A not-so-brief history of politics and the Olympics

In 1984, the world seemed thoroughly fed up with how politics had mucked up our great biennial international sports party.

Between the 11 deaths at the Munich Olympics in 1972, the deaths in Mexico City days before the 1968 Olympics, and the endless cold war of Olympic boycotting, Olympics coverage likely warranted more inches on A1 than it did in the sports section. Dave Anderson wrote in the New York Times, "As the Olympics continue to dissolve into more of a political competition than an athletic competition, they no longer seem to justify the time and trouble."

The United States was trying to get the Olympics moved to a permanent location to avoid ''unwarranted and disruptive international politics." (Then New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, who won a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics as part of the American basketball team, recommended Greece.)

But these people weren't paying very close attention to the Olympic games if they thought this was a recent phenomenon. Politics have been an essential part of the Olympics since Thucydides was covering them.

And the international world is already getting antsy about the next Olympics location, Rio de Janeiro, where poor residents are being evicted in order to make room for splashy event spaces.

Here is a collection of historical moments when the competition at the Olympics took a back bench to the politics:

Screenshot of the New Yorker's February 3 cover.
Screenshot of the New Yorker's February 3 cover.

Boycotting the Olympics

Choosing not to attend the Olympics is one of the most popular and simple ways to make a big international political statement. At the first modern Olympic Games held at Athens in 1896, the German and French teams needed quite a bit of persuading to take part in the festivities -- they weren't quite on speaking terms yet after the Franco-Prussian War, which ended over 20 years before the games.

The United States fiercely debated whether to send a team to Berlin in 1936, before ultimately deciding to attend.

The 1956 Olympics in Melbourne were the target of two boycotts -- one due to the Suez Canal crisis, and the other a result of the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary.

After that, everyone was boycotting. In the 1960 Olympics in Rome, only 80 teams took part. The 1980 Olympics, held in Moscow and the target of perhaps the most prominent series of boycotts in Olympic history (the Cold War will do that), also only had 80 countries represented. The Soviet Union in turn boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. The Beijing Olympics, which many human-rights groups advocated against, were notable for the lack of boycotting.

This year, protesters in Georgia, which borders Sochi and tends to suffer greatly because of its proximity to Russia, are urging the country's four-person team not to attend, while human-rights groups are urging countries to avoid the games because of Russia's record on LGBT rights.

The reverse of the boycott is the ban. Turkey, Hungary, Austria and Bulgaria weren't invited to the first Olympics held after World War I, a fate also extended to Germany and Japan in 1948. Because of apartheid, South Africa was banned from the Olympics for 32 years.

Social Issues and the Olympics

Gender

Advancing women's rights has always been on the Olympics' political agenda -- there's nothing like guilt-tripping from progressive countries to bring down decades of discrimination.

Women were allowed to compete in the 1900 Olympic games, and Charlotte Cooper -- whose uniform was an ankle-length dress -- was the first female medalist (her medals were awarded later since they didn't exist quite yet).

Women disappeared from the games for awhile, but the International Olympic Committee officially voted to allow women to compete in 1924, though Turkey, Japan, France, and the United States voted against the moti0n. The American delegate’s reasoning? They had a mandate from Congress to vote against including women.

Sweden briefly floated the idea of having a separate Olympics for women with “exclusively feminine Olympic games” including tennis, skating and “possibly fencing.”

At the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, a group called Atlanta Plus protested the lack of women athletes representing Muslim countries. One of the organizers -- a French nuclear physicist, said, "What's going on is not acceptable and we must alert the public. In Barcelona in 1992, people were celebrating the end of apartheid and the return of South Africa to the Games. But no one was saying anything about the 34 countries that had no women athletes representing them."

In 2012, Saudi Arabia had their first female athletes attend the Olympics.

Race

Jesse Owens, an American track-and-field star, goes down in history as one of the most famous Olympic athletes for his performace in the 1936 games, hosted by Nazi Germany. He won four medals, which ESPN summed up as having "single-handedly crushed Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy."

However, it was more than slightly hypocritical for the United States to trumpet Owens victory internationally, given the treatment that African Americans were awarded back home. As Owens said later, "When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn't ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either."

In 1968, American athletes again challenged racial discrimination -- albeit a bit more explicitly -- when two medal winners raised a black power salute at the podium. One of those athletes, John Carlos, told the Guardian over 40 years later, "I had a moral obligation to step up. Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations they had. God told the angels that day, 'Take a step back – I'm gonna have to do this myself.'"

At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, 25 African countries withdrew because New Zealand had not been banned. The island country's rugby team had been touring South Africa at the time, a country which had been banned since 1964 because of apartheid.

LGBT

Screenshot of The Economist's February 3 issue.
Screenshot of The Economist's February 3 issue.

The social issue dominating talk at this year's Winter Olympics is gay rights -- which the host country has been criticized for ignoring. Most gay-rights groups will be protesting the event from outside Russia -- given that getting thousands of activists inside the country would be exceptionally difficult.

An adviser for the Council of Global Equality told NBC News that “Sochi in many ways is the beginning of a new chapter in the LGBT movement, and our work is to educate people at home."

Russia makes it very hard for international gay couples to adopt children, and just passed a law banning "the promotion of homosexuality to minors." Being gay was a crime in the country until 1993.

The designated place for protest at the games in seven miles away from any sporting event location. Although the United States is not boycotting the games, President Obama, who isn't attending the games, appointed three openly gay athletes to the United States delegation -- including Billie Jean King, who told USA Today, "Sometimes I think we need a John Carlos moment."

The Romneys and the Olympics

Mitt Romney ran the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which gave the national media a peek at the former Massachusetts governor and proved a launching pad for his presidential bids. The New York Times wrote in 2007, "In rescuing the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, which had been tarnished by scandal, Mr. Romney learned the ways of Washington and the hurly-burly of politics, mastered the news media, built a staff of loyalists and made fund-raising connections in Utah that have proven vital to his presidential campaign."

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However, when his political and Olympic ambitions intersected, the world did not look on quite so fondly, as his 2012 visit to London before their Olympic games proved. Right before the 2012 general election kicked off in earnest, Mitt Romney even competed in the Olympics -- or rather, his wife's horse Rafalca did. Alas, the horse's performance kicked off a year of losing for the Romney family. If Romney had won in 2012, he would have likely been amenable to former International Olympic Committee president Lord Killanin's suggestion that the United States change the Constitution so its presidential election cycle would not conflict with the Olympics.

Debatable Geography and the Olympics

Deciding where one country ends and where its neighbor begins is one of the chief causes of animosity in international politics, and these battles sometimes bleed into the Olympics. In 1968, Vera Caslavska caused quite a buzz by showing up to perform as a Czechoslovakian gymnast, despite the wishes of the Soviet Union. Less than three months before the games, the USSR had invaded Czechoslovakia to crush a freedom movement. Caslavska, who signed a manifesto against the Soviet Union that spring, went on the run to avoid capture, living in the woods and "staying in shape by swinging from tree branches and running through her floor exercise routine in an open field."

She won a silver medal, and kept her head bowed on the podium as the Soviet anthem played. Her athletic career ended in 1968, but she became an adviser to President Vaclav Havel in the '90s.

Ireland has a volatile history with the Olympics, given the uneasy relations between Northern Ireland and the rest of the commonwealth. In 1924, there was much debate over whether the northern or southern football team would represent Ireland at the Olympics. “The entry from the Irish Free State was finally accepted after a discussion, the length of which caused the Irish delegate, MacDevitt, some surprise, which he expressed in the richest brogue: 'It is a matter that should be settled in one minute; there’s only one Ireland.'" In 1906, Irish long jumper Peter O'Connor climbed a 20-foot pole to wave the Irish flag, feeling very offended by the British flag that was already waving.


Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, talks with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, left, at a welcoming event for IOC members ahead of the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics at the Rus Hotel, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/David Goldman, Pool)

The Cold War and the Olympics

The Cold War -- which simmered for almost half-a-century -- had an especially outsize political effect on the Olympics games. For the United States and the Soviet Union, this was the only battlefield they could engage on without threatening mutually assured destruction.

And when either side had a particularly resounding victory -- Google "Miracle on Ice" or "1972 Olympics basketball," they tended to harp on it. Forever.

The battle of wits and medals was more than symbolic though for the countries bordering or enveloped by the USSR. In a water-polo match at the 1956 Olympics, a Soviet Union player punched a Hungarian player in the face,  the game with the ominous name, "Blood on the Water."

Olympian politicking didn't end when the Berlin Wall fell -- in 1992, former members of the Soviet Union continued to compete on Russia's team as part of the "Unified Team." Ukraine and Georgia had asked the IOC to allow them to perform under their own flag ... a request they were talked out of.  At the time, the IOC president said, "I think all wanted to go independently, but they agreed with us that for the last time they have to take part as a united team. This agreement means the athletes will not be punished."

Something that definitely hadn't happened before due to a country's politicking.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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