The Olympics have always been political: A timeline
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that Canada will align with its allies and boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, joining the U.K.,U.S., Australia and Lithuania in their recent decisions to withhold diplomats over alleged human rights abuses by China.
The move puts the discussion of politics’ place in sport back in the spotlight.
Despite the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) many regulations on political expression and the neutrality of the Games, the Olympics have a long history of being an arena for major politically, socially and culturally relevant moments.
Describing the Games as something that “exists separately from politics” in a recent publication of the IOC Olympic Charter, the IOC said that a “fundamental principle” at the Games is that sport is neutral.
And Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states “no kind of demonstration, political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” A similar rule is in place for Paralympic athletes.
However, throughout history the Games have served as a major platform for historical events, social commentary and protest.
Here is a brief timeline of some of those events:
BERLIN 1936: NAZI OLYMPICS
When the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany in 1933, proposed boycotts of the Games were called in many countries as Berlin had been voted to host the 1936 Olympics in 1931. Forty-nine countries attended, but it was American sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens, and his four gold medals, that many remember as a distinct rebuttal to the Nazi’s Aryan-superiority propaganda.
TOKYO 1940: GAMES CANCELLED
The Games have been cancelled due to world events several times. Once during the First World War, and twice during the Second World War, including the 1940 Olympics that were called off after host-city Tokyo forfeited its position when Japan invaded China a few years prior.
LONDON 1948: GERMANY AND JAPAN BANNED
The first Olympics hosted in London after the Second World War saw both Germany and Japan banned from participation. The Soviet Union was invited but declined to send a team.
MEXICO CITY 1968: TLATELOLCO MASSACRE AND AMERICAN PROTEST
The Summer Olympics in 1968 was the stage for both protest and state violence. Ten days prior to the opening ceremonies, Mexican students staged a protest of the government’s use of funds for the Games rather than social programs, converging in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas.
The Mexican Army surrounded the protesters and opened fire, killing more than 200 and injuring more than 1,000 in an event that would be referred to as the Tlatelelco massacre.
American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, while on the podium for the men’s 200-metre medal ceremony, both raised a fist while wearing black gloves in protest of the U.S.’s treatment of Black citizens. The image quickly became an iconic moment of the Games, but led to both Smith and Carlos being banned by the IOC and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
MUNICH 1972: MUNICH MASSACRE
On September 5, 1972, eight terrorists affiliated with the Black September organization snuck into the Olympic Village and killed two members of the Israeli Olympic team and took nine others hostage in an attempt to bargain for the release of 200 Palestinian prisoners. After a standoff with German police, all the hostages were killed, five of the eight terrorists were killed by police, and one German officer was killed.
MONTREAL 1976: AFRICAN COUNTRIES BOYCOTT OLYMPICS
Organized by Tanzania, 22 African countries boycotted the 1976 Olympics to protest New Zealand’s rugby team touring South Africa, despite its ban from the Olympics due to its apartheid legislation.
Taiwan also boycotted the games after Canada refused to recognize them or let them compete as the Republic of China.
MOSCOW 1980: COUNTRIES BOYCOTT THE U.S.S.R.
Less than a year after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, 65 countries, including the U.S., Canada, Israel, China and then-West Germany, boycotted the Moscow Summer Games in 1980 and refused to send their athletes.
RIO DE JANIERO 2016: REFUGEE OLYMPIC TEAM
Ten athletes were chosen to compete for the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Summer Olympics, created by the IOC to bring attention to the global refugee crisis. Athletes originally from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo were chosen and trained in a host country.
TOKYO 2020: ATHLETES TAKE A STAND
More than 150 athletes, academics and advocates signed an open letter urging the IOC to amend Rule 50 of the Charter and to refrain from imposing sanctions against athletes that protest at the Olympics.
American shot putter Raven Saunders made an “X” with her arms above her head while on the podium to receive a silver medal, in a move she said was representative of the “intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.” American fencer Race Imboden displayed an “X” on his hand in a nod to Saunders while he received his bronze medal, and American hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised her fist twice in protest after a similar gesture in the 2019 Pan American Games led to her being put on probation by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.