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Long history of political acts invading Olympic games

Jim Cross

Because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, should Russian and Belarusian athletes be allowed to compete in international sports? This nagging question persists. The answers have varied depending on the event and/or governing body of each particular sport.

FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, denied Russia participation in the World Cup in Qatar. The major international summer sports of swimming, and track and field, barred Russians and Belarusians from their world championships. Wimbledon allowed athletes from both countries to compete. Boxing’s international federation has voted to lift its bans on those athletes. Skiing and biathlon have voted to continue its prohibition of athletes from Russia and Belarus.

A good part of the blame for this disarray of decisions should be placed on the International Olympic Committee and its leader Thomas Bach. He has passed the buck of the decision to each sport’s governing body, thus leading to the differing choices. He has sent numerous mixed messages to the sports world. In a recent address in South Korea to the leaders of national Olympic committees, he called on sports officials to not allow the war to damage the mission of the Olympics. “Choose the path of unity and peace,” Bach said.

Yet, he insisted that since the Russian invasion had violated both the Olympic truce and its charter, sanctions must remain. As in the past, he has left the ultimate decision up to the individual sports federations.

The lofty ideal that politics has no place in sport has always been just that, a lofty ideal that has been unattainable. The Olympics have a long history of political acts invading their games. The first such act of the modern Olympic era, which originated in 1896 by Pierre de Coubertin, occurred when Irish athlete Peter O’Connor protested being called a British competitor by climbing the Olympic flagpole with an Irish flag.

There have been many others. The Olympic torch relay began in Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Games with his attempt to draw a line from the original games in Athens to Aryan supremacy. Other countries have used the Games as their own coming out party as a power, most recently China and Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup. China also began the first boycott by not attending the 1956 Melbourne games because of the inclusion of Taiwan. The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland also boycotted the same games because of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. In 1972, we had the Munich massacre.

Former President Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the Moscow games in 1980 used the athletes as political pawns. Of course, Russia returned the favor by boycotting the Los Angeles games in 1984. Do you get the feeling that these powerful nations are acting like children with each other? The 1968 Mexico City games saw the raised fists of Tommy Smith and John Carlos which drew outrage at the time but ultimately proved to be a powerful force in our own civil rights movement.

The solution is simple, historic and right in front of our eyes. The modern Olympic games since 1896 have stopped the Olympics when war is on (WWI and WWII). The original Greek Olympics, beginning in 776 BC, stopped war . . . to have the Olympics. All participants were guaranteed safe passage to and from the Games. Peaceful Olympic Games were more important.

If Russia wants its athletes to participate, then it must ceasefire, at least for the duration of the games. Perhaps even a promise to open peace negotiations. If we believe in the Olympic ideal of bringing the world together in peace, then we need to follow it completely, as the Greeks did.

Jim Cross is a retired Fort Lewis College professor and basketball coach.