The Olympics are a sporting and social phenomenon without parallel. The Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Olympics was watched by close to 1 billion people.
Viewers for individual events can be remarkable. The website Sporting Intelligence said 184 million people watched a live women’s volleyball match between China and Cuba at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. A further 450 million people watched part of it.
The huge public interest in the Olympics means that what may seem to be ordinary events can have global ramifications. It also makes the Olympics of intense interest to political leaders and the world’s biggest corporations.
Officially, the Olympics are non-political. Chapter 5, rule 50 of the Olympic charter says: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in the Olympic areas.”
But anyone with even a slight interest in the Olympics knows that “political, religious or racial propaganda” is more than acceptable if it suits the interests of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The most blatant example was the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Held under Nazi rule, the games were an attempt to show off white Aryan superiority and normalise Nazi politics in front of the world.
At first, the Nazis wanted to ban all Jews and Blacks from competing. But faced with a boycott, they relented — although they did not allow any Jewish Germans to compete. Also, all Romani people in Germany were arrested before the Olympics and held in concentration camps.
Some say the 1936 games were an aberration, but the reality is that the far right has had ties with the IOC for most of its history. Top US Olympic official Avery Brundage, who campaigned strongly against a boycott of the 1936 Olympics, was elected head of the International Olympics Committee in 1952.
In a 1982 journal article, The University of Pennsylvania’s Carolyn Martin said Brundage's politics were based on “the proposition that Communism was an evil before which all other evils were insignificant”. Martin said Brundage treated his role in the Olympics “as a kind of international mission for spreading democratic values in the continuing ideological battle between Communism and the American way of life”.
Brundage opposed all calls to ban Rhodesia and South Africa from the Olympics due to their apartheid polices. He said he accepted the South African government’s argument that there were only whites on their team because the black athletes were just not good enough.
Eight years after Brundage retired, Spanish fascist Juan Antonio Samaranch took over as head of the IOC in 1980. Samaranch’s ties to fascism were not cryptic: he served Spain’s Franco dictatorship as the minister for sports.
Samaranch was very different to Brundage in one respect. Samaranch led the drive to commercialise the Olympics. Up until 1972, there was very little business involvement in the games. Samaranch pushed for global multinationals to be involved and gave extraordinary rights to these companies. Now big companies can dictate games rules to maximise their commercial advantage.
Far-right political forces and multinational corporations are attracted to the Olympics because of its popularity and seek to use it for their own ends. But it is important to recognise that the Olympics’ enduring popularity does not stem from these factors.
Overwhelmingly, people are attracted to the Olympics to watch the athletic performances, which showcase feats of human ingenuity, creativeness, endurance and skill. Its vast popularity reflects that it is a truly international event. Two hundred and four nations will compete in the 2012 games, including nations such as Palestine.
This means that the Olympics often reflect the current state of the world, but many acts within them can amplify political struggles that are trying to change the world.
Smith and Carlos
The most famous political act at an Olympics was the black power salute given by African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium as they accepted their medals at Mexico City in 1968. Their act was a protest against systematic discrimination of black people in the United States and an expression of support for the black power movement.
Carlos wore a necklace of beads for those who had been lynched and wore his tracksuit unzipped to show solidarity with all blue-collar workers. Both were barefoot to represent the poverty in the United States.
The act was profound in its symbolism and its impact was electric — not just for black Americans but oppressed people throughout the world.
The IOC led a furious backlash against the two athletes. Brundage immediately expelled Smith and Carlos from the games. One US journalist said Smith and Carlos were “a pair of black skinned storm troopers”.
Legendary black athlete Jesse Owens said: “The black fist is a meaningless symbol. When you open it, you have nothing but fingers — weak, empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside. There’s where the power lies.”
Smith and Carlos faced death threats and financial ruin because of their stance.
Forty-four years later, their protest has been transformed, even in mainstream discussion, into an act of bravery. As US sports journalist Dave Zirin has pointed out: “ESPN proclaimed bluntly upon giving Smith and Carlos their Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2008, ‘They were right’.”
By wearing a T-shirt displaying the Aboriginal flag before his debut Olympic boxing bout, Australian boxer Damien Hooper showed that political stances at the Olympics are not confined to the past.
Hooper faced sanctions from Olympic authorities for wearing the T-shirt. He said he was not trying to make a political statement, telling the media: “I'm Aboriginal, representing my culture, not only my culture not only my country but all my people as well…that’s what I wanted to do and I’m happy I did it.”
But any assertion of Aboriginal pride is a political act. As Canadian Aboriginal skier Shirley Firth-Larsson pointed out: “Anywhere we show our face, it’s political.”
The IOC said Hooper’s T-shirt contravened Rule 5 and hinted at sanctions. Australian team media director Mike Tancred said: “We will talk to Damien and counsel him against doing it again.” The Fairfax press in Australia referred to the act as a "stunt".
Hooper avoided sanction after Australia’s chef de mission Nick Green said Hooper had apologised and promised not to do it again, presumably under threat of expulsion from the competition.
Hooper has not publicly distanced himself from his actions and there has been wide public support for his stance, particularly from Aboriginal people. His Facebook wall was flooded with messages of support, but also disgust at the official IOC response.
Some supporters have pointed out that Australia has three official flags, one of which is the Aboriginal flag, so it did not breach any rules. Others spoke of the dilemma Aboriginal people face at having to compete under a flag that does not represent them, but represents their own dispossession.
Aboriginal boxer Anthony Mundine asked: “How can we be proud as Aboriginal Australians and see the sight of the Union Jack and what that flag has done in the past, the genocide, the rape, and the murder and the stolen children? I can’t stand for that. That’s why I never fly that flag at my fights. I want to fly a flag that represents all of us because now we’re a multicultural Australia.”
Hooper’s act showed up the idea that Australians are all united under one flag. In the context of entrenched discrimination against Aboriginal people in Australia, most recently in the Stronger Futures legislation, an assertion of Aboriginal pride is a political act, because it boldly states an unwillingness to be treated as second-class citizens.
The London Olympics have also given us a glimpse into how the Western elites will react to China’s growing economic and political power. One of the most incredible sporting stories of the games has been the performance of 16-year-old Chinese swimmer, Ye Shiwen. Shiwen broke the world record in the 400 metres individual medley, the last 50 metres of which was quicker than the male winner of the same race.
When Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe broke records at a young age they were hailed as young superstars, whereas Shiwen was widely branded as a drug cheat.
Executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, John Leonard, brazenly called the record “unbelievable” and “disturbing”.
Defending his accusation, Leonard said: “You can’t turn around and call it racism to say the Chinese have a doping history. That is just history. That's fact. Does that make us suspicious? Of course.”
But Leonard’s accusation is based on racist assumptions. He fails to mention that most countries, including Leonard’s United States, have a “doping history”. But that doesn’t give people carte blanche to call all athletes from the US drug cheats.
He also said: “Where someone could out-split one of the fastest male swimmers in the world, and beat the woman ahead of her by three-and-a-half body lengths. All those things, I think, legitimately call that swim into question."
This makes clear that Leonard assumes the only reason Shiwen swam faster than a male champion is drugs and thinks it impossible that a woman could do that through her own ability.
Media commentators have fuelled the accusations against Shiwen, but swimming's world governing body FINA said the accusations had “no factual basis”. It said she had “fulfilled all of the FINA Doping Control obligations, having been tested on four occasions in the last 12 months, including twice before the Chinese Olympic Trials in 2012”.
Just as Smith and Carlos’s acts were vindicated later, it seems certain that this will be true for Hooper. It also seems equally true that the people who wish to smear athletic achievements because of the athlete’s nationality will also end up on the wrong side of history.