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Davis, California

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Olympic history

For the past 12 weeks, this column has attempted to avoid the appeal of commenting on global and national affairs. However, this week I have decided to step off the proverbial soapbox and reserve my endless supply of regent-bashing comments for columns to come.

In the past months, the world media has been made very aware of the political turmoil surrounding the upcoming Beijing Olympics, and reports of protests and unrest have littered the route of the symbolic Olympic flame. Upon hearing such reports, some people are appalled at the way in which the Olympic Games, arguably the largest spectacle in world sports, have been infiltrated by the several political agendas of participating nations. Talks of potential boycotts only further highlight the fact that the 2008 Beijing Games will serve mainly as a political arena, rather than an athletic one. However, what some people fail to realize is that the tradition of the Olympic Games has been consistently spoiled by politics for close to 100 years.

The 1936 summer games marked an end to the era of the so-called “honest Olympics” and began the proud tradition of countries mixing their sports and politics. In that year, the world community descended upon Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and watched as Jesse Owens’ four gold metals shattered Hitler’s idea of Aryan supremacy.

Twenty years later, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon boycotted the games in response to Israel’s invasion of the Suez peninsula, while the Netherlands, Sweden and Spain withdrew from the games after the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

As the years went on, the political controversy surrounding the Olympic Games grew increasingly more violent and severe. In the weeks before the 1968 Mexico Games, hundreds of college students attempted to use the media frenzy surrounding their country in order to bring awareness to their cause. The resulting protest and police action is now known as the Tlatelolco massacre, in which police forces killed close to 100 students. A similar display of violence was seen four years later at the 1972 Munich Games, in which 11 Israeli athletes were kidnapped and killed by terrorists.

Most recently, the United States and 64 other nations chose to boycott the 1980 Moscow games in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In a similar fashion, the USSR boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles games to express displeasure with the Moscow boycott.

Clearly, the political unrest surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics is not a new phenomenon. Perhaps this year, the world community will finally realize that the Olympic Games is meant to foster a sense of international unity, not be a way furthering one’s political goals.

Pierre de Coubertin, the man responsible for the revival of the modern Olympic Games, summed up this idea best in his writing of the Olympic Creed, saying, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

While it appears that Coubertin’s words have essentially fallen upon deaf ears for the last century, and that this summer’s Olympics will be no exception, the world community is faced with the challenge of examining the lessons of the past and correcting the problems of the present.


JAMES NOONAN is currently taking bets on the number of boycotting nations this summer. Get your picks in by contacting him at jjnoonan@ucdavis.edu.


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