By Phillip Whitten
Politics and sport always makes for a volatile mixture. In general, international sport is a powerful force for bringing people together, for emphasizing their commonalities rather than their supposed differences. That’s why at the Closing Ceremonies of each Olympiad, the athletes mingle together, heedless of nationality and political ideology, expressing their joy at being part of an international community of athletes.
Yes, there are exceptions – times when international conflicts are moved from the battlefield to the playing field and sport becomes a proxy for war. A good example is the bloody water polo match between the Soviet Union and Hungary at the 1956 Olympics. The late, unlamented German Democratic Republic (East Germany) made international athletic successa national policy and instituted widespread illegal doping as the chief method for demonstrating the supposed superiority of Communism. The numerous incidents of hooliganism at international soccer matches provide another exception, though it should be noted that it is usually the fans, rather than the players, who are involved in acts of violence.
Almost without exception, whenever politicians poke their noses into international sport, the athletes and international goodwill are the losers. There are no winners.
A good example was the US-led boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. President Jimmy Carter and his political henchmen had to twist a lot of arms and issue numerous not-so-veiled threats before the US Olympic Committee would go along with the ill-conceived boycott. (Even then, the athlete representatives in the USOC were overwhelmingly against the boycott.)
Carter’s stated rationale for the boycott was that the USA and its allies opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, though some believed Carter was cynically using the boycott in his unsuccessful re-election bid against Ronald Reagan.
Yes, that invasion was a terrible thing. But there was nothing that athletes, or even the IOC, could do about it. It was beyond the realm of sports. Had the US participated in the 1980 Games, American athletes would have talked with their Russian counterparts, providing a valuable perspective very different from that of the government-controlled media in the USSR. Ultimately, that process might – just might – have led to an earlier Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. The boycott had zero impact on the Soviet invasion and the ultimate withdrawal of Soviet troops.
The major impact of the 1980 boycott was on the world’s athletes, many of whom had worked, trained and sacrificed for years to achieve their Olympic dream. American athletes, more than any others, were the victims of a politician’s ill-considered, pointless action.
If opposition to a host nation’s foreign policy were a reasonable rationale to boycott the Olympic Games, the Games would not last long. And, in 1984, most of the Eastern bloc nations, led by the USSR, demonstrated that cynicism knows no ideology by boycotting the Los Angeles Games, thus adding their own athletes to the list of victims.
There have been other, equally pointless boycotts. In 1976, a number of African nations boycotted the Montreal Games after their demand that New Zealand be excluded was rejected. The Africans were incensed that a Kiwi rugby team was planning to meet South Africa in a series of matches.
Yes, apartheid was still the official ideology of South Africa in those days, but rugby was not even as an Olympic sport! There was absolutely nothing the IOC could do to affect the New Zealanders’ rugby tour.
The main victims of the African boycott of 1976 were Africa’s magnificent distance runners, many of whom lost their one opportunity to perform on the global stage that is the Olympic Games.
I believe there is one situation that justifies an exclusionary policy: when a nation systematically and de jure discriminates against a group or groups of its own citizens in terms of access to training and competition opportunities on the basis of race, religion, ideology or gender. Such nations should never host the Games.
In 1936, the Games were held in Nazi Germany, where Hitler used them as propaganda to proclaim the superiority of his “Aryan race.” Signs at the Olympic stadia warned: “No Jews or dogs allowed.” It is an absurd understatement to note that Jewish athletes had virtually no opportunity to make the German team.
In the run-up to the 1936 Games, there was much opposition in the US to taking part. Indeed, even the President of the International Olympic Committee, Ernest Lee Jahnke, was urging athletes to boycott the Berlin Games.
Shamefully, Avery Brundage, the President of the US Olympic Committee, rejected any proposals to boycott the Games. (At Berlin, on the morning of the 400-meter relay race in track and field, the only two Jews on the US track team, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, were replaced at the last moment by two black runners. Glickman later said he believed the decision probably came as a result of pressure from Brundage who did not want to embarrass Herr Hitler).
Jahnke was expelled from the IOC while Brundage was elevated to its presidency.
I would extend that exclusionary policy to participation in the Games. Those nations that systematically discriminate against a group or groups of their own citizens in terms of access to training and competition opportunities on the basis of race, religion, ideology or gender should not be allowed to participate as nations.
Many Muslim countries, which allow women virtually no athletic (or other) opportunities, would fall into this group: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, among others.
But note that I said they should not be allowed to participate as nations. Individual Iranian and Pakistani athletes are powerless to influence national policy toward women. They may even be opposed to such discriminatory policies. That’s why I believe that world-class athletes from these countries should be allowed to compete under the Olympic flag. In fact, they should be welcomed.
(This brings us to the case of Kirsty Coventry, one of the best female swimmers in the world, who will not be allowed to compete at next year’s Commonwealth Games because her nationality is Zimbabwean. Part II of this article will consider Kirsty’s situation).