in solidarity.

The protests are not confined to just the NFL. Soccer players and WNBA players have protested by kneeling or by staying in the locker room during the national anthem. Major league baseball player Bruce Maxwell of the Oakland Athletics knelt during the anthem, while NHL player J.T. Brown of the Tampa Bay Lightning raised his fist while standing on the bench during the national anthem.

Although the protests have generated controversy, they have also started conversations over racial discrimination, police brutality and freedom of expression.

This is not the first time athletes have used the world of sports to make a stand over social issues.

Protest at the 1968 Summer Olympics

Extending gloved hands skyward in racial protest, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City on Oct. 16, 1968. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman is at left. (AP Photo) (Credit: Public Domain)

At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a fist while the national anthem played during their medal ceremony. The gesture was viewed as a “Black Power” salute and became front page news around the globe. The athletes stated they were there to express African-American strength and unity, protest black poverty, and remember victims of lynching.

On October 17, 1968, the International Olympic Committee convened and determined that Smith and Carlos were to be stripped of their medals for violating the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.

Forty-nine years later, that moment at the Olympics continues to reverberate through sports.

Learn more about the current national anthem protests as well as the historical context by visiting SIRS Issues Researcher and eLibrary. Not a customer? Free trials are available.

It’s Native American Heritage Month: Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

Dakota Access Pipeline Native American protest site, on Highway 1806 near Cannonball, North Dakota.

Dakota Access Pipeline Native American protest site, on Highway 1806 near Cannonball, North Dakota, August 15th, 2016. (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

It is Native American Heritage Month.

What does this mean? How do we commemorate? I’ve seen signs in schools announcing this yearly celebration, and I’ve perused displays in libraries. I’ve noted local museums’ native-themed exhibits. Classrooms may spend time learning about the history of Native Americans. Young students may take part in creating a native-themed craft; older students may be tasked with researching an eminent Native American or the history of a Native American tribe. Adults may seek out drum circles, powwows, native chanting experiences, and herbal medicine discussions.

This year, perhaps above all else, we can honor Native American Heritage Month by learning about and discussing the current protests at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.

The tribes of the Great Sioux Nation, at the center of this controversy, came together at Standing Rock to oppose the $3.7 billion Dakota Access pipeline, which would cut across the land of the Standing Rock Sioux and possibly threaten their water supply. Other Native American tribes and many of non-native descent joined in the protests. Large-scale demonstrations began a few months ago, in August, when activists blocked the pipeline’s construction sites at Cannon Ball, North Dakota. The protests have grown and have become increasingly violent. But the opposition remains strong.  In a September press release, Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman David Archambault II stated that the pipeline will “destroy our burial sites, prayer sites and culturally significant artifacts.”

The Dakota Access pipeline, approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in July, would tap into the Bakken Formation, an oil deposit that spans five U.S. states and into Canada. It could provide more than 7 billion barrels of oil to the United States, reducing the country’s reliance on foreign oil. Energy Transfer Partners, a Texas-based natural gas and propane company, claims that the pipeline would help the states that are impacted, providing up to 12,000 construction jobs and bringing more than $150 million in revenue.

As Americans, it is important that we acknowledge the events and people at Standing Rock. As researchers, teachers, and students, it is also important that we explore both sides of the issue. SIRS Knowledge Source and its Leading Issues feature, which includes such topics as Keystone Pipeline and Indigenous Peoples, explores the controversy.

For further research…

Check out this timeline of events prior to and since the first physical collision of interests in August.

Get an overview of the viewpoints of proponents and opponents.

Consider the implications of those who are funding the pipeline.

Read about the history the land of the Standing Rock Sioux.

Visit SIRS Knowledge Source’s and SIRS Discoverer’s Native American Heritage Month’s Spotlight features.