Video Digest: April 4, 2008

Thinking about skipping the games this year? A video FAQ for the complete history of Olympics boycotting, compiled by Meave Gallagher.

This year’s Olympic Games are scheduled to be held in Beijing, in the People’s Republic of China. Hello, controversy! The Chinese government, with its significant involvement in the Darfur crisis, its noted history of free speech and human rights violations, its oppression of the Tibetan government, and its support of the violent militia in Myanmar-also-called-Burma, doesn’t have the most stellar reputation. Some political leaders have already refused to attend the opening ceremony—including Germany’s, Poland’s, and the Czech Republic’s, and the Japanese royal family.

Amid great national debate, the U.S. sent a team to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. A number of athletes chose to boycott the games on their own—missing out on the games with the highest number of participating nations to date. Hitler did politely remove much of the anti-Semitic signatures around town, though by 1936 he had taken away citizenship from all Jewish people, including those with only one Jewish parent, or even one Jewish grandparent, and banned all Jewish people from professional occupations. This is a scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia Part 1: Festival of Nations.

Perhaps it only takes 70 years for countries to learn that participating in events hosted by a nation with an especially ugly record of suppression and abuse may not reflect very highly on their own ethics. Except, hang on, as of this week no one is boycotting the Beijing games except Tibetan exiles, whose country isn’t represented in the games anyway because it quote-on-quote belongs to China. President Bush, calling the Olympics “a sporting event,” has refused to support any protest actions; on the other side of the pond, the British Olympic Association requires its athletes to sign an agreement not to comment on “politically sensitive issues.” This is not censorship because the International Olympic Committee charter already bans “political, religious, or racial” demonstrations and/or propaganda from any Olympic site. So mind your manners, everyone, and remember not to drink the tap water.

The 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, were the first games boycotted by entire national teams. Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon refused to participate because of the Suez Crisis—Australia being part of the United Kingdom and all—and following the invasion of Hungary (to end the people’s anti-communist revolution) by the U.S.S.R., Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands withdrew in protest. Finally, the People’s Republic of China withdrew its athletes from the games because of the controversial decision to let the Republic of China (i.e., Chinese Taipei; i.e, Taiwan) call itself Formosa, its name under Portuguese colonial rule.

These Olympics were called the “friendly games.” Not to be confused with the socialist-state-only Friendship Games in 1984—we’ll get to those later.

Montreal hosted the next boycotted Olympiad, the 1976 Summer Games. Included in the 30 countries that refused to attend—known as the African boycott—were the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China, both of which were upset over the International Olympic Committee’s official recognition of the other’s government as legitimate. The Committee remedied the problem in November of that year, recognizing the Peopld’s Republic as the sole representative of “China,” but still allowing Taiwan to compete as part of the Chinese team. Solomons, all.

The 28 African nations who refused to participate did so on the grounds that New Zealand’s rugby team had never stopped competing against South Africa, which had been banned from the Olympics since 1964 because of Apartheid. Of course, following its reaction to the Soweto Uprising on June 16, 1976, the South African government was hardly in a sympathetic position.

Meanwhile, Lasse Virén flew around the track in his second of three Olympics. Twenty-two years later, he ran with the National Coalition Party in his native Finland and won a parliamentary seat, which he held until 2007.

The Summer Olympics seem to be the time for boycotts. Moscow’s turn, in 1980, was protested by so many countries that they held their own, simultaneous competition, the Olympic Boycott Games. It sounds so unsporting, I know. The U.S. led the boycott because the U.S.S.R. “stepped in” to help the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which is to say, “invaded,” in December 1979, beginning a war that would last nine years.

Naturally, all staunch foes of communism (and countries arguing over the right to call themselves “China”) could not in good conscience participate in the Olympic Games hosted in the capital city of a belligerent nation. The Olympic Boycott Games, known more politely as the Liberty Bell Classic, were held in Philadelphia, and began three days before the official Games of the XXII Olympiad in Moscow.

These games were notable for breaking or setting 74 Olympic records—impressive, considering only 11 records were set at the ’84 Summer Games in L.A.

In Philadelphia, 15-year-old Luci Collins performs her floor routine. Considering the caliber of the gymnasts behind the Iron Curtain at the time, it might’ve been quite felicitous for her to have them thinned from the playing field.

Along with the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles came a tit-for-tat boycott from the U.S.S.R. and its allies, except Romania. L.A. was picked to host these Olympics without a vote, because it was the only city to bid for the honor. Apparently, Montreal had overspent so much in 1976 that no other country wanted to take the risk. L.A. was up for the challenge, and saw many Olympic firsts, including the debut of synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics. Less widely known is that the 1984 Games gave birth to the term “soccer mom,” when fever for the game was sparked in millions of U.S. hearts.

This would be one of the last Olympics that would see a U.S. men’s basketball team with any amateur players, including recent first-round no. 3 draft pick Michael Jordan.

Meanwhile, in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, the gymnasts couldn’t have been more perfect. Was there something in the water at Olomouc that gave them such superpowers?

You might wonder why the bad behavior of one country 30 years ago warranted a multi-national boycott, while another’s does not. Well, you’re not alone. The torch is scheduled to pass through San Francisco next Wednesday. Based on the amount of protests planned, I suggest you keep an eye on the news.

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