A Long History of Politics and Protest at the Olympics

Assertions that the Games rise above politics are belied by their history

Men Receiving Olympic Medals

Ten years after the modern Olympic Games began, Irish long jumper Peter O’Connor scaled a pole at a stadium in Athens and replaced the Union Jack with a green flag celebrating Ireland. Defiant after learning he had to compete under British auspices, he brought politics right to the heart of international competition.

The ancient Games were as entangled in political intrigue. In 668 B.C., a tyrant named Pheidon captured the site of the Games, the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, from the city-state of Elis and presided over them, according to an account by a Greek traveler that the University of Pennsylvania museum presents on its website.

The International Olympic Committee insists the Games are nonpolitical, but as activists draw attention to China’s record of human rights abuses — the United States calls its repression of its Uyghur population in Xinjiang genocide — here is a look at what is now a long history of protests, boycotts and tragedy.

1906 Intercalated Games

Peter O’Connor and his countrymen arrived in Athens for the Intercalated Games of 1906, meant to be a separate set of Olympic Games in intervening years, in green blazers and caps with shamrocks. They thought they would be competing for Ireland, but there was not yet an Irish Olympic Committee. After O’Connor won silver in the long jump, he raised his flag, which read “Erin Go Bragh” or Ireland Forever, the rallying cry for independence from Britain. 

1908 London Olympics

This time some Irish athletes boycotted the Games, which were taking place in London. Again, they did not want to represent Britain.

1916 Berlin Olympics

The Summer Games that year were canceled because of World War I.

1920 Antwerp Olympics

Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary and Turkey — all on the losing side of World War I — were not invited to participate. The ban on Germany remained in effect four years later.

1936 Berlin Olympics

Getty Images
American Jesse Owens leads a race at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Getty Images)

Spain refused to send athletes but efforts to organize a broader boycott against the Nazi regime failed. In a debate that would be familiar today, Avery Brundage, then the president of the American Olympic Committee, argued that the Games belonged to athletes. He also claimed that a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” was working against the United States. Other leaders, among them prominent Catholics, favored a boycott. Jesse Owens, the sprinter, famously won four gold medals, but some American Jewish runners did not compete.

1940 and 1944 Games

All of the Games did not take place due to World War II. Both the Summer and Winter Olympics in 1940 were to be in Japan but were moved after Japan invaded China: the Summer Games to Helsinki, the Winter Games to Germany. But then the Soviet Union attacked Finland and Germany crossed into Poland.

1948 London Games 

Ralph Craig, center, of Albany, N.Y., who won the 100- and 200-meter dashes in the 1912 Olympic games
AP Photo/File
FILE - The U.S. team during the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremony of the 1948 London Olympics. (AP/File)

Japan and Germany were both banned, though the International Olympic Committee argued they should be included. Johannes Sigfrid Edstrom, the president of the International Olympic Committee, wrote, “I am surprised that you take this attitude three years after the war has ended. We men of sport ought to show the way for the diplomats.”

1956 Melbourne Olympics

Avery Brundage Making Closing Speech
File: With the embroidered satin Olympic flag flying from the dais, Mr. Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, makes his closing speech to the crowded Melbourne Cricket crowd.

Politics intruded on different fronts. Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq stayed home over the crisis over the Suez Canal, during which Israel invaded Egypt after it nationalized the canal. The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland protested the Soviet invasion of Hungary. China withdrew just before the opening to protest Taiwan's inclusion.

1964 Tokyo Olympics

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
File photo: Jed Graef of the United States (centre) celebrates on the podium his gold medal with compatriot silver medallist Gary Dilley (L) and bronze medallist Bob Bennett after the Men's 200 metres Backstroke competition on 13th October 1964 during the XVIII Summer Olympic Games at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan.

Indonesia and North Korea did not participate after the International Olympic Committee ruled that teams that had competed a year earlier in a new gathering of athletes, the Games of the New Emerging Forces, could not participate. The Games of the New Emerging Forces had banned athletes from Israel and Taiwan.

South Africa was banned and would not return to competition until 1980.

1968 Mexico City Olympics

1968 Summer Olympics
File: Extending gloved hands skyward in racial protest, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City on Oct. 16, 1968.

American runners John Carlos and Tommie Smith gave the Black Power salute on the podium when the American national anthem played. Australian Peter Norman wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity. Carlos and Smith were suspended from the U.S. team but in 2019 were inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame. 

That same year, Czechoslovak gymnast Věra Čáslavská turned her head away from Soviet flag as the Soviet national anthem played to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia. 

1972 Munich Games 

Munich Terrorism 1972
File: On September 5, 1972, a Palestinian commando group seizes the Israeli Olympic team quarters at the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany. A member of the commando group is seen here as he appeared with a hood over his face on the balcony of the building, where they held several Israeli athletes hostage.

Eleven Israeli athletes and coaches were taken hostage and killed after members of the Palestinian Black September faction broke into the Olympic Village and negotiations to free them failed.

1976 Montreal Olympics

Twenty-five African countries boycotted the Games because New Zealand was allowed to participate. The country’s rugby team toured South Africa, which had been banned since 1964 over apartheid.

Taiwan withdrew when it could not compete as the Republic of China.

1980 Moscow Olympics

The United States boycotted the Summer Games over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Australia and Britain supported the U.S. though in the end sent athletes to compete, but more than 60 countries, Japan and West Germany among them, joined in.

1980 Lake Placid Olympics

Taiwan again boycotted when it was asked to compete as Chinese Taipei during the Winter Games

1984 Los Angeles Olympics

The Soviet Union, East Germany and other Eastern Bloc countries in turn boycotted the Los Angeles Games, officially citing security reasons.

1988 Seoul Olympics

North Korea boycotted the Games as did Cuba. North Korea, supported by Cuba, had demanded that it be the joint host.

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