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A brief history of Olympic boycotts

  • 7 Dec 2021

US diplomats will boycott the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics in China. Here is a short history of when the Olympics fell victim to politics and why.

Chinese government was angered by the US diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics, promising "resolute countermeasures" against Washington. ( Mark Schiefelbein / AP Archive )

The Olympics have often been an opportunity to enhance peace and dialogue among nations, but like almost everything else, they also fall victim to politicisation.

Washington’s recent decision to stage a ‘diplomatic boycott’ of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics is another example of how one of the world’s most popular global sporting events has fallen victim to global politics. What that means is that American athletes will continue to participate at the games but there would be no official or diplomatic representation present.

The US says its decision is based on what it calls China’s "ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses," according to the White House. 

China also responded to the US boycott forcefully saying that "The United States will pay a price for its mistaken acts". 

Beijing also accused the US of “politicising” the events with a “defensive Cold War mentality” and undermining its peaceful message in a "clear violation of the Olympic spirit and a challenge to all people who love the Olympic movement." 

But China had also boycotted the Olympics big time between 1956 and 1980 due to the international Olympic committee's allowance of Taiwan, a country Beijing considers as an illegal political entity, to the games. 

Despite the recent tit-for-tat between the US and China, which repeats patterns from the Cold War and World War I and World War II, initially, the Olympics had nothing to do with politics. 

History of the Olympics

More than about 2,700 years ago, the first Olympics was held in the ancient Greek city of Olympia, which also lends its name to the event. Ancient Greeks held the Olympics as a religious festivity, not as a sports event, as it has been conceived in contemporary times. 

Ancient Greeks considered the Mount Olympus, located in Olympia, as sacred and they built the Sanctuary of Zeus in the city to honour their most powerful god, according to Greek mythology. 

Every four years, different sportsmen and spectators from different parts of Greece, present-day Anatolia and the Black Sea region in Turkey, would come to the city to hold the Olympics to honour Zeus exclusively. 

A statute of an ancient Olympic discus thrower. In ancient times, there were no politics involving the Olympics. unlike modern times.()

Unlike modern sportsmen, ancient athletes were not paid for their success in the games because winning the Olympics was considered an honourable act, not something which could be measured in monetary terms. 

Also prior to the event, messengers of peace were dispatched across several areas, from which both athletes and spectators would come, to make sure that no one could break up ‘sacred truce’ during the event and prevent anyone from reaching Olympia to participate in the games or watch them. 

Olympic cancellations 

But in modern times, those peaceful roots of the Olympics have not prevented several states from boycotting different Olympics in the past century for political reasons. Washington’s boycotting of the Beijing Winter Olympics is just the latest in a longer list. 

In 1896, the modern age’s first Olympics was held in Athens, the Greek capital. Since then, the events have become more standardised with even more participating nations than ever. 

In 1916, when WWI was raging, the Olympics were called off. In 1940 and 1944, when WWII had been killing millions of people across the globe, the Olympics were also cancelled. 

Interestingly, the Olympics were held in Berlin in 1936 despite the rule of Nazi Germany. But after WWII, both Germany and Japan were banned from participating in the 1948 Olympic games due to their roles in the war. 

During the Cold War, the Olympic games faced various boycotts and ensuing retaliations due to tensions between Western-led NATO countries and the Soviet-led communist bloc. 

Biggest boycotts

The first biggest boycott of the games came in 1956, when some Western countries boycotted the Sydney Olympics, which was coincidentally Australia's first experience of hosting such an event, due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary. 

China boycotted the games, protesting Taiwan’s participation in the 1956 Olympics. The Arab nations of Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon also boycotted the events for their own reasons after the joint British-Israel-French invasion of the Suez Channel, an Egyptian territory, that same year. 

Cartoon in Soviet newspaper "Sovetskaya Rossiya" shows Uncle Sam using Statue of Liberty against the Moscow Olympics on April 16, 1980 in Moscow..(AP Archive)

The 1980 and 1984 Olympics also struggled with political problems, mainly due to Cold War tensions. In 1979, Moscow invaded Afghanistan, escalating tensions between the Western world and the communist bloc. 

The next year, the Soviets were hosting the 1980 Games. Seeing Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan as unacceptable, Washington called on all of its allies to boycott the Moscow Olympics - 60 states including China, Japan and many Muslim-majority states refused to compete in the games making it one of the biggest boycotts of the Olympics.  

But the US-led boycott also allowed the Soviets to collect 195 medals, a world record, which hasn’t been broken since then. (During the Cold War, gaining the most medals in the Olympics carried a lot of political symbolism as the US and the Soviets fought to get more medals to prove their own respective systems’ superiority.) 

Following the Moscow Games, the US was the next country to host the Olympics, which led to the Soviets and its allies boycotting the events in a retaliation of the American-led boycott of 1980. But the events were attended by a record 140 nations anyway, and was a financial success story for Washington. 

The most recent boycotting of the Olympics by the US won’t likely have as large an impact as it used to be. 

"For the U.S. politicians, who had not been invited (to the Games) to say they are staging a diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics, that's just 'proffering unreciprocated love'," said a commentary from China’s state news agency Xinhua.

American diplomats will still support their athletes participating in the Games. "We will be behind them 100% as we cheer them on from home," said Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary. 

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