Are the Olympics Inevitably Political?

Emmett McKinney

Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s famous 1968 Black Power salute remains an iconic symbol of the Olympics as a political platform.

It seems impossible to light the Olympic Torch without igniting a political firestorm.

As President Putin tours the facilities of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the XXII Winter Olympiad is certainly under heat from opponents of Russia’s anti-gay legislation. This past summer, the Kremlin passed a bill outlawing “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” including distribution of information about the lesbian, bisexual, gay, or transgender community to minors.

Reactions from human rights advocates worldwide have constituted no less than a blizzard for the Sochi Games, even including the United States Olympic delegation. For the first time in over a decade, the American envoy will not include a President, Vice President, Former President, or First Lady. Instead, The Obama administration took a clear stance on Russia’s law by including openly-gay athletes Billie Jean King, tennis legend, and Caitlin Cahow, two-time Olympic hockey player.

The clear jab at Russia’s anti-gay legislation renews a recurring debate: Are the Olympics inherently political?  Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, laid out by the International Olympic Committee, seems difficult to misinterpret: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda is permitted in the Olympic areas.”

In many ways, though, few podiums are more powerful than the medal stand. The Olympics are one of the few events that the entire world watches, and hosting the Games is a high honor. For Russia, it is a chance to showcase a proud culture and impressive infrastructure. Demonstrations during the XXII Olympiad will therefore reach an immense audience, and will come as a much stronger affront to Russian policies.

It makes sense that the International Olympic Committee would prohibit political demonstration as a distraction from the worldwide companionship that the Olympics seek to foster. The great irony, though, is that in prohibiting propaganda, the I.O.C. only strengthens political statements by adding an edge of defiance.

Not surprisingly, political protest is no stranger to the Games.  55 years later, the Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City games remains a potent symbol of the civil rights movement. The United States’ boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games likewise remains an iconic statement of the Cold War, and human rights protests along the Olympic Torch route to the 2008 Beijing games called China’s legitimacy into question.

It would be easy to justify such demonstrations at the Game under the I.O.C.’s Sixth Fundamental Principle of Olympism: “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” Such a broad statement necessarily invites activists to challenge the I.O.C. on their selection of host nations with questionable human-rights histories.

All the same, the Olympics’ lofty ideals render inflammatory statements at the games a low-hanging political fruit. Noble though the Obama administration’s intentions were, snubbing an Olympic host nation will be interpreted by some as a political cheap shot.  Given Russia’s key role in negotiations to end the Syrian Civil War, and the ongoing effort to bring Edward Snowden back to the U.S., maintaining healthy diplomacy with Russia is of great strategic importance.

Perhaps, though, there is more at stake than international maneuvering. The Olympic Charter’s statement of the goal of Olympism is “to place sport at the service the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

Such a statement sheds a new light on President Obama’s delegation. Not everyone will applaud the selection, but preserving such human dignity (including L.G.B.T rights) necessitates unpopular political decisions from time to time.

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