The Olympics are political

August 16, 2008

As the Olympic Games opened in Beijing, world leaders have been issuing entreaties to "put politics aside".

With the controversial Beijing games and the short-term memory loss of the establishment media, you could almost be mistaken for believing that this is the first time politics and the Olympic Games have come into contact.

In fact, the games have always been a vehicle for the prevailing political order and, as a consequence, have been targeted by those struggling for political change.

Since the first modern games, in 1896, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has stamped itself as an elitist men's club built on strongly nationalistic politics.

Dave Zirin, in Welcome to the Terrordome, explores the fascist-leaning IOC through two of its most well-known presidents, Avery Brundage and Juan Antonio Samaranch.

Brundage was IOC president from 1952 for 20 years, despite being a supporter of Hitler and supporting the racist Apartheid governments in South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

In the lead-up to the 1936 Berlin Games, Brundage, as head of the US Olympic Committee, was sent to visit Hitler to investigate claims of human rights' violations.

He returned to the IOC with praise for the "new Germany", saying the rights of Jews and other minorities were "respected". His love of all things to do with Hitler meant that, even as late as 1941, he spoke at the racist America First group's mass rallies at Madison Square Garden, praising the German Reich.

Samaranch, who led the IOC between 1980 and 2001, described himself as "100% Francoist" right up until the Spanish fascist leader's death in 1975. During the Spanish civil war, Samaranch was a fascist youth organiser and professional strike breaker. Samaranch presided over the corporatisation of the games amid accusations of IOC corruption.

There's also the question of the impact of the Olympics on the host city's communities. Only in recent years have the citizens of Montreal managed to pay off the expensive 1976 Olympic infrastructure, which included novelty, but ultimately useless, stadiums and a triangular Olympic village building. In 2004, the Athens games sent the Greek economy into free fall as construction costs blew out.

There's also the push to "clean up" cities in the lead-up to the games. This was most brutally seen in the lead up to the 1968 Mexico Olympics, where students and workers, who were occupying the National University, were massacred.

Today, most games involve the suppression of local laws and even, in some countries, the constitution to round up and hide "undesirables" from public view.

This has prompted movements of the poor, working class, indigenous and other minorities to challenge the "universal" support for the Olympic Games.

In Sydney in 2000, Indigenous people and their supporters challenged the government over funding priorities, reconciliation and injustices against them. The movement against the Vancouver Winter Games in 2010 and the London Summer Games in 2012 are already getting organised.

The Olympics represent the excesses of a system intent on creating a false consensus, and support for, the status quo. Sport under capitalism is also a vehicle for the ruling elite to try and normalise political passivity and reactionary nationalistic ideas, among others.

But throughout the history of sport, and the Olympics, athletes and fans alike have rebelled against attempts to use it to reinforce the status quo.

Some have paid a high price for this resistance.

The black power salute by John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the Mexico games has been recently immortalised in the documentary film Salute and in a statue at San Jose University. Carlos and Smith paid a heavy price for their courageous protest, being expelled from the Olympics.

The huge stage that is created every two years, combined with the politics of our times, make the Olympics political. Pointing out the IOC's corporate interests and highlighting the rights of communities and countries in struggle for their freedom helps expose the false consensus-building politics of the sporting elite.

And, as happened at the 1968 Mexico games, sports stars can help promote the idea that sport is a reflection of broader society, and that real social change comes from standing up against injustices, wherever you are.

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