Updated Jan 13, 2018 - Sports

How the Olympic Games became a political pawn

Olympics logo

A Naval vessel passes the Olympic rings during the Rio games in 2016. Photo: Paul Gilham / Getty Images

Russia will not be participating in the 2018 Olympic Games. North Korea will. This sets the stage for an event that will be dominated by political issues as much as ski jumping.

Why it matters: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) claims the Games are meant to contribute to "a peaceful and better world" through non-violent competition. But this year, South Korea is using the Games to ease tensions in the region, the latest example of how countries see the Olympics as a way to advance their political agendas.

The backdrop: Russia has been banned from the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang for its state-backed doping campaign uncovered during the 2014 Sochi Winter games. Meanwhile North Korea has been invited to participate, despite the escalating nuclear threat posed by leader Kim Jong-un.

Olympic politics through the years

  • 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin: Adolf Hitler saw the Berlin Games as a powerful propaganda tool to promote Aryan supremacy and antisemitism. His policies led to an international debate about a boycott of the Games, which would have been the first in modern Olympic history. The movement ultimately failed, with 49 international teams competing, more than in any previous Olympics.
Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler shakes hand with an official during the 1936 Olympic Games. Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis via Getty Images
  • War and Games: The 1916, 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games were all canceled due to the World Wars. The first post-war Games took place in London in 1948, and King George VI used the event as an opportunity to bring the world back together.
  • 1964 Tokyo Olympics: The IOC banned South Africa from participating to demonstrate the international rejection of apartheid. The ban remained in place until the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
  • 1968 Mexico City Massacre: After months of political unrest in the Mexican capital, students used attention from the Games to call for more civil and democratic rights. Just 10 days before the Olympic commencement, Mexican military and armed men shot at thousands of student demonstrators in Tlatelolco. Unofficial estimates of the death toll range from 150 to 325.
  • Black Power: During the medal presentation ceremony during the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a black-gloved fist and hung their heads while the Star Spangled Banner played, in solidarity with the Black Freedom Movement in the U.S. They were later expelled from the Olympic Village.
Black Power Salute
Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Photo: Getty Images
  • 1972 Munich Massacre: On the morning of September 5, 1972, Palestinian terrorists stormed the Olympic Village, killing two members of the Israeli team and taking nine others hostage. In the end, 17 people died, including six Israeli coaches and five Israeli athletes. IOC President Avery Brundage later ordered that the games continue to show that the terrorists hadn’t won.
  • 1980 boycott of Summer Olympics in Moscow: The U.S. led a boycott of the Moscow Games to protest the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. 65 nations joined America in the boycott, while 81 countries sent athletes to compete. The move was seen as a symbol of escalating Cold War tensions.
  • 1984 boycott of the games in Los Angeles: The Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Games, claiming concern for the safety of their athletes in an anti-communist environment. 14 countries joined the boycott, while 140 participated in the event, a record at the time. Critics called it a retaliatory response to America's decision to boycott the 1980 games in Moscow.
LA Olympic stadium
General view of the stadium during the opening ceremony in Los Angeles. Photo: Steve Powell / Getty Images
  • 2014 Sochi Olympics: The first time Russia hosted the Games (though the Soviet Union hosted it in 1980) was swept up in controversy over the country's attitude toward the LGBT community. Just a year earlier, Putin signed a law that essentially stigmatized gay people and barred Russians from giving children information about homosexuality.
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