The rules are clear: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
So states the International Olympic Committee’s official charter. But the IOC has got to be kidding itself if it thinks that the Games are ever, well, just games.
As the Winter Olympics continue in Sochi, Russia’s laws against “homosexual propaganda” have made the host the target of indefatigable protests, be it in the designated protest zone, in other countries or on the web. They may be some of the most colourful demonstrations we’ve seen so far — but they’re far from the only ones.
Here are some of the most memorable times when politics has taken over the podium.
1) 1906: Peter O’Connor and the Irish flag
Long jumper Peter O’Connor was born in Wicklow, in what was then the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. But he wanted to represent only one country: an independent Ireland. Having refused to compete for the UK in the 1900 Paris Olympics, he agreed to go to the 1906 intermediate Games in Athens, where he and his two fellow Irish athletes pointedly wore green to distinguish themselves from their British teammates. The jump that would have won him the gold medal was declared a foul — due to bias from the English and American judges, he would claim — and he eventually took silver. As he received his medal, the Union Jack was raised. O’Connor wanted none of it. With the help of Irish athlete Conor Leahy, who stood guard, he shimmied up the flag pole and waved the green flag of Irelandinstead. Later in the competition, when O’Connor and Leahy won gold and silver respectively in the triple jump, O’Connor asked officials to raise two Irish flags for them; when they refused, he instead paraded round the stadium with one in hand. Those would be O’Connor’s last Games. At the 1908 Olympics in London, all but a few Irish athletes refused to attend in protest at the United Kingdom’s refusal to grant Ireland its independence.
2) 1936: The protests that weren’t
If ever an Olympics deserved to be protested, it was the 1936 Games in Berlin. Führer Adolf Hitler planned to use the event to showcase the capabilities of the fascist German state and the supposed superiority of its Aryan athletes. Yet despite loud calls for a boycott, not a single invited country declined to take part on moral grounds (though Jewish athletes from various countries refused to attend). Once in Germany, several athletes reported receiving messages from people concerned about the Nazis’ increasing brutality; as far as we know, those witness accounts, warnings and pleas for help went largely ignored. One such letter was addressed to the undisputed star of the Berlin Olympics, US four-time gold medal winner Jesse Owens. The author, one J.M. Loraine of Britain, urged Owens to use the opportunity to mount a protest from the podium: refuse to accept his medals from any member of the Nazi party in light of their persecution of non-whites, Jews and other so-called undesirables. “If you make this fine and honourable gesture with the eyes of all the world upon you, you will earn the admiration and gratitude of every liberty-loving man and woman and your words will reverberate around the world,” Loraine wrote. Sadly for him and for history, Owens never got to read his words; the Gestapo, which was secretly monitoring all mail sent to non-white medallists, intercepted the letter before it reached its addressee. We will never know what Owens — who was no stranger to discrimination in the segregated United States — would have made of its contents.
3) 1964: South Africa is uninvited
South Africa’s apartheid government had been warned. All of its sport was segregated; no black athlete could compete against a white athlete and only white athletes were picked for the national Olympic team. When the government announced that South Africa’s white Olympians represented only white South Africans and that any black athletes would have to compete separately, the International Olympics Committee could no longer ignore the flagrant disregard of its own charter. It issued an ultimatum: South Africa had until August 1964 to make a public declaration renouncing all racial discrimination in sport, or face a ban on competing in the Tokyo Summer Games. In June, South Africa announced that seven non-white athletes, out of a total of 62, had been chosen to go to Japan. It wasn’t enough. The South African Amateur Athletic Union objected to the IOC’s ultimatum, which it claimed — with some gall, it must be said, for a country that separated athletes according to its own racist policies — brought politics unduly into sport. The authorities refused to comply and on August 18, two days after the deadline expired, South Africa was officially excluded from the Olympics. The ban was strenuously maintained for the next 28 years, thanks notably to other African countries and their threat to boycott en masse at any sign of wavering (28 of them went through with it in 1976, when New Zealand was allowed to compete at the Montreal Games despite its rugby team having toured South Africa). It would not be until the 1992 Games in Barcelona, when apartheid was irrevocably on the way to dismantlement, that any athlete would once again represent South Africa at the Olympics.
4) 1968: Student power, freedom power, black power
It’s little wonder that the 1968 Mexico Olympics was one of the most tumultuous ever held. The world was in turmoil: the Vietnam War staggered on, Martin Luther King and then Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated, race riots wrenched the US, outraged students in Paris had inspired anti-government street protests around the world, and the Soviet Union had crushed Czechoslovakia’s bid for freedom. That upheaval couldn’t be swept aside when the world came to Mexico City to play sports. Mexican students had been demanding democracy all that summer. The government warned protesters that any disruption of the country’s first ever Olympics would not be tolerated. When, some 10 days before the opening ceremony, hundreds of students assembled in one of the capital’s central squares, government troops opened fire. It was a massacre. As many as 300 demonstrators were killed; more than 1,000 were injured.
The Games started regardless — but politics couldn’t be kept out of the stadium, either. Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska, a nationalist who had been in hiding ever since Soviet tanks rolled into her country to put down the Prague Spring, risked her liberty by showing up to compete. (Wanted by the Soviets, she had taken refuge in the mountains where she kept in competition form by practicing her floor routine in fields and swinging on tree branches instead of the parallel bars.) When Caslavska tied with a Soviet gymnast for the gold, she pointedly bowed her head while the Soviet national anthem was played. Her defiance would cost Caslavska her career.
But the podium would see its most memorable moment — and arguably the most memorable Olympic protest of all time — thanks to two American athletes. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medallists in the 200 meters, gave a silent, symbolic black power salute while ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ played. They wore no shoes, to mark black poverty; Smith wore a black scarf, for black pride; Carlos wore a string of beads, for all those who were lynched; they wore one black glove each, on opposite hands, because Carlos had forgotten his pair. The reaction from Olympics officials was immediate, and unbending: the two athletes had violated the Olympic charter and were to be suspended from Team USA, expelled from the Olympic village and sent home. (Silver medallist Peter Norman, the white Australian who tacitly supported the Americans’ protest as he shared the podium with them — he even came up with the idea to share the gloves — was not formally punished but faced decades of ostracism, and would never win another title.) The next day, three other African-American sprinters would wear black berets as they collected their medals to show solidarity for their banished teammates. More than 40 years later, Carlos has said he doesn’t regret his actions for a moment: “Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations they had. God told the angels that day, ‘Take a step back – I’m gonna have to do this myself.’”
5) 1972: The darkest Games
Politics took over the 1972 Munich Olympics in the most horrifying possible way. It wasn’t a protest, it was terrorism: armed members of Black September, a faction battling for Palestinian independence, broke into the Israeli team’s accommodation, killed two people, took nine hostage and demanded the release of more than 200 prisoners. Negotiations failed, rescue attempts failed, and 24 hours later, all the captives were dead. For the first time in history, the IOC suspended the Olympics; but incredibly, despite misgivings from the German organizers, 34 hours later the Games went on. Understandably, many athletes opted to withdraw.
6) 1980 and 1984: The Cold War boycotts
In a Cold War, it’s not the taking part that counts — it’s the not taking part. When the IOC, decided in its infinite wisdom, to award consecutive Games first to the Soviet Union and then to the US, tit-for-tat sabotage was almost inevitable. The US persuaded more than 60 countries to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics, citing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan one year earlier. That was like a red flag to, er, a communist. Sure enough, the Soviets called an Eastern Bloc boycott ahead of the 1984 Los Angeles Games. While the US saw the move as simple revenge, Soviet officials put it down to the safety of its athletes, which it said was in danger from “extremist organizations” determined to attack the USSR. “It is known that from the very first days of preparations for the present Olympics, the American administration has set course at using the Games for its political aims,” the official announcement stated. “Chauvinistic statements and an anti-Soviet hysteria are being whipped up in the country.” A total of 16 countries sat the LA Games out. Incidentally, two countries proved that they were equal-opportunity boycotters: Albania and Iran, which refused to attend in either ’80 or ’84.
7) 2008: China and the light that almost went out
It’s honestly hard to pick just one protest out of the scores that took place in the run-up to Beijing 2008. Should we mention the controversy over the use of migrant labor? Or the criticism of the Chinese government’s support for the Sudanese regime in Darfur? What about the Chinese activists arrested for drawing attention to forced evictions? Or the decision by the designer of the showpiece stadium to boycott in protest against autocracy? All these went into making the Beijing Games some of the most contentious to date, but for innovation alone we tip our hats to the protesters who chose to target a relatively overlooked part of the Olympic ritual: the torch relay. Demonstrators lined the route in several cities as the torch made its worldwide tour, they demanded a free Tibet, the release of Tibetan prisoners of conscience and better human rights in general. The disruption was such that the relay had to be repeatedly cut short; in a few cases, officials were forced briefly to extinguish the torch. The Chinese government retorted that such “despicable activities tarnish the lofty Olympic spirit” — which is pretty much the go-to defense for any Olympic host who finds an unwelcome spotlight on its less-than-lofty dealings. Counter-demonstrations in support of Beijing, as well as a ruthlessly efficient Summer Olympics, ensued.
8) 2016: The Rio riots?
The world got a preview of what to expect when the Summer Olympics go to Brazil in June and July last year. Tens of thousands of demonstrators flooded city streets during Brazil’swinter of discontent, which was fuelled in part by public outrage at the vast sums spent on hosting the soccer Confederations Cup, the World Cup and the Olympics, all within three years. Will their anger have dissipated by the time 2016 rolls around? Not unless the organizers go on the hard sell, the IOC acknowledged this month. “There is a good story to tell, but we need Rio and Rio 2016 needs to tell it to the people to maintain and even improve the support of the games by the population,” says IOC President Thomas Bach. If that doesn't work, the Brazilian security forces can always just continue spying on suspected troublemakers.