Several years after Sir Dorabji Tata sent a team of athletes to the 1920 Antwerp Olympics at his own expense, he wrote a letter to the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Count Baillet Latour, expressing his motives.
“I hoped that with proper training and food under English trainers and coaches they might do credit to India. This proposal fired the ambitions of the nationalist element in that city to try and send a complete Olympic team,” he wrote.
India was in fact the first colonised Asian nation to take part in the Olympic games and its embrace of the international sporting event was intimately linked to the nationalist forces raging in the country at the time.
“Olympism came to India as part of the processes of globalisation, decades before the term itself became fashionable,” writes sports journalists and authors Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta in their book, ‘Olympics-The India story’ (2012). “But once it was initiated, it was appropriated by and became inseparable from the forces of nationalism to begin with and the centrifugal regional tendencies thereafter.”
Political propaganda was at the core of India’s initiation into the Olympics and this was clearly not a one off case. “Politics in sports is not unique to the Olympics. But the Olympics is the oldest international sporting event on earth. In antiquity, sports, politics and religion came together in Olympics and winning the games was important not just for the ordinary people, but for the rulers and politicians,” says Argentinian sports journalist Luciano Wernicke, who recently authored the book, ‘The most incredible Olympic stories’ published by Niyogi books.
In his book, Wernicke mentions an incident in 67 BCE when the Roman emperor Nero became so obsessed with the Olympic Games that he set out to win the olive crown at any cost. “The tyrant enrolled in the chariot race and bribed his rivals so that as the competition spread they were dropping out,” he writes. Another monarch who participated in the games to demonstrate their aptitude in sports was Phillip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great. He won the horse and chariot races in 356 BCE.
When the French nobleman Pierre de Courburtin resurrected the Olympics in 1896, the idea was to draw upon the greatness and glory of the ancient event. Since then, the Olympics has been the field of political statements of all sorts. From anti-colonial struggles, to Nazi propaganda, the Cold War and the reshaping of the global order with the rise of China, the grand sporting event has seen it all being played on its arena.
In his preparation for the rebirth of the Olympics, Courburtin travelled across Europe and visited the United States more than once to gather allies. “Gathering support for his ‘Olympian Games’, he highlighted the distinctly cosmopolitan character of his enterprise and the idea that sports was taking the place of unhealthy amusements and evil pleasures in the lives of young men,” writes former athlete and author Jules Boykoff in his book, ‘Power games: A political history of the Olympics’.
However, his thoughts about sports and the privileges that came with it were distinctly Eurocentric. “The superior race is fully entitled to deny the lower race certain privileges of civilised life,” he wrote, as cited by Boykoff.
In 1923, when he did press for the admission of African countries to the Olympic Games, his justification was thickly woven in colonial stereotyping. “And perhaps it may appear premature to introduce the principle of sports competitions into a continent that is behind the times and among peoples still without elementary culture,” he wrote adding, “Let us think, however, for a moment, of what is troubling the African soul. Untapped forces—individual laziness and a sort of collective need for action—a thousand resentments, and a thousand jealousies of the white man and yet, at the same time, the wish to imitate him and thus share his privileges.” He proceeded to note that sport might help Africa “calm down”.
“I think the whole Olympics Games are colonial propaganda. It mostly features Western sport and predominantly still run by Western people (mostly men),” Gyozo Molnar, sociologist of sports, tells indianexpress.com in an email interview. Explaining the deep rooted colonial nature of the games, Wernicke notes that for the longest time Canadians, Australians, South Africans and the Irish would participate in the Olympics as British.
At the same time, the Olympics also turned into an ideal platform to showcase resistance against colonialism. Perhaps the earliest and the most notable of such instances of anti-colonial demonstration in the Olympics took place in 1906 by the Irish athletes Peter O’Connor, Con Leahy, John Daly and John McGough. They had made it clear to the Olympics committee that they wished to represent Ireland. However, on landing at Athens, where the games were being held that year, they were disappointed to learn that they had been registered as part of the British delegation. As a mark of protest, in the opening ceremony, the four Irish athletes turned up in bright green blazers teamed up with identical green caps carrying the symbol of a shamrock. “The athletes lagged behind the rest of the British contingent, conspicuously distancing themselves from the pack and ignoring the English AAA’s demand that they feature Union Jacks on their sport coats,” writes Boykoff.
O’Connor, a staunch Irish nationalist, went a step ahead in the medal ceremony. When the Union Jack was hoisted upon the flagpole in honour of his performance, he swiftly went over to the pole and unfurled a large green flag with the words, ‘Erin Go Bragh’ or ‘Ireland Forever’.
A more recent instance of anti-colonial demonstration took place in 2000 when Gold medalist Cathy Freeman displayed the aboriginal flag along with the Australian flag during her victory lap.
The 1936 Berlin games can safely be termed as a watershed moment in the history of the Olympics. No discussion on the interconnections between sports and politics can be complete without referencing this moment when Hitler made a grand athletic spectacle to demonstrate his ideology of Aryan superiority.
He used the Olympics to promote the image of a new, strong and united Germany that was ready to return to the global community following its isolation after the First World War. At the same time, Hitler successfully masked his regime’s policy of targeting Jews and the Roma groups.
The German government under Hitler used sports to promote the myth of the racial superiority of the Aryans. An ‘Aryans only’ policy was instituted across all athletic organisations in Germany, which thereby meant that Jews were not allowed to participate in sports. The only German Jewish athlete allowed to participate was Helene Mayer, that too because she was half Jewish.
Furious about the racist policies in Germany, several countries, including the United States, Great Britain, Sweden, France and the Netherlands, embarked upon a movement to boycott the Berlin Olympics. Debate over whether or not to participate in the games was most intense in the US.
However, Avery Brundage, the then president of the American Olympic Committee opposed the boycott on the grounds that “the Olympic Games belonged to the athletes and not to the politicians.” “Beneath the officially neutral facade which Brundage shared with the IOC, however, lay his feeling that America should applaud the New Germany for halting Communist gains in Western Europe,” writes Professor of Communications, Carolin Marvin her article “Avery Brundage and American participation in the 1936 Olympic Games” (1982).
Eventually though, the boycott movements failed and 49 nations sent their teams to the games, which in retrospect many academics believe, legitimised Hitler’s Nazi propaganda and set the stage for the blatant human rights abuse that was about to take place in Germany. The Nazis on the other hand, eager to promote a clean image, removed all anti-Jewish proganda from the newspapers and posters during the Games.
German superiority was also promoted through symbolic means, for instance, by introducing the ‘torch relay’- a tradition in which the Olympic flame is carried by runners from Greece to the venue of the games through a relay system. As noted by historian David Clay Large in his 2007 book, “the relay quite overtly and ostentatiously posited a symbolic bridge between modern Germany and classical Greece.” Hitler saw in the relay a perfect way to illustrate that classical Greece was the Aryan forerunner of the modern German Reich.
Eventually though, Hitler was not successful in promoting the racial superiority ideology, owing much to Jesse Owens, the American black athlete who won four gold medals.
“Those were influential Games as politicians began to realise the potential of hosting the Games,” says Molnar about the impact that the 1936 Olympics had on the way the games were perceived in years to come. “Amongst other things politicians recognised that hosting the Games drew the attention of a significant part of the world, that is, put the hosting city and nation in the focal point,” he adds.
The Berlin Games also set a precedent for boycott campaigns as we see later in 2008 against China which was the host country that year.
Although a revolutionary Russia had ditched the Olympics as ‘bourgeois’, the Soviet Union decided to end its athletic isolation after the Second World War when it achieved the status of a great power and found a place in the United Nations. The 1952 Helsinki games marked the first appearance of the Soviet Union and for the next four decades, the Olympics turned into a field where the Cold War was played out. “The Games became a platform for the press to assess who was winning the wider war. The “Free World” or the Communists? Capitalism or Socialism?” notes Boykoff.
During this period, the Games were marked by deep politicisation, increased television coverage and heightened public interest in the East-West rivalry. “Medal counts and issues such as which flags and anthems were used became fraught with political ramifications. Governments celebrated wins as nationals achievements and agonised over the national flaws defeats were supposed to have revealed,” writes historian Barbara Keys in her article ‘The early Cold War Olympics, 1952-1960: Political, economic and human rights dimensions’ (2012).
The political rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union entered a whole new level in the 1980 Moscow Games when the United States decided to boycott the event following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.
President Jimmy Carter recruited boxing legend and Olympic gold medalist Muhammad Ali on a mission to Africa in order to garner support for the boycott. Ultimately, 65 nations refused to participate in the Games including Canada, China, West Germany, and much of South America apart from the US. Several American athletes were disappointed at having to sacrifice their dreams to political expediency. Heptathlete Jane Frederick is known to have commented, “whichever way it goes this time, I must accept the inescapable conclusion: I am a pawn.”
Four years later, when the Olympics were held in Los Angeles, the Soviet Union boycotted it as a retaliation. A statement issued by the USSR national committee in May 1984 said the following: “Chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria are being whipped up in the United States. Extremist organisations and groupings of all sorts, openly aiming to create ‘unbearable conditions’ for the stay of the Soviet delegation and performance by Soviet athletes, have sharply stepped up their activities….In these conditions the National Olympic Committee of the USSR is compelled to declare that participation of Soviet sportsmen in the Games in impossible”
For most of the 20th century, the Olympics was a first world affair. In a 2012 article in the Vanity Fair, American journalist Michael Joseph Gross quoted an interview with former British prime minister Tony Blair about Britain’s bid to host the Olympics: “We can afford to do the Olympics. We’re Britain. Not some third world country.”
But as several Olympics have shown in the past few decades, Blair was definitely wrong in assuming that only the traditional first world was fit to host the games.
With the games being held at Beijing in 2008, Sochi in 2014, Rio De Janeiro in 2016 and at Tokyo this year, a shift in global politics is clearly visible. For the developing world, hosting the games is seen as particularly important, both to demonstrate to the world its economic successes and to legitimise domestic policies.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics was a perfect illustration of how a mega sports event was being utilised by a developing country to claim an important spot in the international community. “The Chinese elites proclaimed the Beijing Games a “century old dream” of the Chinese people, which mainly meant that the Chinese people want their achievements and progress to be universally recognised,” writes professor of International Relations Pang Zhongying in a 2008 article in the Brookings Institution. The two-week event cost over $40 billion to China, a record sum for a developing country.
But the high visibility of the Games also made China vulnerable to political criticism. As noted by a 2012 article in the International Journal of the history of sport, “The Beijing Games became the most politicised Games in Olympic history.” An international campaign to boycott the Games started out when American actress Mia Farrow criticised China’s support for the Sudanese government. She argued that China must pressure Sudan to stop the civil war in Darfur and was heavily critical of the corporate sponsors of the Beijing Games. After she called for a boycott of the Games, film director Steven Spielberg withdrew as artistic advisor to the Games. Several American politicians, Hollywood stars, Nobel prize winners and Olympic medallists joined in the boycott campaign.
At the same time the Tibetan government in exile also took up the opportunity to get international visibility of the ‘Free Tibet Movement’.
Through the 130-day torch relay conducted during the Beijing Games, the tradition was met with protests, slogans, demonstrations, and much turmoil in almost every country it went through.
Despite the many challenges, China was successful in using the Games in demonstrating its ‘soft power’ and ended up winning the most number of gold medals as well. As Zhongying notes in his article, some may use the “Beijing Olympics as powerful evidence to revive the old political perception of a ‘China threat’ or a ‘China challenge’”.
Japan, where the Games are being held this year, hosted the Olympics way back in 1964 as well. Historians have frequently pointed out to the important role that the Olympics had played in building Japanese national identity. Majumdar and Mehta in their book writes that Japan “embraced Olympism partly because of a deep-rooted desire to showcase Japanese modernity after the Meiji restoration and to take on the ‘West’ on equal terms.” When Tokyo bid for the 1940 Games, it went so far as to tie up its candidature to the celebrations of the 2600th anniversary of the Japanese Empire.
The 1940 Games though were cancelled on account of the Second World War. But Japan did host the Games in 1964. “The event helped restore Japan’s reputation as an upstanding global citizen after a ruinous war,” says Professor of Japanese history, Frederick R Dickinson, in an email interview with Indianexpress.com.
He says that Japanese citizens greeted the announcement of Tokyo 2020 in September 2013 with universal excitement. “By that time, after all, Japan had experienced more than two decades of economic stagnation, and, in 2011, Japan had suffered the most powerful earthquake and tsunami in its history. As with the 1964 Olympics, Japanese citizens originally looked to Tokyo 2020 as a golden opportunity for national redemption,” he says. “Ironically, Covid has handed Tokyo 2020 a much larger, less self-centered, goal. Tokyo 2020 is now being billed in Japan as an opportunity for the country to demonstrate to the world how to safely conduct a major international sporting event in a pandemic age.”
Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta, “Olympics-The India story“, Harper Collins Publishers, 2012
Luciano Wernicke, “The most incredible Olympic stories”, Niyogi Books, 2021
Jules Boykoff, “Power games: A political history of the Olympics”, Verso, 2016
Carolin Marvin,Avery Brundage and American participation in the 1936 Olympic Games, Journal of American Studies, 1982
Barbara Keys, “The early Cold War Olympics, 1952-1960: Political, economic and human rights dimensions“, The Palgrave Handbook of Olympic Studies, 2012
Pang Zhongying, “The Beijing Olympics and China’s soft power”, The Brookings Institution, 2008
“The politicisation of the Beijing Olympics”, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 2012