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Bearing the Political Flames: the International Implications of the Olympics

This quadrennial event encapsulates the zeitgeist of each point in time, and the domestic and inter-state tensions that disrupt international waters.

Every four years, countries engage in a fierce bidding process. Underhanded deals reign and corruption permeates decision-making; all in order to choose the next host of the famed Olympic Games. For 2032, Brisbane prevails as the winner of this heated contest, to the delight of Premier Anastasia Palaszczuck. The pressure on host countries is immense, forcing them to push deeper than the lining of their shallow pockets. The domestic population in nations where the Olympics are held are often forgotten, usually deliberately sidelined and silenced by countries desperate for international prestige. As a result, the impoverished populace is hidden away from spectatorship or the flashy infrastructure: in 2016, Rio’s Favela poor were evicted, and in 2008 the Chinese government constructed walls ensconcing Beijing’s dilapidated neighbourhoods from the tourist’s eye. Stadiums house the country’s elite, and tourists privileged enough to travel there; they also encage political turmoil that ravages the world at the moment of the Games. 

This year, the Olympics Committee banned 100m sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson from racing after she tested positive for marijuana use. It has sparked outrage from all corners of society, with people tweeting about the injustice. This incident transports domestic U.S. tensions regarding inequitable racial policing and the criminalisation of soft drugs to the international stage. Citizens around the globe witness and debate the miscarriage of justice more than the sport itself. Athletes are ambassadors of their countries, and thus are used as debate platforms for ingrained injustices or controversial policies perpetrated by their governments. 

The Olympics has served as a microcosm of domestic and global tensions since its inception. Friction between countries unravels on the track, and disillusionment with governments tears through the field. Athletes view the international stage as a platform for denouncing disparity, or domestic political concerns asphyxiated by surveillance states back home. Gymnast Caslavska protested the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with a head turn during the anthem, a trend which proved infectious, as in 1980 Polish vaulter Kozakiewciz addressed the Soviet spectators with obscene gestures.

This year, the Committee has struck down such gestures, publishing strict conduct rules constraining athletes to expressing their sports skill alone, not political belief. However, it is impossible to separate global politics from sport, considering their inextricable intersection reflected in issues such as over policing marijuana use. Most controversially, they announced a ban on athletes sporting Black Lives Matter apparel. In 1968 at Mexico City, black 200m sprinters Smith and Carlos performed the “Power to the People” salute during the anthem. In 1972, runners Collett and Matthews refused to stand during the medal ceremonies, citing the ongoing oppression of African-Americans. Censuring such expression of struggle dismisses the history of the Olympics as a political battleground, where the Committee participated in the UN’s General Assembly during the Cold War; it has never shied away from the maelstrom. 

It can be argued that hosting the Olympics in countries with poor human rights records draws necessary media attention to the domestic population, but often authoritarian governments push back harder. Students in Mexico City revolted in 1968 to protest totalitarian governance, but were responded to with suppression. 

In Orwell’s essay, The Sporting Spirit, he notes how the combination of wide-reaching viewership and fervent nationalism sparks further inter-state antagonism, rather than simply exposing it. At the 2012 London Olympics, Swiss footballer Morganella faced expulsion after posting racist content regarding Koreans after a loss to South Korea, emblematic of the exacerbation of bigotry and tensions when linked with competitive sport. In the lead up to Beijing, Spanish newspaper Marca published a photo of Spain’s basketball team mocking traditional Asian facial features; Orwell’s contemporary contentious claim that “[sport] is bound up with hatred and jealousy” rings true.

It is war minus the shooting.

The Olympics capture so much more than the sporting abilities of athletes who herald from all four corners of the globe. This quadrennial event encapsulates the zeitgeist of each point in time, and the domestic and inter-state tensions that disrupt international waters.