When Politics Come to Sport: A History of Protest and Boycott at the Olympic and Paralympic Games

Politics and professional sport have forever been intertwined. Recently this has become more apparent with a number of news stories demonstrating this relationship. The American footballer Colin Kaepernick has made headlines and received a great deal of harassment for kneeling during the American national anthem at matches in protest of police violence against African Americans. There has been a great deal of political fallout over the choice to ban Russian para-athletes in the Paralympic Games, leading to the hacking of WADA. There was also the recent death of Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska, famous for her protests against the Soviet Union during her career. My fellow W.U History contributor Matt wrote about Mandela’s use of the 1995 Rugby World Cup back in 2014, so I have decided to focus on the use of political protests in the modern  Olympic and Paralympic Games.  Despite the repeated attempts (and harsh punishments against those do) of theIOC and IPC, the Olympics and Paralympics have rarely been politically free.

Irish athletes protested their inclusion in the Great Britain team. In 1906, the Irish high jumper Peter O’Connor had the British flag raised for his silver medal position; he scaled the pole with an Irish flag and waved that instead while his teammate Con Leahy remained at the foot of the pole to guard him. This led in 1908 to the team name being changed to Great Britain/Ireland and even allowing in several events Ireland to compete separately despite Irish independence not being achieved until 1911.

The 1956 Olympics faced a number of boycotts from countries due to a range of political tensions. The Suez crisis led to Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq boycotting. The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland also boycotted in protest of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Finally China decided to boycott upon Taiwan being allowed to compete. Supporters of countries such as Australia vocally supported the Hungarian athletes in protest of the Soviet invasion. For the most part tensions never reached a boiling point except during the water polo, which became known as the Blood in the Water match. The match was between the Hungarians and the USSR, with the match turning violent very quickly. The match earned the name after the Hungarian Ervin Zádor was punched by one of the Russian team leading to him bleeding from his forehead. The spectators of the match were mostly Hungarian, Australian and American leading to an almost riot, only avoided by the police moving the crowd out. The Hungarians won the match and eventually the gold medal.

South Africa’s participation in the Olympic and Paralympic Games caused a huge deal of controversy between 1960 and 1992. Not only did many of the African nations protest against the policy of Apartheid itself, but South Africa’s attempts to send only white athletes caused controversy. Many Western countries however continued to try and include South Africa in the competitions; South Africa was only officially banned from the Olympics in 1970. They had been disinvited from the Olympics in 1964 and 1968, due to the protests from African countries.  However, until the Dutch hosted the Paralympics in 1980, the South Africans continued to participate in the Paralympics. They were only expelled by IPC in 1985. With the exception of the a few countries from the Eastern Bloc and Finland, white majority countries did not boycott but a number of countries with non-white majorities did. The 1976 Games also had a boycott because of the continued inclusion of New Zealand, after the protests of a number of African countries. New Zealand’s rugby team had toured South Africa despite the majority of countries boycotting Apartheid South Africa;  twenty nine countries in all, mostly countries from Africa and the Middle East. Upon the end of apartheid, South Africa was allowed to compete with a multi-racial team.

Perhaps the most famous of all Olympic protests was Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Games. The American pair had placed first and third in the 200m respectively but drew outrage on the podium during the American national anthem. The pair both raised their fists, the well-known symbol of the Black Power movement, in protest of the treatment of Black Americans. Martin Luther King Jnr had been assassinated earlier in the year and despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act, unsurprisingly racial tensions were still high. The pair were booed as they left and were quickly punished by the IOC, leading to their expulsion from the games and Olympic Village. The implications of their protest continued to affect the pair after the 1968 Games. Both were subject to deaths threats and criticism in the US. Neither pair competed again in the Olympics, although both men continued in sport.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos were not the only athletes to protest during the 1968 Olympic Games. Czech gymnast Věra Čáslavská had already upset Soviet authorities earlier in 1968 having signed the protest manifesto ‘The Two Thousand Words’ during the Prague Spring, a period of political liberalisation that threatened the Soviet Union’s control over Czechoslovakia. Upon the Soviet invasion in August 1968, Čáslavská was forced into hiding in the Moravian mountains. Having lost her training facilities she trained for the games outside in the forests of Moravia, using logs as beams and potato sacks as weights to defend her titles from the previous Games. She only received permission at the last minute to participate in the 1968 games. While Čáslavská managed to defend two of her medals and gained a further two medals, controversy arose when two judging decisions favoured Soviet gymnasts over her. As a protest Čáslavská bowed her head and turned away during the playing of the Soviet anthem. While she received no punishment from the IOC, Čáslavská was banned from sport events in Czechoslovakia and abroad. This forced her into early retirement. It was not until the threat of ceasing oil exports to Czechslovakia by Mexico was she allowed to leave the country in 1978. In 1985 under the pressure of the IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch she was finally allowed to return to the sport as a coach and judge. After the fall of communism Čáslavská held a number of positions within the IOC.

The 1980 Olympics in Moscow caused one of the largest boycotts in Olympic history. Due to the decision not to hold the Paralympics by the Soviet Union, instead it was hosted by the Netherlands with no boycott. Upon the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US gave the ultimatum for the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan or there would be a boycott of the games. Despite the efforts of the IOC, no compromise was made; in all, mostly because of the boycott (although a few were for other reasons) sixty six countries who were invited to be part of the games did not attend. These were mostly African and Asian countries. Several Western countries did not fully boycott, but did protest by refusing to attend the Opening Ceremony, or athletes competed under the Olympic flag rather than their own.

The following games in 1984 were held in Los Angeles, where this time the Soviet Union and a number of their allies boycotted. However this boycott was on a much smaller scale, only 14 countries. The boycott was called because of claims of security concerns and an anti-Soviet climate. The Paralympics were mostly boycotted again by Soviet countries; however East Germany, Poland and Hungary participated when they had boycotted the Olympics.

Since 1992, despite political concerns, there have been no large scale boycotts or major political gestures at either the Olympics or Paralympics. Despite concerns about the 2008 Beijing Games and possible boycotts being discussed, the Games were largely successful.

The reluctance to boycott more recently has no exact reasoning, but is probably down to several reasons. Primarily I believe this is mostly down to the large cost, in both money and time that athletes – and their supporters – must dedicate to helping their training. Athletes had previously been outspoken about missing their chances to compete due to political interference but were more likely to toe the line. Today they would be less likely to accept their countries’ decisions to boycott, they are less likely to risk their position at the Games by protesting at all. The end of the Cold War has also removed one of the biggest political obstacles, but while there are still tensions between Russia and the USA, the Olympics almost seem to now be seen as an opportunity to compete, in a non-violent way.

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