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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The Olympics as a political arena

August 17, 2008

By Dallas Darling
Asia Times
August 16, 2008

When Georgia and Russia came to blows over the long-sought-after
reunification of South and North Ossetia, it reminded me of ancient
Sparta and Arcadia. In 420 and again in 360 BC, Sparta and Arcadia
used the Olympic lull to attack and defeat several neighboring Greek
city states. [1] For anyone who believes the Olympic Games brought
peace and harmony, they are wrong.

The Olympics have instead been used as a political instrument to
either further imperialistic values and ambitions, or express
international outrage against human rights abuses. In the mythical
world that the ancient Greeks dreamed and wrote about, it would be
easy to believe sports could be separate from politics and war. In
the real world, though, sporting events, such as the Olympic arena,
are often symbolic ritual performances of politics and conflicts.

Politics will always trump the Olympics and sporting competitions.
Like history and life itself, politics is all encompassing and
inescapable, especially since it deals with how individuals and
nations govern and conduct themselves both in private spheres and in
public arenas. At the same time politics - sometimes known as the
Social Contract Theory - deals with how people, groups,
organizations, and institutions use different types of power to
interrelate and interact with each other. It includes economics and
social principles like justice and injustice, freedom and dependency,
wealth and poverty, abundant resources and scarcity, inclusion and
exclusion, workers and owners, participants and spectators, etc ...
all of which was and is reflected in the Olympic arena.

The first Greek Olympics arose out of, and reflected, war and
conflict. The games included the Few at the expense of the Many. Only
Greek male athletes, elite political leaders, and wealthy spectators
attended the games and were granted access to sacred rituals in
offering-up sacrifices to national gods. The majority of Greeks -
women, and non-citizens, foreigners, slaves, and servants - were
banned from the games. Much like the current Olympics, families and
Greek city states with enormous riches and resources had a greater
advantage of winning and declaring their superiority over smaller and
poorer states. They could afford lavish structures for training, the
best instructors, safe travel, excellent equipment, and the finest
foods and medicines.

The Greek city states selected and trained the strongest and most
gifted of individuals, usually soldiers, to compete in the Olympic
arena. The original Olympics modeled skills used in battle such as
boxing, wrestling and running. Winners received tremendous honors and
elaborate prizes while the losers were shamed, secretly making their
way back home. City states used their athletes to re-enact and spread
myths of their own heroic Greek gods. The Olympics also expanded the
states culture and strengthened ties to the motherland.

Sparta and Arcadia, large and powerful imperial warlike states,
dominated the Olympics with enhanced and powerful athletes over more
decentralized and smaller states. Other Greek city states used bribes
and civic influences in persuading the judges.

Imperial Rome incorporated many aspects of the Greek/Hellenistic
Olympics. In their attempt to prevail over their predecessors, Roman
emperors increased the level of violence to the point of holding mock
land and naval battles. Thousands of gladiators and slaves fought to
their deaths. Since the Roman Games were associated with Caesar, the
imperial cult, and mirrored Rome's vicious political and social
hierarchies, Christians refused to attend and participate. Set
against the Roman Empire and Games was the Church - a sharing and
egalitarian community. The physical body - the "temple of God", was
to be used for prayer, worship, caring for the sick, serving the
poor, and other acts of mercy (or martyrdom). Because of this,
Christians viewed many athletes as the epitome of vanity and pride,
especially since they were glorified and worshipped as gods and
heroes. The games were completely eliminated when the Roman Empire
converted to Christianity. [2]

Fifteen centuries later in 1896, the West revived the Olympics and
established a pro-Western International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Although Baron Pierre de Coubertin hoped the games would promote
peace among nations, [3] the Olympics reinforced and transmitted many
values and ideas from highly complex and industrial nations. It also
served to buttress the status positions of capitalistic and
technologically advanced empires. Some colonies and cultures rejected
such overly competitive and dominating sports in favor of their own
indigenous games. They were either punished by being barred from the
Olympics or, when competing, suffered from a disadvantage due to
their own adherence to traditional competitions and athletic values.

In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt, J P Morgan, and the elite industrialists
from the US hosted the Olympic Games in St Louis. Up until then, the
Olympics had faltered. For the wealthy monopolists and US government,
the Olympics served many political purposes and accomplished imperial
goals. The St Louis Olympics reflected a new American crusade in
promoting the idea of "Muscular" and "Manly Christianity", [4]
diffusing labor and management tensions, and introducing the concept
of a nationalistic team.

The 1904 Olympics also espoused the prevailing ideals of the Western
world. Although sports can sometimes be a substitute for war, wealthy
monopolists used the Olympics and some athletic competitions to
socialize youth for war, maintaining values generally supportive of
warfare like racism, ethnocentrism and superiority.

After World War I, Germany, Bulgaria, Austria, and Hungary were
punished with war reparations and not allowed to compete in the
Olympic Games. In 1932, during the Great Depression, Los Angeles
raised money through public funds to host the Olympics. This caused
bread riots and mass protests throughout the city. It is well-known
that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party dominated almost every aspect of
the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. This was done to further their
standing in the world and propagate Nazi values and culture. [5] At
the same time, the Nazi Party removed anti-Semitic and anti-Socialist
signs so as not to offend visiting nations. Persecution against
"undesirables" were also scaled back. Jesse Owens, an
African-American, made a political statement when he won four gold
medals and dispelled the myths of Aryan and Nazi supremacy. [6]

Harkening back to an earlier age, after World War II, Germany, Italy,
Japan, and several other nations were banned from the 1948 Olympics.
The Cold War between the US and Soviet Union, including their allies,
polarized the Olympics even more. For some, the Olympics became an
extension of Cold War conflicts between capitalism and communism.
Communist countries were accused of being totalitarian and derided
for identifying athletes at and early age and training them to
compete in the Olympics. Capitalist countries, on the other hand,
were known to spend millions of dollars in research, facilities,
lobbying the IOC, and influencing the judges. Corporate sponsors also
helped prepare and commercialize the athletes. While the medal count
was used to show which superpower was superior, East and West German
athletes became unified and competed side-by-side. In 1949, when
China became a communist country, the pro-Western IOC refused to
recognize or invite them to the Games for many years. [7]

While international trade and global communications were primarily
benefiting the industrial empires and making the world smaller,
tensions continued to mount between the West and East and
"developing" nations of the South. In 1956, the Olympic Arena was
dominated by the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the first
international boycott. [8] Because of apartheid and the massacres in
South Africa, the African Union (AU) boycotted several Olympic Games
in hopes of pressuring the IOC to take action.

Finally, South Africa's invitation to the Olympics were withdrawn in
1964 and again in 1968. South Africa was eventually expelled in 1972
and returned to the 1992 Olympics when apartheid was dismantled.

The 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico occurred in the midst of the Vietnam
conflict and world-wide student-led demonstrations. In order to pay
for the costs of hosting the Olympics, Mexico raised taxes which
especially hurt the poor. Thousands of Mexican students and workers
protested funding the Olympics at the expense of those in dire need
of food, housing, employment, clothing, and medicines. Intent on
maintaining a peaceful atmosphere, the Mexican government and its
troops fired upon demonstrators in Tlatloloc Square, killing
hundreds. [9] Like the early Christians, Harry Edwards attempted to
rally other athletes to not attend the Olympic arena. He was against
the enormous violence caused by the Vietnam War and wanted to make
the world aware of the low status and economic poverty that millions
of blacks faced in the US. [10]

After being harassed and intimidated by the IOC, two black athletes,
Tommy Smith and John Carlos, decided to thrust their black glove-clad
fists in the air during the playing of the "Star Spangled Banner" and
after winning the gold and bronze medal in the 200 meters. The Black
Power salute was a defiant gesture against the US Empire, its war in
Vietnam, and the millions of impoverished blacks. The two athletes
were immediately sent home and received death threats, hate mail, and
were persecuted by US authorities. During this time, Lee Evans
founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). After winning
the 400 meters, he wore a black beret on the stand which symbolized
the Black Panthers and whom were fighting for equality in the US. [11]

Towards the end of the 20th century the world witnessed a greater
politicization and "corporatization" of the Olympic arena. In order
to bring much needed attention to the Palestinian refugee crisis, the
Nakba (Catastrophe), and the harsh treatment of Palestinians under
Israeli occupation, a Palestinian group took members of the Israeli
wrestling team hostage in the 1972 Munich Olympics. The Palestinian
group also wanted the release of hundreds of relatives and comrades
whom were in Israeli jails. A failed rescue attempt led to the tragic
killing of all of the Israeli hostages and several Palestinians. The
IOC held a memorial service and proclaimed "the Games must go on!"
[12] Eight years later, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and
aided a fledgling communist government, the Moscow Olympics were
boycotted by the US and 62 other nations. Still, eighty-two nations
attended the Moscow Olympics. Russia and East Germany were dominant.

Due to the high cost of security surrounding the Olympics, the 1976
Montreal Games left the host city with an enormous and devastating
debt. When Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Olympics and was also
confronted with a massive debt and possible social unrest, the US
pressured the IOC to sell world television rights to CBS, ABC, and
NBC. This meant the Olympics would be funded by hundreds of
corporations and commodified by conglomerate sponsors. [13] Overnight
the Olympics became a Political, Corporate and Professional Arena.
Along with corporate influence, rules and eligibility were relaxed.

Since politics will always be unavoidable, the national and global
citizen must discern the incorruptible from the corruptible Olympic
policies. The IOC and world must also ask itself these questions: Do
the Olympics still discriminate against religions, races, genders,
and nationalities? (Especially in the areas of modest clothing or the
exclusion of indigenous competitions or cooperative games.) In
observing the finalists and the medal winners, is the Olympic arena
still predominantly Western, excluding the South, East and Middle
East? What will be the ultimate result of the privatization and
"professionalization" of the Olympics, which were once for amateurs?
In societies where voices and dissent are censored and governments
commit human rights abuses, including the West, how should the IOC
respond and monitor even its own ideologies?

What political message is being sent by the Olympics when presidents
and elite politicians are allowed to use the Olympics as a political
prop to boost their sinking ratings and ignite conflicts? Or when
host cities and nations spend millions of dollars while neglecting
the economically disadvantaged and poor working classes? Or when
Olympic athletes consume 12,000 to 20,000 calories a day while
children around the world are malnourished and starving? Or when
competitors and their instructors have the best health care, medicine
and facilities, while billions of people do not? And finally, how can
the Olympic arena be more class conscientious and inclusive towards
the deprived and subjugated peoples trying to win their economic
independence and political freedoms?

When the US Olympic team selected a Sudanese refugee to be the
American delegation's flag-bearer, and when China's Lin Hao, the
nine-year-old student who risked his life to save several of his
classmates during an earthquake, walked beside flag bearer Yao Ming,
it was a good start. There are other examples of where the Olympics
and its athletes have served humanity and pursued incorruptible politics.

For some politicians and leaders, who live in isolation and are
encompassed by costly security details, an Olympic athletes question
about oppression or a challenging remark about illegal wars and
occupations may be the closest they come to ever listening to the
excluded citizen. As John Carlos said, "How can you ask someone to
live in the world, to exist in the world, and not have something to
say about injustices?" [14]

At the first Greek Olympics, athletes and state leaders would march
in carrying and dedicating their performances to the Greek gods.
Today, some athletes and political leaders attending the Olympics,
and the countries they represent, have replaced the Greek gods with
fierce nationalism and flags. Perhaps the Moscow Olympics was right
when, at the opening ceremonies many nations used the Olympic flag
instead of their national flag and performed the Olympic hymn instead
of their national anthem during the medal ceremonies? [15]

After all, when Coubertin revived the Olympics in 1896 he did so with
several motivating factors in mind: health and cultural progress;
education and character building; international understanding and
peace; equal opportunity; fair and equal competition; and for
independence of sport as an instrument of social reform! [16]

Since it is reported that China's May 12 quake killed 70,000 people,
left hundreds of thousands homeless, and will cost $147 billion,
maybe the greatest Olympic message and performance would have been to
aid (including the "invited" dignitaries and athletes) China in their
rebuilding efforts. If not in place of the Olympic arena, then at
least maybe afterwards.

1. Levinson, David and Karen Christensen, (editors). Encyclopedia of
World Sport From Ancient Times To The Present. New York, New York:
Oxford University Press, 1999. p 275.
2. Ibid, p 274.
3. Ibid, p. 278. 4. Cull, Nicholas J, David Culbert and David Welch.
Propaganda And Mass Persuasion. Denver, Colorado: ABC-CLIO Publishing
Company, 2003. p 276.
5. Levinson, David and Karen Christensen, (editors). Encyclopedia of
World Sport From Ancient Times To The Present. p 280.
6. Ibid, p. 280.
7. Ibid, p 281.
8. Cull, Nicholas J, David Culbert and David Welch. Propaganda And
Mass Persuasion. p 277.
9. Levinson, David and Karen Christensen, (editors). Encyclopedia of
World Sport From Ancient Times To The Present. p 281.
10. Zirin, Dave. What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the
United States. Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2005. p 78 and ff.
11. Ibid, p 82.
12. Levinson, David and Karen Christensen, (editors). Encyclopedia of
World Sport From Ancient Times To The Present. p 283.
13. Ibid, p. 283.
14. Zirin, Dave. What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the
United States. p 82.
15. Cull, Nicholas J, David Culbert and David Welch. Propaganda And
Mass Persuasion. p 277.
16. Levinson, David and Karen Christensen, (editors). Encyclopedia of
World Sport From Ancient Times To The Present. p 279.

Dallas Darling is the author of the forthcoming book The Other Side
Of Christianity: Reflections on Faith, Politics, Spirituality,
History, and Faith. He currently teaches US and world history and
writes for World News. You can read more of his articles at


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