The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s impossible to separate politics and the Olympics

How Africa transformed Olympics activism.

Flagless poles stand in the Olympic Village in Montreal on July 20, 1976. Dozens of countries, mainly from Africa, boycotted the Montreal Games to protest New Zealand’s sporting ties to the South African apartheid regime. (Anonymous/AP)

Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s silent gesture has reverberated across the more than 50 years since the two men thrust black-gloved fists to the sky from the medal podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Echoes of their statement against racial injustice can be found in hammer thrower Gwen Berry’s refusal to acknowledge the American flag during the national anthem at the United States Olympic Trials. The International Olympic Committee has long sought to separate politics from sport and clearly opposes any such political expression at the Tokyo Games.

Yet, an Olympic boycott of the 1976 Montreal Games by nearly 30 African teams offers a striking historical example of how collective action can use the Games to give meaning and purpose to the widely held belief that sports must be fair and accessible to all — something that theoretically epitomizes the vision of the Olympic movement. At the center of the storm of protest was a tour of apartheid South Africa by a New Zealand rugby team.

South Africa first sent an all-White Olympic team to the 1908 London Games. For the next 52 years, all-White teams represented the majority-Black nation at the Games in all sports, flouting International Olympic Committee rules that prohibited racial discrimination.

Following victory in the 1948 South African elections, the National Party enacted sweeping legislation that forced a system of racial separation known as apartheid on the voteless Black majority. Apartheid extended and institutionalized discrimination in almost all spheres of life — including sports.

Spectators were segregated in most South African sporting venues, and Black fans were completely banned from others. White athletes enjoyed superior facilities and sufficient time and resources to train. In almost all circumstances, athletes of different races could not compete together and only White South Africans got to challenge the world’s best athletes in meaningful international events.

By the 1960s, South Africa was the target of protest at international sporting events because of its racist policies. After the Second World War, colonial rule ended across much of Africa. Newly independent countries campaigned to abolish apartheid using international institutions such as the United Nations. The Olympic movement proved to be one of the most visible international forums for drawing attention to their cause and applying pressure.

A cornerstone of the international struggle against apartheid in sport was the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa (SCSA). Formed in 1966 by 32 African countries and supported by anti-apartheid activists worldwide, the SCSA brought immense pressure on the IOC to sanction South Africa. With this powerful solidarity combined with many new countries gaining Olympic membership, African leaders focused on boycotts of the Olympics, threatened and realized, as tools of change.

Forty countries led by the SCSA threatened to exit the 1968 Mexico City Games if South Africa participated, whereupon the IOC caved and withdrew the apartheid state’s invitation. Two years later, South Africa was expelled from the Olympic movement altogether — an unprecedented sanction in Olympic history that left South Africa isolated from most international competitions.

In the 1970s, the effort turned to Rhodesia, a White minority-ruled state in southern Africa, and to other countries that defied the international sport boycott by competing against apartheid South Africa. A united stand by African countries successfully achieved the expulsion of Rhodesia from the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

In May 1976, however, the New Zealand national rugby team prepared to compete in South Africa, drawing the ire of the SCSA, which threatened a mass boycott of the upcoming Montreal Olympics unless New Zealand abandoned the enterprise. The threat that this rugby tour posed to the Games, personal pleas to call off the tour and agitation from anti-apartheid groups within the country failed to move New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon to prevent the rugby team from visiting South Africa.

Then on June 16, 1976, thousands of students congregated in Soweto, a large Black urban complex on the fringe of Johannesburg, to protest the government’s plan to make Afrikaans, the language of the ruling National Party, the medium of instruction in their schools. South African police fired into the demonstrating crowds, killing 13-year-old Zolile Hector Pieterson, one of many protesters to die in what became known as the Soweto uprising. Unrest spread across the country as the death toll rose.

Despite the uprisings, nine days later, the New Zealand rugby team landed in Johannesburg, winning its first match just as athletes arrived in Montreal for the 1976 Olympic Games. The commencement of the rugby tour in South Africa amid roiling discontent incensed governments in Africa as well as the international sport community. New Zealand sport authorities stood accused of collaboration with the racist state, defying worldwide condemnation. Tanzania was the first country to announce that it would withdraw from the Olympics, denouncing New Zealand for maintaining sport contact with South Africa.

As a result of the rugby tour, two days before the Opening Ceremonies with their athletes already in Montreal, African nations threatened to pull out of the Games unless the IOC banned New Zealand from Olympic participation. In the days leading up to the event, the IOC had been occupied with the question of Taiwan’s participation, which left little time to consider the African ultimatum delivered on the eve of the Games. The IOC decided not to exclude New Zealand, arguing that rugby was not an Olympic sport, South Africa had been expelled from the Olympic movement and the New Zealand Olympic Committee had not breached Olympic rules.

The Nigerian team left Montreal immediately after learning that the IOC had ignored the call to remove New Zealand. All but two of the African nations entered in the 1976 Montreal Games then withdrew from competition in what was then the largest boycott of the Olympics. More than 400 athletes across 14 sports missed the Montreal Games.

This large-scale walkout of African nations contributed to a shunning of South Africa that over time forced concessions in sport from the apartheid state. Olympic boycotts compelled world leaders to formulate policies on race and sport, such as the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement that committed Commonwealth governments to avoid sport contact with South Africa.

Although apartheid finally collapsed in the early 1990s, it ended only after resistance from within and beyond the country over many years. Other African nations were pivotal in this struggle. The high-profile Olympic Games, and African states’ concentration on the Olympic movement as a forum for anti-apartheid expression, forced people worldwide to acknowledge the inequities of state-mandated racial discrimination in southern Africa.

The exodus of athletes from the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games also renewed debate about the separation of sport from politics. Since its 19th-century founding, the IOC sought to maintain sport as the only focus of the Games, yet African nations did not play by Olympic rules. They viewed the Games as one more forum in which to pursue the struggle against apartheid, and their boycott threats made Olympic participation itself a political issue.