February 03, 2014

The Olympics and the Politics of Sport

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

 I love being a sociology professor. I really do. But as a young kid growing up, I did not lay awake at night dreaming about teaching and writing. Instead, like many young boys I aspired to be a professional athlete. More specifically, I wanted to be an Olympic athlete. Ever since I was a nine-year old watching the 1976 Montreal Olympics, I was trying to figure out what sport would give me the best chance to make the U.S. national team.


The thing that interested me most about being an Olympic athlete was living in the athletes’ village. I was so intrigued with the idea of athletes from all over the world living together, trading uniforms, exchanging pins and patches, and making life-long friendships. The idea that they could develop these bonds and then compete against each other in the Games was something that appealed to my youthful innocence.

I don’t recall what was said during the Olympic broadcasts I was watching back then, but I imagine some of these themes of peace, friendship, and cross-cultural understanding were articulated by the reporters and athletes. These sentiments should come as no surprise given that the official Olympic Charter of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) conveys such ideals. Consider the first two of the seven Fundamental Principles of Olympism:

 1. Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will, and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

 2. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

Subsequent principles go on to discuss sport as a human right that should be available to all (# 4), and a non-discriminatory statement “with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race,  religion, politics, gender or otherwise” (# 6).

Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case with official statements, what is being preached is not always practiced (see The U.S. Declaration of Independence—all men are created equal—as one of the most famous historical examples). With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics about to begin, the principles of the Olympic Charter are once again being put to the test.

RUSMARKA-1530In June 2013, Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, signed into law a bill that “stigmatizes gay people and bans giving children any information about homosexuality.” Not surprisingly, individuals in Russia and around the world have protested the bill and called for it to be overturned. Although the Olympic Charter undeniably speaks directly against such discriminatory forms of legislation, you may not see or hear too many Olympic athletes joining in the protests. Both the IOC and Russia have warned athletes not to make any political statements about gay rights at the upcoming Sochi Olympics.

I always find it ironic, and highly hypocritical, when political officials proclaim that sports should be free of politics. Sports, like most things in our world, are inherently political and the Olympics are in no way immune from this reality. In fact, some of the most significant political statements—often made by the political leaders of countries—have come at the Olympic Games. This audio slide show offers a good history of how the Olympics have always been highly politicized:

The latest example missing from this slide show is about to occur in Sochi. For the first time since the 2000 Olympic Games, a U.S. president, vice president, first lady or former president [will not be] a member of the delegation for the opening ceremony.”  The official White House statement is that these dignitaries are too busy. So instead, the U. S. delegates for the 2014 Winter Olympics will include tennis great Billie Jean King, ice hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow, and the 1988 Olympic figure skating champion Brian Boitano. If you are wondering why the United States chose these three athletes to go to Sochi it’s pretty obvious (and pretty political): they are all gay.

A few years ago when I was doing research on activist athletes, I spoke with two former Olympians about what the Olympics represent. Nathaniel Mills was an Olympic speed skater in 1992, 1994, and 1998, and Eli Wolf was a member of the Paralympic soccer team in 1996 and 2004. Together, Mills and Wolf founded The Olympism Project (@OlympismProject), a global initiative to put into practice the principles of the Olympic Charter. Taking seriously what the Olympics are intended to embody, Mills and Wolff hope to “make ideals real” and use sport to further human development.

Because there is often backlash against athletes who speak out as activists, it may seem strange to think that sports can promote social change. But just as heads of states have used the Olympics to leverage their political will, so too have athletes used sports to counter discrimination and inequality. In fact, one of the articles that came out of my research, that I co-authored with Eli Wolff, makes the argument that playing and protesting are not contradictory; instead, there are  dimensions of sports (such as teamwork, sportsmanship, and fair play) that suggest it’s quite natural for athletes to have an activist political orientation.

So despite the official warnings admonishing athletes not to make any political statements, I am cautiously optimistic that some athletes will follow their convictions and speak out for tolerance, equality, and non-discrimination. If the U. S. President and Vice President can make a not-so subtle political statement by skipping the opening ceremonies and sending three gay athletes in their place, then why can’t athletes themselves make their own personal (or collective) statements against Russia’s homophobic law? After all, it’s not just the personal that’s political; the Olympics are political too.


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It”s very hypocritical, when political officials proclaim that sports should be free of politics.

I think it is almost impossible to not have political statements made on such a massive stage. From the podium protest from Tommie C. Smith and John Carlos in 1968 at Mexico City to the US 1980 boycott of the Moscow games. The power that this forum presents is incredible and provides a truly worldwide audience. This becomes even more powerful now with the instantaneous effect of social media.

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