Carl Sacklen

IR and the Olympics

Through two World Wars, Cold War tensions, and post-Cold War manoeuvring, the Olympics have been at the centre of international politics.

Okay, so maybe I’m being hyperbolic. Of course, the Games are about sport — without the sport there wouldn’t be a reason to build the stadiums and make the medals. Under this façade of unity and friendly competitiveness, however, the Olympics have for a long time been pivotal in the chess game that is politics.

‘No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in the Olympic areas’ — chapter 5, Olympic Charter With Rio 2016 now upon us, I thought it timely to run through some significant Olympic games and why they played a central role in the politics of the time.

Berlin, 1936 The 1936 Games in Berlin were awarded to Germany to give the nation an opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the world it was a civilised republic. It’s important to remember that for many European states, the blame for World War I (then the Great War) — which had decimated vast expanses of mainland Europe and left many families without sons and fathers — lay with Germany’s barbaric aggression. It is clear, therefore, that the politics of the 1936 Games was an attempt at the politics of unity and reintegration. Hitler had the politics of race superiority on his mind during these Games but was famously defied by African-American athlete Jesse Owens who became the hero of the Olympics after winning four gold medals.

London, 1948 It is during the 1948 Olympic Games that politics began to play a greater role in international relations. More specifically, participation had become a mark of political recognition and legitimacy. Hence, due to the roles they played in World War II, Japan and Germany were not invited to the Games in London. Also, whilst the Soviet Union was invited, it did not turn up. So much for unity. Interestingly, since this was only a few years after the war, it was agreed the burden of feeding the athletes wouldn’t fall on the host nations, but instead on the country the athletes belonged to.

Melbourne, 1956 The tension between East and West had been escalating since the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, but it was during the 1956 Games in Melbourne that this tension, along with many other political battles, were brought to the world stage. 1956 was the year that the USSR invaded Hungary and in response Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands boycotted the Games. At the same time, China — angered by the IOC’s recognition of Taiwan — withdrew from the Games. The conflict between Hungary and the USSR was brought to people’s living rooms when the nations met in the water-polo semi-final. Hungary were credited with the win since they were leading at the time of termination — due to the athletes’ fighting.

Mexico City, 1968

Fast forward a few years and you get to 1968 — all in all a turbulent year. The war in Vietnam was in full force and so were protesting students in Europe. Both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1968 and the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia. Moreover, racial tensions in the US were brought to the main stage by American 200m competitors who finished first and third respectively: on the podium, Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute in a high-profile protest against racism.

Moscow, 1980 The 1980 Olympics in Moscow and the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles embody the relations between East and West ideology at the time. In protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 60 nations, including Japan and West Germany and led by the USA, boycotted the Games and left only 81 nations — the lowest figure since 1956. In response during the following Olympics in L.A., the USSR led a boycott by 14 socialist nations, claiming the Olympic spirit was damaged by the pursuit of corporate profits.

Barcelona, 1992 With the Cold War over, the 1992 Barcelona Games marked a period of optimism and unity. Germany was able to compete under one flag for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were able to send separate teams. Also, after a 32-year ban, South Africa was able to return from the Games having abolished apartheid.

Beijing, 2008 More recently, the 2008 Beijing Olympics sparked controversy among human rights groups. Since the Olympics have been a symbol of accepting legitimacy, many felt awarding the 2008 Games to China was legitimising the nation’s repressive regime.

Rio de Janeiro, 2016 In the run-up to the 2016 Games, there has been controversy over the quality of the infrastructure, concern over the cleanliness of the sewage-filled waterways, the threat of Zika, and doping controversy. Protests, triggered by political and economic hardship, have led to the torch being extinguished at least three times and critics have said the mood is more muted than it was before the 2014 World Cup, many wondering whether building Olympic parks in such a dire political and economic landscape will be worthwhile.

The Rio Games, which were awarded the year after the Beijing Olympics symbolised how emerging economies (which, on the whole, emerged from the financial crisis unscathed) would play a greater role in international affairs and start to take on events that had for the most part only been held by wealthier nations.

The fact that the Olympics are meant to be above politics, and are watched by so many, makes them the perfect playing field for political manoeuvres.