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Politics and The Olympics


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Updated May 15, 2014
The Olympic games are renowned as a global event that transcend politics. However, political actions on the part of athletes and nations have colored the quadrennial games. Read on for a brief history, followed by highlights of games marked by politics. The U.S. has played a role in three of those "political" games. Finally, check out the list of games held on the North American continent.

Politics -- at least the negative kind -- had no place in the ancient games. The event was made possible in part by a truce (in Greek, ekecheiria, which literally means "holding of hands") that allowed visitors and competitors to travel to Olympia safely. During the truce there was no war, no executions, and no military action.

The Greeks sponsored Olympic games every four years, from (approximately) 776 B.C. to A.D. 393. (For context, Rome was founded about 753 B.C.) Only Greeks could participate, but the Greek empire spread "as far away as modern-day Spain, Italy, Libya, Egypt, the Ukraine, and Turkey."

Flash forward to the late 19th century. In 1894, Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Paris (pdf). The first modern Olympic games were held four years later in Athens, Greece. Winter games began in 1924 in Chamonix, France.

Because of the challenges of global transportation, the first games were held in Europe and featurd Western athletes. But by 1956 athletes were flying to the games, which were held in Australia that year.

Politics and the Games
  • 1900 - The second modern games were to the first -- modern or ancient -- to feature women athletes (two sports only, golf and tennis).
  • 1916 - No games due to World War I
  • 1936 - The Berlin (Germany) games. Hitler allowed only "Aryan" athletes to represent Germany, but his attempt to demonstrate racial superiority ran headfirst into U.S. athlete Jesse Owens, an African-American who ran away with four gold medals. The U.S. had considered, and then rejected, boycotting the games. However, some individual athletes chose not to compete.
  • 1940 - No games due to World War II
  • 1944 - No games due to World War II
  • 1956 - Attendance at Melbourne (Australia) was marred by the Suez War (Israel, the United Kingdom, and France invaded Egypt). In political retaliation, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon announced a boycott. After Soviet troops quashed a revolution in Hungary, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland also decided to boycott the Games.
  • 1968 - At the games in Mexico City, two American athletes spoke out against racial segregation and provided visual support for the Black Power movement while being awarded medals (gold and bronze) for the 200-meter race. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended the two Americans. In addition, a Czechoslovakian gymnast cast her face down during the playing of the Soviet national anthem while she was on the podium. The IOC did nothing, but the Soviets, who had recently invaded Czechoslovakia, benched her on her return.
  • 1972 - The Munich (Germany) games were the first marked by violence. Eight Palestinian terrorists took Israeli athletes and coaches hostage. Five of the terrorists, the 11 Israelis, as well as a West German policemen were killed.
  • 1980 - When the games were in Moscow (Soviet Union), the U.S. led a boycott (62 countries and regions) of the games because the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. The U.S. Olympic Committee voted to boycott; President Carter said he would revoke the passports of any American athletes who attended. Only 81 nations attended.
  • 1984 - The Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles games in retaliation; 140 nations attended.
  • 2000 - North and South Korean athletes marched under a single flag during opening ceremonies at the Sydney (Australia) games, although they would compete separately.
  • 2008 - The Beijing, China games are haunted by the Free Tibet movement and also marked by Russia's contemporaneous invasion of Georgia.

Olympics in North America
  • 1904 - St. Louis (summer)
  • 1932 - Los Angeles (summer)
  • 1968 - Mexico City (summer)
  • 1980 - Lake Placid, NY (winter)
  • 1984 - Los Angeles (summer)
  • 1988 - Calgary, Canada (winter)
  • 1996 - Atlanta (summer)
  • 2002 - Salt Lake City, Utah (winter)
  • 2010 - Vancouver, Canada (winter)
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