Boycotting Beijing: A History of Politics at the Olympic Games

China recently demonstrated its willingness to brutally suppress stirrings of Tibetan sentiment. Angry protestors in Paris and elsewhere then seized the occasion of the Olympic torch’s passing to express their ire toward the hosts of this year’s Games. Some foreign dignitaries have acknowledged that they will not attend certain events, and others have refused to confirm that they will travel to Beijing at all. The big B-word has been vocalized.

However it is unlikely that a large-scale boycott will come to pass for two reasons. The first is that the fate of most economic powers is now more closely intertwined with China’s than they would care to admit; for practical reasons, they are not inclined to antagonize a Chinese government which has made clear that any boycott will be considered a national insult. The second is that more than three months remain before the opening of the Games. The human mind often maintains a very short-term horizon; it is likely that the current uproar will soon come to pass. China, newly aware of the foreign attentiveness, will defer further hammering of domestic political opponents until the closing ceremony.

But as the specter of a boycott is raised, what does the action of Olympic boycott really mean? "One of the basic principles of the Olympic Games is that politics plays no part whatsoever in them." These are the words of Avery Brundage, then chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, in 1936. Brundage and the American political leaders of the time sent American athletes to compete at Munich in the Games hosted by Hitler’s rising Nazi Germany. The black American sprinter Jesse Owens claimed four gold medals; Hitler refused to shake his hand or present the medals to him on the stand. These were the early days of the Olympic stadium as the arena of high politics.

Athletes have since on various occasions used the Olympics for the articulation of political messages (or in 1972, once again in Munich, as a stage of political action; the capture of eleven Israeli athletes by Palestinian gunmen reached an ending only with their deaths after a botched rescue attempt). The first large-scale boycotts of the Games came shortly thereafter.

Most think first of the American-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow games when confronted with the notion of Olympic boycott. But the truth is that the first mass-scale politically motivated absences came at the previous 1976 games in Montreal. In that year, a group of twenty-eight African nations refused to participate in protest at New Zealand’s presence. South Africa had been banned from the Games since 1964 because of its apartheid regime of institutionalized racism, and these countries were angered by the previous year’s South African tour of New Zealand’s ‘All Blacks’ rugby union. Iraq and Guyana too joined the boycott when the International Olympic Committee refused to bar New Zealand from participating. Also in 1976, the IOC refused to allow Taiwan to participate under the name "Republic of China", leaving only the People’s Republic of China (Beijing) to carry that name. Taiwan would only compete again in 1984 under a new flag and the name "Chinese Taipei".

After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. President Jimmy Carter issued an ultimatum stating that the United States would boycott the Moscow games of 1980 if Soviet troops did not withdraw by February of that year. When Soviet troops remained, the boycott was joined by Japan, West Germany, Canada, China and sixty others. The United Kingdom, France and Greece were sympathetic to the boycott but allowed their athletes to participate of their own volition if they so wished. Italy’s government also supported the boycott. Those of its athletes who were members of the military corps did not compete.

In 1984, the U.S.S.R. responded by refusing to take part in the Los Angeles games, citing "chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States". The U.S.S.R. was joined by thirteen of its allies, while post-revolution Iran also joined, making it the only nation to boycott both the 1980 and 1984 games.

In any gathering of international delegations, sporting or otherwise, political tensions are bound to run high. My favorite story comes from the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in which Hungary and the Soviet Union engaged in an impassioned water polo match as Soviet tanks rumbled into Budapest. The water was, the story goes, tinged red at the match’s end. Melbourne concomitantly saw the first-ever Olympic boycotts; the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland refused to attend because of the events in Hungary, while Cambodia, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon boycotted owing to the Suez crisis.

For better or for worse the Olympics have become the playing ground of high politics. However it is a high politics that remains highly symbolic. Should any major powers eventually choose to boycott Beijing, it would serve only to showcase their unwillingness and inability to press for real change to China’s abominable human rights record.

Jackson Kern is a contributing editor to the Alternative Channel Blog. The Alternative Channel is a website dedicated to giving non-profit organizations concerned with sustainable development, environmentalism, and humanitarian issues an online forum for their video content. You can learn more at .

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