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Six historical Olympics used as political forum

Torch Relay in Seoul © Republic of Korea / Flickr.

Olympic games are not only sport. It is also, for some countries or athletes, the good occasion to bring political revendications in the international arena.

Torch Relay in Seoul © Republic of Korea / Flickr.

Korean unification

It was one of the most expected moments of the opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, Friday, February 9.

Won Yun Jong, a bobsledder from the South, and North Korea’s Hwang Chung Gum, who will play for the joint Korea women’s ice hockey team, leading out the contingent at the Olympic Stadium.

They were welcomed by supporters joined together under the same blue-and-white unification flag.

Supporters from North and South Korea brandishing the blue-and-white Korean unification flag at the opening ceremony. 
©Republic of Korea/Flickr

The two countries are split since 1945 and South Korea is still technically at war with the North after the 1950-53 Korean War which ended in a truce. Their relationship seems now appeased for the “Peace Olympics”.

It is not the first time that political games enter Olympic competitions.

Nazi propaganda

German capital city won the bid to host the Games on April 1931 at the 29th International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session in Barcelona — two years before the Nazis came to power.

Some voices had been raised to ask the suspension of Berlin Games while the first antisemitic measures were taken in Germany. The United States refused to boycott  the event and most of the european countries participated.

Three years after their election, Nazis used the hosting of the Summer Olympics as the way to showcase the German power before the eyes of the whole world.

Berlin, Olympiade, IOK, NOK, Hitler ©Deutsches Bundesarchiv

During the Opening Ceremony, 100.000 arms raised to make a Nazi salute representing the success of Hitler’s propaganda.

The “Fhurer”’s plans were cut short by Jesse Owens, an African-American athlete who won four gold medals including 100 and 200 metres sprint against the German Lutz Long.

Jesse Owens at start of record breaking 200 meter race during the Olympic games 1936 in Berlin. © Library of Congress


On December 1956, Australia hosted Summer Olympics and arbitrate in the same time a geopolitic settling of accounts.

A water polo match between Hungary and the USSR echoed the Hungarian Revolution against Soviet-imposed policies which occurred the previous months.

In Melbourne’s swimming-pool, the match turned into brawl — even the public joined the fight – forcing authorities to take action.

Ervin Zádor injured by the fight between Hungarian and Soviets water polo players. © Public Domain

This event has been then coined the “Blood in the Water match” after Hungarian player Ervin Zádor emerged during the last two minutes with blood pouring from above his eye after being punched by Soviet player Valentin Prokopov.

Hungary defeated the USSR 4–0.

Fist in the air

October, 17, 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos are gold and bronze medallists in 200 meters sprint. On the podium, in front of the cameras from all around the world, when the American national anthem shrills, the two athletes bring their heads down and raise their black-gloved fists up.

A movement that opposes African-American conditions in the United States.

In Mexico, Tommie Smith (centre) and John Carlos (right) disclose the segregation in USA. © Public Domain

The controversy is immediate. The next morning, they are banned of the Olympic Village by the IOC chairman, the American Avery Brundage, who refused that a sportive competition be used as a political platform.

Their careers are then broken. Tommie Smith and John Carlos will be barred from competition for life. Ignored and left out by Washington for decades, they are finally honored and invited in the White House by the former president Barack Obama in 2016.

“Munich Massacre”

Twenty-seven years after the collapse of Naziregime, Germany is hosting Summer Olympics again. No propaganda but another drama played on an Israeli-Palestinian background.

September, 5, 1972, 8 members of “Black September” Palestinian terrorist organisation broke into the Olympic Village, killed 2 Israeli athletes and took 9 others hostage.

The German authorities planned to ambush them there, but underestimated the numbers of their opposition and were thus undermanned — the subsequent standoff lasted for almost 18 hours. During a botched rescue attempt, all of the Israeli hostages were killed. The five remaining hostages were then machine-gunned to death. All but three of the terrorists were killed as well.

Coffins of ten Israeli athletes murdered by Arab terrorists are lined up aboard command cars during a memorial ceremony. © Government Press Office (Israel)

The Olympic events were suspended several hours after the initial attack, but once the incident was concluded, Avery Brundage, the International Olympic Committee president, declared “the Games must go on”.

Cold War

In 1980, USA boycotted Moscow Summer Olympics to oppose Soviet intervention in Afghanistan the previous year.

The goal of this boycott and of the whole Cold War is to isolate USSR. The US initiative is followed by dozens of Allied — totally, 65 countries declined the Soviet invitation (West Germany, Canada, Japan…).

The Opening Ceremony of Moscow Olympics, boycotted by 65 countries. © Derzsi Elekes Andor / Creative Commons.

In 1984, it is United Sates’ turn to host Olympics in Los Angeles. The response is logical: Soviet bloc nations, except Romania, decided to boycott the competition. Fourteen countries, among them Cuba, East Germany and North Korea, won’t be represented.

The Opening Ceremony of 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles Coliseum. © Public Domain.

Finally, the 1984 boycott hide an important information for the future: China didn’t join the soviet initiative and even decide to make its come-back in Los Angeles Games whereas Chinese didn’t compete in Olympics since 1952.

The first sign of a detachment between the two communists giants.

Wanda R. Jewell stands with gold medalist Wu Xiauxuan of China and silver medalist Ulrike Holme from West Germany. ©Ken Hackman, U.S. Air Force
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