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Political Olympics part 1 - The Games

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 04 August 2008

In the first instalment of a two-part series looking at the political history of the Olympics, Martin Keady looks at the games that have been most affected by political controversy.

In the run-up to the Beijing Games there has been much talk about whether this will be the most "political" or "politicised" Olympics ever, with the ideal of sporting competition sacrificed to China's desire to launch itself on the world stage as a superpower for the 21st century.


The selection of Beijing to host the games was probably the most contentious choice of a host city ever because of China's appalling human rights record and the ruling Communist Party elite's continuing grip on power, regardless of the economic change that has transformed China since Mao's death.

In the last six months we have seen and heard news reports and images that testify to the controversial nature of this choice: from the killing of monks and civilians during a political clampdown in Tibet; to the furore over the Olympic flame; to the most recent reports of draconian control by the Chinese authorities of the images coming out of the Olympic venues.

And yet to ask if Beijing will be the most "political" Olympics ever is to miss the point. The fact is that from their very invention in Ancient Greece, the Olympics have always been inherently political.

Beijing has a long way to go before it can compete with the most political or politicised Olympics in history.

Political football

To mix sporting metaphors, the Olympics have always been the greatest "political football" in sport, capable of being hijacked by political groups, parties or even entire ideologies to further their own non-sporting ends.

Even the first Olympics in Ancient Greece were not a purely sporting competition. Athletes represented competing Greek cities, and almost all were soldiers in those cities' armies. Their sporting glory was seen as evidence of the relative superiority or otherwise of Athens, Sparta or Thebes.

And after Baron de Coubertin reinvented the Olympics at the end of the 19th century, it was not long before competing countries replaced competing cities to determine which was the greatest Olympic power of all.

It is in that context that the coming Beijing games must be seen. For all the controversy over Tibetan monks and Olympic flames - and justified as that controversy is, if only for focusing attention on China's human rights record - Beijing has a long way to go before it can compete with the most political Olympics in history.

Political podium

To use Olympic parlance, the medallists are -

Gold: Berlin 1936
In the history of the modern games, Berlin 1936 is the turning point in the politicisation of the entire Olympic movement. It was the moment when dictators, ruling elites and even terrorists realised they could use the Olympics to promote their own ideals or ideology.

Hitler famously saw the 1936 games as his opportunity to demonstrate to the world his vision of the "Aryan Superman", only for that vision to be shattered by the incredible achievements of Jesse Owens, the legendary black American, who won four golds.

But the fact that Germany staged the games, and did so relatively successfully in terms of its overall organisation less than 20 years after is defeat in WWI, was claimed by the Nazis as a political and propaganda triumph.

Silver: Munich 1972
Germany has the dubious honour of winning the first two medals in the competition to find the most political Olympics of all time.

In 1972 the capture and murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists, even as the world watched on television - and, astonishingly, even as the games themselves continued - was seen by many as the death-knell of the entire Olympic movement.

The fear was that each subsequent Olympics would be targeted by terrorists to exploit the unique opportunity that the games provided to win not just medals but hearts and minds.

Mercifully, since Munich there has not been a major terrorist attack on any Olympics, despite numerous threats, most recently by al-Qaida in Athens four years ago.

Instead, the political history of the Olympics took another turn.

Joint bronze: Montreal 1976, Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 - the era of the boycott
Appropriately enough, three different games take third place. Each was severely affected, if not downright ruined, by boycotts from particular countries or groups of countries.

The Olympic boycotts began, bizarrely enough, because of events in a non-Olympic sport.

The boycotts of 1980 and 1984 are well known. In 1980 the USA boycotted the Moscow games in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, while the 1984 boycott of the LA games by the Soviet bloc countries was effectively a 'tit-for-tat' measure.

But the Olympic boycotts began, bizarrely enough, because of events in a non-Olympic sport, namely rugby union. In 1976, in protest at the New Zealand All Blacks tour of South Africa, then in the grip of apartheid, numerous African nations demanded that the New Zealand Olympic team be expelled from the Montreal games.

When the International Olympic Committee refused to do so, the African nations refused to send their own teams, and thus began the era of the boycott which blighted the Olympics for nearly a decade.

So unless Tibetan nationalists kidnap members of the Chinese team or the Chinese premier openly declares that the success of Beijing 2008 is proof of 'Sino-superiority', the Beijing games will have a long way to go before it can compete with these most political of Olympics.

Sporting comparisons

One final point proves that the Olympics are inherently political, and in particular that they are capable of being subverted or even hijacked for political ends.

The obvious - indeed, the only - comparison in terms of global sporting events is the football World Cup. To date, there has been no major terrorist attack on a World Cup, or even a boycott for political reasons.

I would argue that that is because the World Cup is simply bigger and, to be specific, more popular in sporting terms than the Olympics, and that any attack by a political group or terrorist organisation would be counter-productive.

One can imagine that if Osama Bin Laden were to order an attack on the World Cup, his own footsoldiers would refuse to carry it out. (Such an order is unlikely anyway, given Bin Laden's own reputation as a football lover and, allegedly, a "Gooner".)

The Olympics, by contrast, are seen as "fair game" for involvement by politicians, even terrorists, which is why, for all its sporting glories, it continues and will doubtless continue to be blighted by political controversy.

Martin Keady is a writer and scriptwriter. His work includes The Final, a short film about the 1979 FA Cup Final, and Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon.

In part two of this series, he looks at "The Political Olympians" - individuals whose actions not only stunned the sporting world but the world at large.

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