At the intersection of sports and politics
By Marilyn Smulders - July 30, 2008
Higher, faster, stronger. Isn’t that what the Olympics are all about? Surely not about choking air pollution, algae blooms, Sudanese oil, ties with Zimbabwe, repression in Tibet and one-party dictatorships?
Sport in general, and the Olympic movement in particular, is frequently seen as a force for good in the world. Among the principles promoted in the Olympic charter are “the establishment of a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity” and the use of sport to educate “in the values of peace, justice, mutual understanding and international friendship.”
With the world’s eye trained on China, the Beijing Olympics promises to be more political than most. But then, adds Dalhousie political scientist David Black, “every single Olympics Games is an intensely political event.”
“What’s interesting for me is that everyone always acts surprised,” says Dr. Black, who developed and teaches the third-year course, Sports and Politics. “People seem struck with this fascinating amnesia. After the games are over, they forget about how profoundly political the games are.”
Even still, talk of boycotts has subsided and the moniker the “Genocide Olympics”—meant to criticize China’s ties with Sudan—never did stick. By now, most of the world leaders—all save Prime Minister Stephen Harper—have RSVP’d for the opening ceremonies.
“The veneer of respectability, of success, will be in place. The venues will be highly praised and the events will go off as planned,” predicts Dr. Black. “But what individual athletes choose to do remains to be seen. What they do with their platform will be really interesting to watch.”
Used as a political weapon, boycotts of the Olympics in the past have had mixed results. In 1980, the United States and its allies boycotted the Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The world turned its attention elsewhere and the Soviets felt the sting. The Kremlin retaliated in 1984, when it and its Eastern European satellite states boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics, but that time, the move backfired. A record 140 countries participated and the floodgates opened to corporate sponsorship. Held at the height of Reaganism in the United States, the games spurred on a patriotic outpouring throughout the United States as fiercely partisan crowds cheered on American athletes including sprinter Carl Lewis and swimmer Greg Louganis.
Also effective was the sports boycott which barred South African athletes from participating in international sports events, including the Olympics, because of their government’s racially separatist policies. Although it took a generation, lasting from 1964 to 1992, the international boycott pressured South Africa to build a more democratic and non-racial system of sports and created unity and joint action among sports bodies throughout the world.
During the last Olympic Games of the Cold War, there was another boycott, but this time only North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ethiopia stayed away from Seoul in 1988.
What is interesting about Seoul in 1988, especially in light of the Olympics in Beijing, is that the Olympics became a spark that sped on the democratization and liberalization of South Korea, says Dr. Black.
Like China, South Korea saw the Olympics as a coming-out party to showcase its “economic miracle” and an opportunity to put the shine on its image internationally. As the Olympics approached, pro-democracy protests broke out across South Korea and middle-class citizens joined with students to oppose the ruling party. Toward the end of 1987, ruthless military leader Major General Chun Doo-hwan was forced to step down after amending the constitution to allow direct presidential elections.
While conditions were already ripe for change, the impending Olympics rushed things along. “You perhaps won’t get the big bang that you did in Seoul, but it will be interesting to see if the Olympics contribute to the ongoing societal transition in China,” says Dr. Black. “China is likely to be affected by the opening up of the country to the world.”