Patricia Nell Warren

Olympic Games: A Century of Boycotts

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | August 12, 2008 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, Politics
Tags: America, Beijing Olympics, Chinese gays and lesbians, France, human rights abuses, Israel, Olympic boycott

The modern Olympics are not supposed to be "political." But they are political. They are profoundly, pungently, proudly, putridly and pathetically political... and have been for 112 years.

After all, they were the brain-child of a few white upper-class European Christian men during a time when European empires still held much of the non-white non-Christian world as colonies. Through dozens of wars and other turmoils that convulsed the world since 1896, the Olympic movement has survived its growing pains -- today it's more mature and diverse. But the politics, and the festering human-rights issues that drive them, have gotten more complicated with time.

For months now, the world's media have reverberated with talk of boycotts aimed at the Beijing Games. It's not a new idea. The Olympic timeline is a vast tangled skein of boycotts, or threats of boycotts. As history professor John Hoberman points out in a recent issue of Foreign Policy: "Trapped by its grandiose goal of embracing the entire 'human family' at whatever cost, the IOC has repeatedly caved in and awarded the Games to police states bent on staging spectacular festivals that serve only to reinforce their own authority."

Indeed, the Olympics movement has been jarred by boycotts from the very beginning.

1922 -- Women's rights

The first modern Games were held at Athens, Greece, in 1896 -- and women athletes were not welcome. By 1900 they could participate in "ladylike" sports like swimming, archery, etc. But track and field, the most distinguished sport in those days, was barred to them. After two decades of battling IOC femiphobia, a feisty French athlete and organizer named Alice Milliat got fed up in 1922 and led a thousand women track & field athletes to Paris and their own Women's Olympics.

By 1928 Milliat forced the IOC to add a few track & field events for women, and the boycott finally ended. But women's bitter struggle with the IOC over this category of sport lasted long past 1934, when the last Women's Olympics was held. The 1500- meter run wasn't added till 1972 -- the hammer throw not till 2000.

1936 -- One country boycotts Naziism

Berlin's Olympics is a subject from which the U.S. still winces. The IOC awarded the '36 Summer Games to Berlin when Germany was still a republic. But by 1936 the Nazis were in power -- so openly displaying their militarism and racism and anti-Semitism that even some IOC members called for a boycott.

In the end, many opted to ignore the menacing signs. The U.S. decided to participate. Almost every other country followed our lead to Berlin -- except the newly elected Republic of Spain. Instead, Spain planned her own People's Olympics for that summer. Six thousand athletes from 22 countries streamed to Barcelona to compete. Unfortunately at the last minute, the People's Olympics was canceled, owing to an outbreak of fighting between the Republican government and rebel fascist forces. It was the beginning of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War; the war ended with a fascist regime in Spain.

After World War II, the focus of controversy shifted to communism. In 1952, at the Helsinki summer games, the Soviet Union participated in the Olympics for the first time. Satellite communist countries of eastern Europe also began participating. Though it was common knowledge that the Communist world was the scene of massive human-rights violations, there were no Western boycotts at first. The prevailing Cold War philosophy was this: it was more dangerous to keep the Soviets isolated than to have them playing sports with (and ultimately trading with) the West.

1956 -- Boycott over communist repression

In that year, the Melbourne Olympics were boycotted by Spain, Switzerland and The Netherlands as a protest over Soviet repression of the anti-communist uprising in Hungary. Ironically Spain was still run by a fascist regime that had partnered with Hitler and committed its own human-rights violations. But few people seemed to have any issue with Spanish participation in the Games -- nor did they think it ironic that fascist Spain would participate in a human-rights boycott.

As a harbinger of another issue to come -- the Middle East -- Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon boycotted the Melbourne Games to protest the Israeli invasion of Egypt. Few countries expressed any sympathy with this boycott -- a fact that would come home to roost in another Olympiad.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, controversy turned to racism in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world -- especially treatment of athletes of color.

1968 -- Boycott discussed for Mexico City Games

This boycott was urged by the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) -- a new international civil-rights organization whose membership was mostly black but included white athletes like the U.S.'s Steve Prefontaine. The boycott never happened. Instead, members attended the games and planned the most public kind of protest. Black medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium and raised their now-famous gloved fists of "black power." Both men were expelled from the Games for having violated "the Olympic spirit."

1972 and 1976 -- Boycotts over apartheid

Over those four years, African countries threatened to boycott the Mexico City and Montreal summer games over participation by South Africa, Rhodesia and New Zealand (the last country had made a rugby tour to SA). The IOC agreed to ban South Africa and Rhodesia, but refused to ban New Zealand on grounds that rugby was not an Olympic sport. As a result, 22 African countries boycotted Montreal because New Zealand was there.

Also in 1976, the Republic of China (Taiwan) withdrew from the Montreal Games over a recognition dispute with the People's Republic of China. Up until then, the PRC had boycotted the Games because of Taiwan's participation. In 1980, with Taiwan absent, the PRC began sending their team to the Games. Finally in 1984, Taiwan returned to the Games under the name "Chinese Taipei."

Paradoxically, during this tumultuous period, there were huge boycottable issues that never got targeted by that level of action. In 1968, the Mexican government's shocking violence on the eve of its own Summer Games went unboycotted. Ten days before the start of competition, in a public square, 300+ protesting students were mowed down by gunfire from Mexican military and law enforcement. The IOC briefly considered canceling the games -- but the show went on, and participating countries obediently sent their teams.

Likewise in Munich 1972, the kidnapping of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists was not preceded by any immediate boycott rumblings, but the warning sent in 1976 now hit home. The terrorists demanded release of 234 Palestinian political prisoners being held in Israel. The Israeli government refused to negotiate, and the hostages were killed. While this massacre was going on, the Games actually continued.

By 1980, the IOC saw no problem with having the Summer Games in Moscow, in spite of ongoing Soviet human-rights violations. However, in that year, the anti-communist variety of boycottism really boiled over.

1980 -- U.S. boycotts Moscow Games

When the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter threatened a U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games if the USSR didn't immediately withdraw their troops. When the Soviets refused to comply, the U.S. boycott led a parade of 65 countries out of the Games. It was the biggest boycott in Olympic history, and left only a straggling 81 countries competing. Moscow was holding the bag on a sizable debt, with less than the expected income from tourism.

1984 -- USSR boycotts Los Angeles Games

This was a tit-for-tat reprisal for 1980. Fourteen of the USSR's eastern-bloc allies (except Romania) stayed home with the Soviets, and held their own Friendship Games there. The U.S. had to lobby like mad, convincing its own allies to attend, and succeeded -- the L.A. Games were the most financially successful in Olympic history.

Last but not least -- through the 1990s, there was a return to women's rights issues. Among them, athletes were growing disgusted with the IOC's gender-screening for all Olympic women, a requirement that had started in 1966. Inevitably, after decades of muffled protest, even athletes' lawsuits against the IOC, tensions came to a head.

1999 -- Threatened boycott over gender testing

That year, just one year before the Sydney Summer Games, an international delegation of athletes confronted the IOC. They threatened to not only boycott but also to actually disrupt the procedures of gender screening for all the thousands of women competing in Sydney. The athletes were backed up by several powerful sports federations, including FIFA and IAAF, who no longer supported the screening. Things got so tense that the IOC was concerned that there would be violence if they attempted to enforce testing at Sydney. It was also sinking into the IOC's head that the gender screening had little or no scientific justification.

So the IOC caved in, and suspended testing. They agreed that it would only be done in individual cases where there was a question.

Did these boycotts achieve anything? Today we could say they probably helped a little -- belatedly, and only after many decades and large loss of life of many millions of victims. To name just a few: Nazi Germany is history. So is the USSR and fascist Spain. South Africa has ended apartheid. On a less lethal level, women athletes, and athletes of color, have an improved status in sport.

Yet recently the story repeated itself: calls for boycotts of the Beijing Games, in protest of China's poor human-rights record. President and Mrs. Bush ignored the calls and went to Beijing. After all, you can't boycott a big trading partner who also happens to hold a big share of your public debt.

As I write this, the Games are on, but campaigns for Chinese goods to be boycotted are being rolled out. All the uproar has a horrible feeling of deja vu about it. Professor Hoberman points out, "What separates the Beijing Games from earlier the sheer clout of China within the geopolitical system. The Nazi regime of 1936 had nothing comparable to China's global reach today, and the Soviet economy in 1980 was a dead man walking." Will China be the great exception in modern history, and really change?

Some Americans feel that they condone China's abuses by even watching the Beijing Games on TV. Yet our complicity goes deeper than that; it includes sponsorship corporations, advertisers, broadcast media, elected officials, the travel business, etc. etc. Tax dollars go to support our Olympics program. Indeed, the Beijing Olympics touches every American's daily life in some way, whether they watch it on TV or not.

But the biggest paradox is this: out of the deep dreck of inhumanity around the Games, amazing individual athletes always rose to the top and shone in all their humanity. Their talent and achievement could in no way be dragged down by boycottable actions of their home governments. Big stars like Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, Czech marathoner Emil Zatopek, along with the host of medalists whose names most people don't remember. Our own lesbian Martina Navratilova (women's tennis doubles, 2004) and gay male Ondrej Nepela (gold medal in men's figure skating 1972) came out of Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. The same can be said about China and today, as China starts to dominate in some sports -- pairs figure skating, for example, with Zhang & Zhang, and Shen & Zhao, whose artistry is hugely popular with skating fans. It is the athletes themselves who ensure that the Olympic movement somehow survives in spite of its own dark side.

Indeed, the LGBT athletes who are in Beijing right now, both out and closeted, can't resist going after the big personal challenge -- even though they know that their competitors might be funded by some government that persecutes gays.

Paradoxically, many democratic countries who protested abuses by the old regimes don't exactly have clean hands of their own. There is France's record in Algeria, Britain's record in Ireland, Australia's record on First Peoples. Last but not least, the United States has its own surging record of human-rights violations, the list of which is too long to mention here. Americans who are outraged over China's record ought to be even more outraged over our own record. If we expect China to change, we had better set an example.

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You missed one. 1996, Atlanta Summer Olympics. "Olympics Out of Cobb." You can read the story at:

This was not a boycott on the Olympic Committee directly, but it was a big issue in 1996, AND it was an LGBT issue to boot.

"What separates the Beijing Games from earlier the sheer clout of China within the geopolitical system."

Absolutely. China has money invested in the US stock market, as well as in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. With all of the turmoil in the US housing industry, and the fact that China has also invested heavily in the US dollar, it is highly unlikely that the US will do anything to anger the Chinese.

Last but not least, the United States has its own surging record of human-rights violations, the list of which is too long to mention here. Americans who are outraged over China's record ought to be even more outraged over our own record. If we expect China to change, we had better set an example.

Thanks for saying that, Patricia. One of the areas that really grinds my gears is the criticism of China's One Child Policy. The same people who criticize China for controlling population growth are the same people who criticize China for it's pollution problems. But what is the government supposed to do? Just let people have "reproductive freedom" at the expense of the environment? It's a paradox, to be sure. But I get really irritated by all of the complaints that get thrown in China's direction without an honest look at all sides of the issue, including the US's own human rights record. I mean, hello . . . we don't exactly have unfettered access to reproductive rights here, either. It's a question of degree, of course. But still . . . stones in glass houses . . .

Yes, the 1994 threatened boycott deserves mention, though it was local in nature, not one of the big international flurries around who would or wouldn't compete in the Games.

Ultraconservative Cobb County was to be the site of preliminary volleyball competition for the Atlanta Games. LGBT activists had a major issue with an anti-gay resolution that the county had passed, so they pressured Olympic organizers by threatening a boycott if the volleyball venue wasn't moved somewhere else. The Cobb County commissioners were absolutely with feet in biblical concrete on the resolution issue, so the Atlanta Games moved the volleyball venue. Chalk up one for us.

I'd appreciate tips about any other boycotts. And by the way, none of the standard sources on Olympic boycotts mention the one around women in the 1920s...or the threatened one over gender testing in 1999.

I live in Cobb County, and let me tell you it is nothing like it was back then. The County Commissioners have long since dropped the anti gay resolution. I know of a lot of LGBT people who live here now, and we even have one of only 3 LGBT clubs outside of the I-285 Perimeter. I also know those activists who pull this great boycott off and they are still considered heroes in our community.

I always felt that the 1980 Moscow Olympic boycott was one of the contributing factors to Jimmy Carter's defeat.

We should have gone to Moscow and kicked their behinds on their home turf. We would have probably finished third in the medal count behind them and the steroid chomping East Germans again, but we'll never know.

All that boycott hurt were the athletes who'd prepared a lifetime for that moment.

Monica, I agree 110 percent about Moscow.

And if we would have boycotted 1936, we would have missed out on Jesse Owens' trascendent performance.

Statements like that can do more than a boycott.

I really believe that a permanent home ought to be found for the Olympics, preferrably in a neutral country.

The bribes and chicanery involved in site selection were exposed with the Affaire Salt Lake City and that is just the one that was discovered.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 13, 2008 12:33 AM

If I were an American leader like George Bush or Barak Obama I'd be a little nervous about making too many heavy handed complaints about the Chinese Stalinist's human rights abuses. They're real enough but the US Government is the last institution in the world that has a right to question them. That's best left to the civil liberties, antiwar and labor groups who have the right to criticize the Stalinists for putting down the right of unions, national minorities, women and GLBT folk. Bush, McCain and Obama don’t.

The Chinese are certainly not the world worst offender when it comes to human rights abuses. Nor is Russia although it's still gripped by Stalinist norms.

The nation with the worst record by far is the United States. It conducts illegal and sometimes genocidal invasions of countries like Vietnam, [Iraq], Panama, [Afghanistan] and [etc]. It defies the Geneva Conventions. It runs concentration camps like [Guantanamo]. Internally it has what is undoubtedly the most racist political and judicial system in the world. Under Democrats and Republicans the [US leads the way] in imprisoning working people with a hugely disproportionate number coming from national minorities. As Russell Means says, the Federal Pens are the largest Res in the country.

US military and security forces routinely kidnap foreign nationals and farm them out to regimes that torture and murder them. The US Army has a facility at Ft. Benning, GA that houses the [Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation]. That's a very pretty name for a school whose curricula includes assassination, torture and the identification of victims. Do you remember the government sponsored mass murders of students, unionists and socialists that rocked Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and other countries in the final quarter of the last century? Many of the right wing military thugs who did that were trained at Ft. Benning.

The very same US government that wants the Chinese to take a care for human rights just apologized to the NY times and the Washington post for illegally examining the phone records of their reporters. It's the same government, led by a Democratic Congress and a Republican White House which recently gutted the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution with FISA.

They spy on us with impunity. If you're rich like the Times or the Post you may get an apology. But most of us don't even qualify for a little dab of KY when they 'examine' us.

McCain is a rancid right-winger with the Rev. Pat Robertson attached at the hip. Obama is Bill Clinton (DOMA, DADT, NAFTA) in drag with the Rev. Donnie McClurkin attached at the hip.

This is one of the best articles on the Olympics that I've read in this month's Olympic fever.

Perdue, last time I checked Donnie McClurkin wasn't competing in the Beijing games, so stop lusting after him and put down the Republican Red Hateraid you've had for Sen. Obama since last year.

One of the reasons Beijing got the 2008 Games was because they lost the 2000 Games to Sydney because two IOC members were 'persuaded' to change their votes.

The reason people are willing to engage in chicanery to get them is because of the post-Olympic benefits. The Olympics is three weeks of free advertising for your city/country that you simply can't buy.

In the wake of the Games, several corporations inquired about moving their corporate headquarters to the city or opening branch offices there.

International tourism to Atlanta spiked up 20% in the wake of the 1996 Games. We in Houston lost the Australian consulate we'd had for decades to Atlanta in 1997.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 13, 2008 1:26 AM

Roberts, the day I do what a pro-war, flag waving supporter of a candidate who'll continue the slaugter of civilians in Iraq wants is a day that will never dawn.

Unlike some, I don't hate rightwingers like Obama and yourself, but I do disagree, and will continue to disagree.

Why would you imagine that I lust after a Obama's the one in bed with that pathetic christist sellout Donnie McClurkin, not me. And they're not strange bedfewllows, they both have the same bigoted opinion about same sex marraige. They're against it.

Patricia, thanks for this great article -- what it makes me think is that we need a movement to end the Olympics, which always pave the way for gentrification and other urban removal scams. Although Maura's idea is an interesting one...

Robert Ganshorn | August 13, 2008 4:37 AM

Round the Red Robin Dozey Doe!

Attached at the hip again don't you know!

Patricia, what I miss was the supposed amateur standing of athletes. These days there seem to be no amateur standings to maintain.

The problem with getting rid of the Olympics is that you don't get rid of the problems they reflect. There still remains an international infrastructure of sport that is hugely commercialized and political, and has an economic impact. The location of World Cups and world championships, especially in soccer and rugby, are intensely fought over by cities and countries. And we have to look at the economic and social impact of no-borders sports betting, which is now possible through the Internet. I can sit in my living room in L.A. and bet on a horse in the Irish Derby or the Dubai Cup.

I'm in favor of more intensified public-citizen and athlete activism to keep the Olympics more honest and on track with their mission statement. And I realize that this is easy to say, when an athlete can risk four years of hard work by speaking out at the wrong moment. Indeed, countries have leveraged that threat in order to keep them their athletes silenced about political issues. I imagine that this is why we haven't heard any squawks -- yet --about the escalation of gender testing in Beijing.

So, when is rollerball going to be in the Olympics?

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 13, 2008 2:42 PM

Obama’s reasons for gleefully hopping into bed with bigots like Mary Mary and the most very Reverend (and formerly gay) Donnie McKulkin are the same reasons that the DNC is run by a bigoted ordained pentecostal minister. Pandering pays and the latest polls show just how well. The Barna Group poll show that Obama substantially leads McCain among christiers, 43% to 34%. "It is unusual to see such significant movement within the core segments of the Christian community," Barna explained. It’s an incredible turnaround from 2000 and 2004 and it means that Obama pandering strategy is working. But also means that he can’t afford to give to leave the field of bigots to McCain. That in turn explains Obama’s decision to omit all references to the GLBT communities from his platform.
Same old, same old. Bill Clinton did exactly the same in ’96 when he used donated campaign funds to pay for ads on southern superstitious (that’s what religion is called when it’s all dressed up and trying to be respectable) bigoted radio stations like those run by Robertson and Falwell. Obama’s doing it now for the same reason, to pander to bigots.

When Bush, McCain and Obama, three peas in a pod, criticize the Chinese Stalinists they’re being total hypocrites. But what else would you expect from pols who support FISA, the Paytriot Act and who’s nation is the ‘Land of the Imprisoned’. Actually, the Olympics should be boycotted if they’re held in the US. That would have the added value of saving lives – there are just way too many anti-abortion, anti same sex marriage superstitious christist bombers lurking out there. And if those polls are right the odds are that some of them have switched parties.