Maintaining a tradition rooted in ancient Greece, the United Nations General Assembly today called on nations around the world to observe an Olympic Truce for the 2012 London Games.
– 'Peace Through Sport', olympic.org, 17 October, 2011
According to the International Olympic Committee, 'Olympism is a philosophy of life...'. The Fundamental Principles of Olympism listed in the Committee's charter include the ideal of 'social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles'. The goals of Olympism are laudable, even to those who agree that the 'practice of sport is a human right', but don't choose to practise it much. Olympism as an ideal promotes peace and international understanding. The news item quoted above bears witness to the importance of the ancient idea of the Olympic Truce – even if the idea that everybody will stop fighting while some athletes run, jump, and swim, is perhaps naïve.
During the century or so of the modern Olympics, bystanders and participants alike have paid tribute to the Olympic ideal of peace. Unfortunately, some of the Games have been marred by events that draw attention to the fact that Planet Earth is far from achieving the Olympic ideal.
Dictators, terrorists, and warriors are supposed to take a step backward on the global stage during Olympic Games, to honour the gods of peace. When they do not, the world is made aware of the gap between desire and reality. 'Faster, higher, stronger'? Perhaps. Wiser, more inclusive, gentler? Not always1. Here are a few notable moments in modern Olympic history.
1936: The Year of the Dictator
In 1931, Berlin won the bid to host the 1936 Olympic Games. Unfortunately for just about everyone on the planet, by the time the Games came around, Adolf Hitler was in power. Germany was undergoing a process called 'Nazification', which meant that every area of societal endeavour had to be re-imagined according to the principles of a system compounded of equal parts 'scientific racism'2, national boosterism, and extreme conformism in dress, thought, and behaviour. It was only natural that Nazi Germany's Olympic effort was led by the Reichssportführer, Hans von Tschammer und Osten3. Non-Aryans – people who, according to the theory, were genetically inferior to the improved variety of human being represented by, say, Scandinavians – were excluded from the German teams, which left out most German Jews, for example, although Helene Mayer4, Olympic winner in foil-fencing in Amsterdam, 1928, was included in the German team. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels expressed the intent of German sport participation in this way:
German sport has only one task: to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence.
– Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, April 23, 1933
Nazi leaders fully expected their blue-eyed 'amateurs' (who were given the support to prepare full-time for the Games) to sweep the field in every event, providing a demonstration of Aryan superiority in all things physical. To Hitler's annoyance, this did not happen: African Americans won thirteen medals, four of which went to US athlete Jesse Owens.
The friendship that developed between Owens, the son of an Alabama sharecropper, and Luz Long, who was supposed to be a 'model Aryan', but elected to be a human being instead, was calculated to disturb people on both sides of the Atlantic. Hitler's dismissive attitude and private comments about excluding 'primitives' from competition were not nearly as shocking as the reception Owens received at home, where he was ignored by his own President, who offered him no honours. At the reception held for him in New York City, Owens was forced to ride the freight lift to reach the hotel ballroom. Nazi Germany had nothing to teach the United States about racism.
While racism was a prominent motif at the 1936 Olympic Games, there were important firsts. Leni Riefenstahl's film Olympia set new standards for the filming of sporting events. Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry hosted foreign reporters in an exemplary way, advancing the field of sport reportage, while the Gestapo was reading the athletes' mail. The 1936 Games were the first to be televised – although the technology of the time was in its infancy, and the action was hard to follow on the small screens.
The Olympic ideal had come up against militarism and racism, and won a victory of sorts – proving, at least, that some of the athletes understood the concept of 'Peace Through Sport'.
1972: The Year of the Terrorist
In 1972, Germany was again hosting the Summer Olympic Games, which were to be held in Munich – in West Germany. These Games were to be free of Nazi nonsense. Officially titled 'The Happy Games', the 1972 events were presided over by the first official Olympic mascot, a cheerful dachshund named 'Waldi'. The Olympic Park designed by Frei Otto became a city landmark. The 1972 Games introduced the stylised icons which characterised individual sports.
On the night of 5 September, 1972, terrorists from the Black September organisation broke into the Olympic Village, taking hostage eleven Israeli athletes. Two of the athletes resisted and were killed immediately. 18 hours of intense negotiations followed, during which Chancellor Willy Brandt was unable to move the terrorists, Golda Meir of Israel, or Anwar Sadat of Egypt in order to effect a solution. Desiring to remove the hostage-takers from the crowded Olympic area, Munich authorities allowed them to board a bus with the hostages and head for Fürstenfeldbruck military airport. There, due to a tragic miscalculation in the number of terrorists involved, a rescue attempt failed. All of the hostages, and all but three of the terrorists, were killed.
Amazingly, the Games were only suspended for a few hours during the hostage crisis. IOC president Avery Brundage declared that 'the Games must go on'. After the deaths of the Israeli hostages, the Games were suspended for twenty-four hours following the memorial service. At the service, Brundage angered some listeners by speaking more about the importance of the Olympic Games themselves than about the lives and deaths of the victims of the massacre. A plaque was dedicated to the memory of the fallen in the Olympic Village itself. Some athletes remained for the rest of the Games, while others, feeling that the spirit of the Olympics had been violated, left for home.
The Munich affair had far-reaching effects. The three surviving terrorists were later released by the West German government in exchange for hostages from the Black September hijacking of a Lufthansa jet. Israel's secret service, Mossad, spent twenty years tracking down and assassinating anyone involved in the Munich Massacre (and, reportedly, a few who were not5). The West German government, shocked by the unpreparedness of its border patrol to deal with a terrorist attack, founded the elite squad known as a GSG9, a part of the Bundesgrenzschutz.
The Olympic ideal had come up against terrorism – and peace lost, big time.
1980 and 1984: The Years of the Warriors
The 1980 Summer Olympic Games might also be titled 'The Year of the Boycott'. Who was being boycotted? The Soviet Union. Who was spearheading the boycott? The United States. And why? Because the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. US President Jimmy Carter declared that the US would boycott the Olympic Games, and Japan, West Germany, China, the Philippines, Argentina and Canada followed suit. Other countries, including the UK, attended the Games, but marched under the Olympic flag rather than their own as a form of protest against the invasion. Olympic Boycott Games were held in Philadelphia, USA.
In spite of the fact that only 80 nations attended the 1980 Games, more records were established than in Montreal in 1976.
In 1984, another boycott followed, this time by the Soviet Union, who refused to go to Los Angeles in return for the US snub at the previous Games. East Germany, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary joined the Soviets in their boycott, while Romania, which had supported the USSR in 1980, did not. In all, 18 nations stayed away. Like the Americans in 1980, the Soviets staged their own games, the Friendship Games.
Of course, US athletes won many medals in Los Angeles, arguably far more than they would have had the Soviets and East Germans attended the Games. This result was good news for athletes, but very bad news for at least one US business. The McDonald's hamburger chain lost heavily on its 'If the US Wins, You Win!' promotion.
The Olympic ideal had come up against Realpolitik, with mixed results.
Boycotts seem to be a thing of the past in Olympic circles, and the IOC is careful when vetting its host cities. The IOC has also expressly committed itself to fairness to athletes, regardless of race, nationality, or gender. Is the future of Peace Through Sport thus assured?
Only time will tell.
For More Information
One way to learn more about the past events discussed here is to go to the movies. Or at least, rent a video.
Olympia is Leni Riefenstahl's classic documentary of the 1936 Olympics. Watch Hitler be disappointed while Jesse Owens wins medals. If you are curious to know what Berlin looked like in 1936, this German newsreel film shows you the sights in colour.