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Olympic Games a Forum for Political Protest

Director Steven Spielberg quit his post as artistic director for the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing to protest the Chinese government's relationship with Sudan. This isn't the first time the games have been a forum for political protest. Professor John Hoberman, a sports historian at the University of Texas, discusses some of the major moments of political protest in Olympic history:

1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin: "In the United States, there was a whole coalition that campaigned against American participation in the Berlin Olympics of 1936," Hoberman says. "There were Jewish groups, there were Catholic groups who considered the Nazis to be a godless regime, and there were labor unions who were protesting the fascist exploitation of the workers."

1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City: "The Black Power demonstration on top of the victory stand in Mexico City in 1968 by several African-American athletes was one of the great political moments in the history of the Olympic movement," Hoberman says. "This was a way of saying, at the end of the 1960s ... that the African-Americans had had enough of domestic racism and that here was an opportunity to express their feelings about that.


"The reaction on the part of the IOC, the reaction on the part of the United States Olympic Committee, was rage. These people were sent home, and it has taken decades for people like Tommie Smith and John Carlos — who are the most famous of these demonstrators — to have, in effect, recovered their reputations and be recognized as political heroes of a certain kind."

1972 Summer Olympics in Munich: In 1972, politics turned deadly when Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympics. The incident ravaged the Olympic ideals of peace and unity and changed the way Olympics are planned.

1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles: "In the case of Moscow," Hoberman says, "the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 prompted President Jimmy Carter to call for and successfully carry out a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games that eventually comprised about 40 countries. In retaliation, when the Olympic games came to Los Angeles in 1984, the Soviet Union, not surprisingly, organized its own boycott."

The games can never really be free of politics, Hoberman says, though there are officials in the International Olympic Committee who see the games as a "magical oasis in a violent world; that this is a kind of secular religion in which all the tribes of the Earth convene in order to celebrate their common humanity."

Hoberman says he thinks the Olympic Games are much more complicated than that.


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