Boycotting and Banning: The Real Olympic Sports


"If this is an Olympic year, it must be time for a boycott," Tony Kornheiser wrote in the
New York Times in 1976. That year, many African nations were incensed that New Zealand's rugby team had toured ostracized South Africa. Would Africa boycott the Montreal Games in retaliation?

Kornheiser's observation hasn't aged a bit. As the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Games approach, the sounds of "boycott" are being heard again—over China's heavy-handed rule of Tibet and deadly response to protests in Lhasa, and in retribution for China's snug relations with Sudan, whose government is blamed for the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Several politicians—including Sen. Hillary Clinton—have urged President Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies. (The President has announced he will be attending as planned.)

Earlier this year in Paris, protesters forced the relay team to extinguish the Olympic Torch five times, and then take it to its final destination by bus—a humiliating ride for the flame of humanity's highest ideals. Does it presage a boycott next month? Looking back at the history of the modern Olympiad, it's clear that, all along, boycotting and banning have been the real sports.

1920 "“ Antwerp, Belgium
The modern Olympics Games began in 1896, and The Great War had forced their cancellation in 1916. With the resumption of the Olympic spirit in 1920, the defeated powers—Germany (where the 1916 Games were to have been held), Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey—did not receive an invitation to play. The brand-new Soviet Union, recovering from its own revolution and civil war, and busy with the Polish-Soviet War, chose not to attend.

1936 "“ Berlin, Germany
Well, Hitler promised not to exclude German Jews from the national team and that there would be no over-the-top Nazi propaganda. So, characteristically, the Reich Sports Field was draped in swastikas. Only fencer Helene Mayer, who was part Jewish, was allowed to play for Germany. She won a silver medal.

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There had been debates over boycotting the Games, particularly in the United States. But in the end, it was left to individual athletes whether to attend. Many Jewish athletes skipped Berlin. As is well known, sprinter and long-jumper Jesse Owens, an African American, took four gold medals away from the Master Race. This supposedly embarrassed Hitler—whose team took the most medals—but not enough to keep him from annexing the Sudetenland, invading Poland or starting World War II.

1948 "“ London, UK
In a near replay of 1920, the recent World War's losers—Germany and Japan—were not invited, and the Soviet Union chose not to attend. The new State of Israel also was not invited, for fear that its presence would generate an Arab boycott.

1956 "“ Melbourne, Australia
For the first Southern Hemisphere Olympics, countries could choose from a menu of reasons to boycott. Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq boycotted to protest the Israeli invasion of the Sinai Peninsula. The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland boycotted to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary to reassert its control there.

In Melbourne, a water polo match between the USSR and Hungary quickly turned into a fist fight. The Soviet team, lacking tanks, lost to Hungary 4-0. Meanwhile, China boycotted the Games after the International Olympic Committee recognized Taiwan. Oddly, East and West Germany competed as a single team, and nobody boycotted.

1964 "“ Tokyo, Japan
Indonesia and North Korea boycotted after some of their athletes were declared ineligible. That was because they had participated in the 1963 Games of the New Emerging Forces in Jakarta, Indonesia. Taiwan and Israel had been banned from the Jakarta Games, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ruled that if you played in Jakarta, you couldn't play in Tokyo. The IOC also banned South Africa because of its racist policies.

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Rather than call off the games on account of tragedy, IOC President Avery Brundage opted to continue the Olympics after a daylong memorial service.

1976 "“ Montreal, Quebec
It all began with the world softball championship, which New Zealand hosted and in which South Africa participated. Then New Zealand decided to send its rugby team on a tour of South Africa. An outraged Supreme Council for Sport in Africa demanded that New Zealand be banned from the Montreal Games. When the IOC refused, 26 nations, most in Africa, staged a boycott.

Taiwan boycotted too, because Canada refused to let its athletes into the country "unless they agree not to march behind their Republic of China flag or play their national anthem," the New York Times reported. Canada recognized the People's Republic of China, while the IOC recognized Taiwan as the Republic of China. Meanwhile, the People's Republic, which hadn't participated since 1952, sat out the Montreal Games.

1980 "“ Moscow, USSR
The Big Boycott. Outraged by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous year, U.S. President Jimmy Carter led the call for a boycott of the Moscow Games, and threatened to revoke the passport of any American athlete who tried to reach Moscow. Some 60 nations joined the boycott. Among those that didn't: Great Britain, France, Italy and Sweden.

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1988 "“ Seoul, South Korea
Cuba was at the forefront of the '88 boycott. Along with Ethiopia, Cuba acted in solidarity with North Korea, which opted to boycott the Olympics after its demand that it co-host the Games was turned down. In negotiations reminiscent of its more recent haggling over developing its nuclear capabilities, "North Korea said earlier this week that it would not attend if its demand to co-host the games were not met," the New York Times reported in January 1988. "In its most recent proposal, offered last June, the IOC agreed to allow North Korea to stage five events. North Korea insisted upon at least eight, as well as greater recognition as a host country."

1992 "“ Barcelona, Spain
Nobody boycotted. Nobody was banned. Where's the sport in that?

David Holzel is an occasional contributor to mental_floss.
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