At the heart of the Summer Olympics underway in London is international sportsmanship and the spirit of healthy competition, the prime reason Baron Pierre de Coubertain of France spearheaded the reincarnation of the games in the late 19th century. Nevertheless, at various times in its history, the Olympics have been hijacked by politics, protests and terrorism.
The London Olympics officially are designated as the 30th games, since the modern competition was reborn in 1896. Yet technically, it is No. 27, because the 6th games were cancelled in 1916 due to the First World War, and the 12th and 13th in 1940 and 1944 because of the Second World War.
Over the years, some countries have refused to put aside their differences to revel in athletic prowess. And the games have also proved to be too tempting an international stage to ignore for the promotion and publicity of a wide range of issues outside the realm of sports. The threat of violence hovers over the games, which explains why security expenses at this year's Olympics are estimated to be $874 million, though less (at least for now) than the $1.5 billion spent on security at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
You can go a lot further back than 1896 to find trouble at the Olympics. Sparta was banned from the ancient games in the fifth century due to an alliance between Athens and Eleans, and security had to be beefed up at the games in 424 BC to guard against a Spartan attack. In 365 BC, the Eleans were unable to compete at the 104th Olympics when the Arcadians and the Pisatans gained control of the Altis (the site of Olympia). Once the Eleans drove their enemies out, they ruled that the 104th Olympiad was null and void.
The blurring of politics and sports in the modern era began in Berlin in 1936. Five years earlier, the International Olympic Committee had awarded Germany the games as a gesture of goodwill more than a decade after the First World War had ended. The IOC, however, had not counted on Adolf Hitler and the Nazis being in power.
For Hitler, the Olympics proved to be a powerful propaganda tool. During the two weeks the event was held in Berlin in August 1936, the Nazis highlighted their many economic achievements, while downplaying their racist anti-Jewish policies that nearly led to a boycott by the United States. In Canada, the boycott issue equally received much attention, including at a celebrated debate at the University of Manitoba in November 1935, in which a boycott was favoured. But Canadian sports officials never truly considered it an option.
The Nazis reinstituted the ancient torch relay, now considered an enduring symbol of the games, and Leni Riefenstahl brilliantly captured the entire spectacle in her highly regarded 1938 film Olympia. While it is no doubt true that Hitler and his top officers were not thrilled that African-American athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals, a repudiation of Aryan superiority, the Nazi leader did not intentionally snub Owens as is widely believed. Hitler was not even in the Berlin stadium when Owens was presented with his medals. As Owens later commented, it was, in fact, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt who snubbed him by not publicly acknowledging Owens's triumphant performance.
The Olympics have never been divorced from international events. As a result of its notorious apartheid policy, South Africa was banned from participating from 1964 until its athletes were permitted to do so again at Barcelona in 1992 after apartheid had ended.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, American President Jimmy Carter would not permit the U.S. team to compete in the Moscow games held the following year. Canada along with such countries as Japan, West Germany, China, the Philippines and Argentina also boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics. In turn, the Soviet Union and 13 of its Communist bloc satellites did not show up for the Los Angeles Olympics four years later.
The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City provided an iconic image when two African-American track winners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, stood on the podium after receiving their medals with their heads down and their gloved-fists in the air in the symbolic Black Power salute, a protest against U.S. civil rights abuses. American Olympic officials were furious at the display and immediately sent the two men home. Both were castigated by the media for their actions.
Another more tragic iconic image in the history of the Olympics was supplied 40 years ago: that of a gun-wielding masked terrorist on a balcony in the athletes' village in Munich in 1972. It was by far the worst moment in the annals of the modern Olympics.
Taking advantage of poor security around the athletes' apartments, a group of Palestinian terrorists calling themselves Black September infiltrated the site, immediately killed two Israeli athletes and took nine others hostage. Instead of watching sports competition, the world was riveted by the ensuing standoff between the authorities and the terrorists played out on television. In the end, the confrontation between German security forces and the terrorists was badly botched, and all nine Israeli hostages were murdered. The reality of Jews being murdered again in Germany, albeit by a different enemy, was not ignored. Nevertheless, following a day of mourning and a memorial service, the games continued -- a decision supported by the Israeli government.
During the past few months, many people, including U.S. President Barack Obama, have urged the IOC to mark the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre with a moment of silence for the 11 slain Israeli athletes at the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics.
But IOC president Jacques Rogge has refused to do so. "We feel that the opening ceremony is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident," he has said.
Then, on July 23, without any prior announcement, Rogge acknowledged the Israeli athletes at a tiny gathering in the Olympic village. Family members of the slain Israelis were unimpressed by this spontaneous ceremony, arguing that the IOC was merely deflecting criticism it had received over this issue.
The real reason for the IOC's intransigence is more likely because its officials did not want to permit politics to impede on the games or bad feelings to be stirred up against certain national groups. Someone should point out to them that it is much too late for that.
Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in an historical context.