From raised fists to fistfights, the eight most politically charged moments in Olympic history.
- By Katie CellaKatie Cella is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.
Despite official bylaws against “political behavior” at the Olympics, there has been no shortage of attacks, boycotts, and demonstrations in the 116 years since the first modern Olympic Games. Nationalism, racism, and a host of other political sentiments have repeatedly found their way into the competition, inciting everything from flag burning to bloody fistfights to the tragic murder of athletes.
Although human rights groups urged boycotts of the 2008 Beijing games because of the Chinese government’s human rights record, suppression of protests in Tibet, and coziness with dictators in countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe, the competition ultimately provoked relatively little political activity. So far, the London Olympics have not been dogged by many boycott threats, but it hasn’t exactly been controversy-free either — they’ve mainly centered on whether London has enough security personnel and whether to hold an official moment of silence to mark the 40th anniversary of the Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Indeed, the competition has already produced some striking — if ultimately empty — solidarity. On Monday, Iran announced that Iranian athletes will compete against Israelis, after some members of the country’s delegation refused to do so during the 2004 Athens games and 2008 Beijing games. (The catch: Athletes from the two countries are not scheduled to face off in any events).
But cooler heads haven’t always prevailed during the Olympics. Here’s a look at eight games where politics took center stage, relegating sports to the sidelines.
London, Britain (1908): The fourth official Olympic competition was the first to feature an opening ceremony, which called for the flag bearer from each nation to dip their flag in respect to King Edward VII as they passed by his box in the 68,000-seat stadium. But the American flag bearer, a shot-putter named Ralph Rose (pictured above), did not tilt the Stars and Stripes toward the ruler, and legend has it that U.S. discus thrower Martin Sheridan defiantly declared that the American flag “dips to no earthly king.” American athletes have not dipped their flag to the host nation’s leaders since.
Anglo-American tension erupted once again during the marathon event when Italian runner Dorando Pietri collapsed in the final moments of the race and had to be carried across the finish line by medics. U.S. competitor Johnny Hayes was initially declared the runner-up as British and American officials argued over Pietri’s disqualification for over an hour, while spectators brawled in the stands. Eventually, Pietri was disqualified and Hayes crowned the winner.
These weren’t the only political incidents at the London games. Finland, which at the time was under Russian control, chose to march in the opening ceremony without a flag rather than bear Russia’s colors. Athletes from Northern Ireland boycotted the competition altogether because Britain refused to grant the territory independence.
Berlin, Germany (1936): Adolf Hitler planned to showcase his theories of Aryan racial superiority at these Summer Olympics. But things didn’t go exactly as planned, with the African
On the first day of the track-and-field events, Hitler only congratulated German winners and refused to acknowledge African-American high-jumper and gold medalist Cornelius Johnson. When International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials told Hitler he needed to congratulate all medalists or none at all, he opted for the latter. When Owens won his medals, Hitler had already chosen to skip the awards ceremony.
But Owens later said that he felt more insulted by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s failure to acknowledge his victories than he was by Hitler’s absence from the medal ceremony. “The president didn’t even send me a telegram,” Owens noted. He was never invited to the White House to receive the honors traditionally bestowed on Olympic medalists. Eventually, 19 years later, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower named Owens an “Ambassador of Sports.”
Melbourne, Australia (1956): Several incidents disrupted these summer Olympic Games, which were the first to be hosted by a country in the Southern Hemisphere and the first to hold closing ceremonies. China boycotted the games because of the participation of Formosa (Taiwan), while Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon stayed away from the competition in response to Israel’s invasion of the Sinai Peninsula earlier that year.
Relations between Russia and Soviet-occupied Hungary were even more volatile during the games. Before the Olympics began, disaffected Hungarians staged major protests against communist rule in Budapest, sparking a crackdown by Soviet forces that left more than 5,000 people dead. The Hungarian Olympic team only heard about the developments back home after arriving in Melbourne and then promptly tore down the Hungarian flag with the communist insignia in the Olympic Village, raising the free Hungarian flag in its place.
Several countries urged the IOC to cancel the games, but then-IOC President Avery Brundage insisted that they continue. Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands boycotted the games over Russia’s suppression of the Hungarian Revolution.
Perhaps no event epitomized these bitter games more than the water polo match between Russia and Hungary, in which a scrappy match turned bloody when a Russian player sucker-punched Hungarian opponent Ervin Zador (pictured above after the brawl) in the eye. Hungarian spectators broke out of the stands to scream at the Russian players, and the referees had to cancel the game — which came to be called the “blood in the water” match — while Hungary was up 4-0. The Hungarian team went on to win the championship game against Yugoslavia and take the gold medal.
Mexico City, Mexico (1968): Ten days before the Olympics — the first in a Latin American country — regular clashes between Mexican police and students came to a head when leaders of the student movement, hoping to feed off media attention surrounding the Olympics, drew thousands of young people to Three Cultures Square in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City. Tanks and helicopters surrounded the demonstrators, and shots soon rang out (it’s still unclear who started it), prompting the army to fire into the crowd and attack students with bayonets. The government stated that the number of dead was in the dozens, but students claimed they saw hundreds of bodies trucked away from the scene.
The games also took place during the climax of the American civil rights movement. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated six months prior to the opening ceremony and U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson had recently signed the Fair Housing Act to ensure equal housing opportunities.
During the awards ceremony for the men’s 200-meter event, the African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos (who took the gold and bronze medals, respectively) raised their gloved fists in the Black Power salute to protest racism in the United States. Peter Norman, the white Australian silver medalist in the race, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights emblem in solidarity with Smith and Carlos.
IOC President Avery Brundage, whom some athletes called “Slavery Avery” for his known white supremacist views, had the committee deliver a fiery message excoriating Smith and Carlos for “advertising their domestic political views” in a “deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.” After the IOC threatened to dismiss the entire U.S. Olympic team, the U.S. Olympic Committee apologized and gave Smith and Carlos 48 hours to leave the games and the country.
Both athletes were ostracized for years afterward and had difficulty finding work. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the sports community began hailing their salute as a moment of bravery. In 2008, Smith and Carlos received ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
Munich, Germany (1972): With more than 7,000 athletes representing more than 120 countries, these Olympics were the largest games ever held at the time. Although the Munich games were intended to celebrate postwar peace, that illusion was shattered when eight guerrilla fighters from Black September, a movement affiliated with the PLO, stormed the Israeli delegation’s living quarters, killing two members of the team and taking nine more hostage as part of an effort to demand that Israel release 200 Palestinian prisoners. (Above, one of the terrorists is seen on a balcony in the Olympic Village during a standoff with police). In a botched rescue attempt, the remaining hostages and five of the terrorists were killed.
Brundage suspended the games for a day and held a memorial service for the victims during which he barely referenced the deaths of the Israeli athletes, but the games went on — a fiercely contested decision.
Following the death of the Israeli athletes, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir sent Mossad teams to assassinate the perpetrators of the Black September plot. On Oct. 16, 1972, Mossad agents fatally shot Abdel Wael Zwaiter, the PLO’s representative in Italy, in his apartment building, the first of several targeted killings in retribution for the Munich attacks.
Also during the Munich games, Cold War tension popped on the basketball court during the match between the United States and the USSR, which saw the previously undefeated American team defeated by one point after a series of hotly contested fouls and clock technicalities.
Montreal, Canada (1976): These summer games were the scene of several political scuffles. Ukrainian athletes, for instance, demonstrated against the Soviets multiple times and burned the Soviet flag outside the Olympic Village.
Most notably, much of Africa — 30 countries in all — boycotted the Olympics over alleged racism, stemming from the IOC’s decision not to disqualify New Zealand from the competition. New Zealand had recently sent its rugby team to tour in South Africa, which at the time had been blocked from the Olympics for more than 10 years because of the government’s apartheid policies. It was not until the 1992 Barcelona games that South Africa would once again be allowed to participate in the Olympics.
Tony Duffy/Getty Images
Moscow, Soviet Union (1980): After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, the United States sent a message to the IOC insisting that the Moscow games slated for the following summer be postponed, canceled, or relocated. The IOC overruled President Jimmy Carter’s request, and the U.S. Olympic Committee decided to boycott the Moscow games. The 1936 gold medalist Jesse Owens begged the U.S. Olympic Committee to send a team, but his request fell on deaf ears.
Overall, 65 countries — almost half of the world’s competing nations — did not participate in the Moscow games, whittling the number of represented nations down to 80, the lowest level of participation since 1956. One of those in attendance? Moscow’s Olympic mascot Misha, pictured above.
Los Angeles, United States (1984): This was the tit-for-tat Olympics. Fourteen socialist countries, led by the USSR, boycotted the games in retaliation for the U.S.-led boycott of Moscow’s Summer Olympics four years earlier.
Adding to the controversy was the inclusion of South African Zola Budd (pictured above) in the 3,000-meter race at a time when South African athletes were banned from participation due to apartheid sanctions. Budd, a young runner distinguished for competing barefoot, had applied for British citizenship in order to compete, a process that was expedited despite mounting opposition both within and outside Britain.
The 3,000-meter women’s final that year became a hotly debated event after Budd and her American rival Mary Decker collided at the halfway point, ending the race for Decker. Budd kept running but finished seventh, appearing demonstrably upset as crowds jeered at her. After the race, demonstrators held signs that said, “White trash, go home.”
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It’s unclear to what extent the athletes themselves internalize these geopolitical tensions. Budd and Decker played down their rivalry when they competed again in 1992. Even Ervin Zador, the Hungarian polo player who got punched in the eye at the 1956 games, lamented that he wished “sports could be exempt from politics” after he got wind of plans to disrupt the torch relay for the 2008 Beijing games over China’s crackdown in Tibet. “But that’s just a dream,” he added. “It’ll never happen.” If Zador is right, London may yet witness some Olympic-sized politics of its own.
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