History, International Relations


The Olympics and International Relations

The modern Olympic games are undoubtedly the greatest global sporting event. Every four years, athletes from across the world assemble in a host city, political leaders have used this platform many times to push their agendas and ideological leanings. The Olympics may be a sporting event but world politics has not been very far away from the Olympics. The Olympics after all attracts the glare of the world’s media. It attracts scores of people from across the world and is undoubtedly a global event. This makes the Olympics a perfect platform for political messaging. Politics at the Olympics dates as far back as the 1906 Olympic games when a group of Irish Nationalists protested against Colonialism. The Soviets after the Russian Revolution withdrew from the Olympics as it was seen as a ‘bourgeois’ concept. The USSR joined the games only after the 2nd WW.

In 1936, Berlin was to host the games. The Nazis had risen to power in 1933 and Hitler made use of the Olympics to showcase his ideas of racial supremacy and anti-Semitism. Pamphlets promoting anti-Semitism and Aryan supremacy were distributed during the Games. Common Nazi symbols were shown prominently at the Opening and Closing ceremonies. The messaging was clear, Germany had overcome defeat in the first world war. The humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles was done and a new Nazi Germany was now born. Hitler was shown as a modern and efficient leader who helped Germany rebuild itself. Three years after the Olympics at Berlin, World War Two broke out. The Nazis were good at propaganda and the Olympics being hosted in their capital city was a perfect opportunity for them to deploy their tools of Propaganda. It was also the first time that countries called for a boycott of the Olympic games. Although the boycott had failed and most countries took part in the games. Some historians have argued that by sending athletes to the games, the international community gave legitimacy to Hitler, which further led to his control over Germany. At the 1948 London Olympics, Germany and Japan were banned from participating due to their role in the second world war. During the 1956 Olympics at Melbourne, countries pulled out of the games to condemn the invasion of Hungary by the USSR. Interestingly, Hungary themselves did not pull out and had to face the USSR water polo team in a match.

During the Cold War, the Olympics became a theater of the war. In 1980, the games were held in Moscow. The Western Bloc, led by the US, decided to boycott the games. Four years later, Los Angeles was selected to host the games, this time the USSR and the Eastern Bloc decided to boycott the games. The messaging both times was clear. Both the blocs represented two opposite ideas of politics. Ideas that could not be mixed. Both times, if the superpowers had decided to attend the games, it would have been seen as a defeat, something both blocs didn’t want.

During their medal ceremony in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City on October 16, 1968, two African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the US national anthem. The moment was a symbolic protest against racism and the denial of civil rights to African Americans in the US. The images quickly became very famous. The athletes were initially banned for their protest but later on were viewed as heroes, who raised the banner of human rights. The moment was an important one, a moment where domestic politics mixed with international politics. The US Government was forced to take note.

From 1964-1988, South Africa was denied entry into the Olympic games due to the regressive policy of discrimination or the Apartheid. The International community came together to condemn the use to racial segregation and refused to accept the human rights violations. The ban on the South African team was a tactic deployed by the international community to put pressure on the South African Government to remove the race-based policies that discriminated against the Black and colored population in South Africa. The IOC adopted a declaration against “apartheid in sport” on 21 June 1988. In 1976, almost all African countries boycotted the Olympics at Montreal because the IOC had refused to ban New Zealand, who’s rugby team had toured South Africa, in defiance of a sporting embargo on South Africa. The African nations made their stance clear, the countries refused to accept any explanation from the organizing committee and stood firm in their anti-racism policy. It was due to events like this that anti-racism protests and movements gathered momentum across the world.

One of the most famous incidents at the Olympics occurred during the 1972 Munich Olympics. The Israeli athletes at the Olympics Village were attacked by a terror group called Black September. The Athletes were taken hostage and soon an international controversy broke out. The terror group who carried out the attacks were anti-Israeli. The attack was a fall out from the Arab-Israeli conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Arab population in the region. The terror attack increased the tensions between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The athletes who were killed in the terror attack were honored with a minute of silence at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games.

The Olympics is much more than just a sporting event, it’s a chance for countries to show their economic and political power. In recent years, countries have used the opening ceremonies to showcase their culture, art, dance, music and diplomatic power by inviting world leaders to attend the ceremony. Countries also have used the Olympics to spread their soft power by hosting a range of cultural events alongside the games. The Olympics initially was hosted only by countries of the first world, but in recent years, the games have been hosted by developing countries like China and Brazil, showing a clear change in the Global economic space. The medal tally for many years has also been viewed as an arena to show power, during the Cold war, both the US and USSR would compete aggressively to top the medal tally, in recent years, China and the US have dominated the medal tally with countries like the UK, Japan and Russia joining in. The rise of China’s economic power has been shown by the rise in the number of medals they have won at the Olympics since the 1990’s. In 2008, China won the maximum number of Gold Medals. The US has consistently sent large delegations to the Olympics and is undoubtedly the most successful nation at the Games, a testimony to its economic power.

The Olympics has therefore been an essential part of International Relations and Politics. It’s important to understand that the Olympics has also contributed to International Relations in many positive ways. It has increased people to people relations between nations and has improved relations between national governments, sports after all unifies people regardless of political ideology or nationality. The Olympic movement in itself is a movement which propagates peace and brotherhood and is more important today than ever. Recently in 2018, the Winter Olympic games at Pyeongchang, South Korea witnessed an emotional moment during the Opening Ceremony, when both North Korea and South Korea walked into the stadium as 1 team. A Unified Korean team. The tone shift was drastic, both countries have been traditional adversaries. Both of them have had several military and diplomatic issues since the 1950’s. The moment was an historic one, filled with symbolism. The thaw in the relations between both nations eased regional tensions. The two nations also decided to send a unified ice hockey team at the same Olympics. The Olympics has also promoted the concept of a Refugee Olympic team, which includes players who are refugees in other countries. The Olympics, since it’s birth in Ancient Greece has tried to promote peace between countries, the concept of an Olympic Truce was relevant even in Ancient Greece. The Olympics therefore is an instrument of peace and tolerance among nations, nations must recognize the full potential of the Olympic games and should aim at using the games to further strengthen friendly relations among nations rather than using it as a tool to further political agendas.


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