The Olympic Games: Sports, Politics, or Both?
Foreign Policy Brief #147 | By: Reilly Fitzgerald | March 4, 2022
Header photo taken from: NBC News
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Photo taken from: Encyclopedia Britannica
Like everyone else, the Olympic Games have been mesmerizing to watch; the athletes that have given everything to reach the pinnacle events in their sport. The dedication alone to become an Olympian representing a country is spectacular. The 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing have also been full of political tension. We saw athletes get accused of doping, some athletes have renounced their citizenship, some teams like China’s Men’s Hockey Team were made up of a lot of foreign nationals rather than just Chinese players, and we even had athletes using their platform to try and steer the world away from war in Ukraine – only to be told to be silent about politics.(.
The Olympics originated, as the world knows, in Ancient Greece. It was an event held in four year increments to rally and unite the city-states to celebrate athletics … but it was also a time for the city-states to speak to one another in one place about political matters. The city-state of Elis was the first to create the tradition of the Olympic Truce which applied to the city-states coming to the games and the spectators; it allowed the games to be held without the risk of conflicts interrupting the celebration. According to the Penn Museum, the Spartans violated the truce in 420 BC by holding a military training exercise with their army and were fined and excluded from the Olympic Games afterward.
The Olympic Games have not been ongoing since the Ancient Greeks were walking the Earth; they ended in 394 CE but were restarted in 1896 as the first “modern” Olympic games. According to the Olympic Games website, the Ancient Games were ended due to the Roman Emperor Theodoseus viewing the Games as a pagan celebration.
The history of the modern Olympic Games has been wrought with controversy, politics, and many other elements besides athletics and sportsmanship. The Games have frequently been used as propaganda by countries with tyrannical governments, the most glaring examples of this was the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin at the height of the Nazi Regime before the start of World War II – while the persecution of Jewish people was in full motion.
Some of the most recent games have been full of controversy as well – the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, uncovered a State run national doping program that infiltrated almost all of the Olympic events, and it was done at the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Summer Olympics in Rio in 2016 were fraught with human rights violations as the local government was forcibly removing people from their homes and neighborhoods to create space to host the games. The 2022 Winter Olympics are being hosted in China while China persecutes the Uyghur population in their country – though they deny this and pretend to be ‘re-educating’ this minority group.
Sports and politics have always been intertwined, especially the Olympic Games (ancient or modern). The Games have had a history of many highly political moments such as the hosting of the Games in Berlin in 1936 under the Nazi regime; or the 1980 Summer Olympic Boycott against the Soviet Union; or the uproar after the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute atop the podium; and many other instances.
The fact of the matter is that the Olympic Games and some of the requirements of hosting the games can often lead to human rights issues. It was well documented during the 2016 Rio Olympics that the Brazilian government was displacing people to either build new venues for the events or to restrict access and criminal activity in certain locations. According to a Sports Illustrated article, from 2015, there were approximately 4,000 families that experienced human rights abuses in Brazil directly tied to the Olympic Games. Some of these violations included violence via police officers, evictions and forced displacement, and other actions taken by the state. The government of Rio denied all of the allegations. Unfortunately, most of the countries in the world attended these games and did not deem these abuses to be severe enough to warrant a boycott.
However, in the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, there was a massive international boycott ( in protest of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan) that included countries like the United States, West Germany, and many other smaller countries. In the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, some countries like the United States, conducted a diplomatic boycott to protest China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. The 1980 Boycott forced some athletes to compete for other countries, if possible; just like we are seeing with these Olympic Games where foreign citizens or citizens of other countries are competing for China in events like hockey or skiing.
Photo taken from: Yahoo Sports UK
The United States’ foreign policy decisions regarding the Olympic Games since 1980 have never reached the tension that was caused by the Moscow Games. The United States has since had boycotts of games, but diplomatic boycotts; which bar politicians, officials, and dignitaries from going to and/or participating in the games – it does not restrict athletes. However, this type of decision does call into question the credibility of the values that the United States’ foreign policy attempts to uphold around the world such as respect, dignity, democracy, and human rights. The Rio Games are a great example of the United States turning a blind eye to these ideals when there was clear documentation and studies completed that exposed the displacement of people, and the inhumane treatment endured by the people in Rio to prepare for the games.
Unfortunately, the Olympic Games are a huge money-making opportunity for the International Olympic Committee which organizes the games; it is a money-maker for the host country and city, though there is often a large sum of debt that is associated with hosting; and it is one of the largest non-violent ways to demonstrate your superiority as a country – by winning the medal count.
All of these factors were at play in 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics when Russian President Vladimir Putin created a state-run doping program by which athletes, representing Russia, in almost every single sport tested positive for banned substances. This caused political pressure from other countries to ban the Russian Federation from competing under their own flag – so for now they compete as either “Athletes From Russia”, or “Russian Olympic Committee”. This has not stopped Russians from doping either as a 15 year old figure skater, Valieva, tested positive for a banned heart medication. Gold medals are great for the athletes personally, but even better for a country in need of a PR lift.
As I am writing this several days after the Games concluded with the Closing Ceremonies, it should be noted that Russia has invaded Ukraine. Much of the political blustering and drama during these Winter Games surrounded the anticipation of war in Europe. It appears, to many, that Russia has violated the spirit of the Olympic Truce – and this war will be a major and significant foreign policy event for all nations involved. Athletes during the games were told to not use their platforms, while at the games, for political messaging – in anticipation of backlash toward China for their treatment of the Uyghurs and also backlash against Putin’s preparations for war. However it was rumored that President Putin of Russia told President Xi of China of his plans to invade Ukraine, and President Xi asked Putin to delay the start of the invasion until after the Olympics were over.
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