Five Most Significant Political Moments in Olympic History

Political debates over the Olympic Games have swirled around Beijing.  The Olympic torch relay—a tradition started by Hitler in the 1936 Games—was marred by protest.  Nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for boycotts of the Games to protest China’s Tibet policy.  But the intersection of the Games and politics is nothing new.  Today, I give you the top five moments in Olympic political history:

5.  Dueling Boycotts.  The 1980 Olympic Games were hosted in Moscow.  Less than a year earlier, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, sparking an international standoff between American-backed Taliban militias and the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan.  In protest of the Soviet move, the United States led a 62-nation boycott of the Moscow Olympics.  Four years later, the Soviets turned the table, with a tit-for-tat boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics.

4.  Blood in the Water Match.  In 1956, a Hungarian nationalist uprising threatened to move Hungary from the Soviet bloc.  The Soviet Union sent more than 200,000 soldiers across the border to put down the uprising, leading to violent conflicts in the street.  The Hungarian water polo team, the world’s defending champions, were forced to flee the country during the uprising, and made their way to the Melbourne Olympics without knowing the outcome of the invasion.  When they faced off against Soviet water polo team, the match was violent.  Thousands of spectators cheered the Hungarian team and jeered the Soviets.  Both teams were trading blows in the pool.  Leading 4-0 with just a few minutes to go, the referees were forced to stop the match after Soviet Valentin Prokopov struck Hungarian star Ervin Zadov above the left eye, causing blood to stream down his face and into the pool.

3.  Munich Massacre.  The 1972 Munich Olympics were the first Games held in Germany since Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Games.  The West German government used the motto “The Happy Games” and hoped to use the tournament to present to the world the democratic and optimistic West Germany.  Instead, the Games were marred by the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September.  After a one-day suspension, the Games continued.  After the Games concluded, the Israeli government launched Operation Wrath of God and Operation Spring of Youth to track down and kill those responsible for the massacre.

2.  Tommie Smith and John Carols’ Black Power Salute.  The 1968 Olympic Games were hosted in Mexico City.  But in the United States, the civil rights movement was in full swing.  African Americans were fighting racial discrimination.  After winning the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meters, Smith and Carlos received their medals on the podium shoeless but wearing black socks to symbolize black poverty, black scarves to symbolize black pride, and a single black glove on a hand raised in salute.  Both men received death threats after the act and were ostracized by the US sporting establishment.

1. Jesse Owens’ Four Gold Medals.  Hosted by Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the 1936 were intended to demonstrate to the world both the power of the Third Reich and the supremacy of Nazi ideology.  When the African American Jesse Owens won four gold medals and set two world records and two Olympic records in the process—a feat not repeated until Carl Lewis performance in the 1984 Olympic games—Hitler’s propaganda mission suffered a serious blow.

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