Fox Photos/Getty Images
Jesse Owens (1913 - 1980), who smashed so many records at the German Olympics in 1936 that Hitler refused to meet him, in the final of the long jump on August 7, 1936 in Berlin.
Jesse Owens (1913 - 1980), who smashed so many records at the German Olympics in 1936 that Hitler refused to meet him, in the final of the long jump on August 7, 1936 in Berlin. Fox Photos/Getty Images
Katie Cella is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.
Despite official bylaws against "political behavior" at the Olympics, there has been no shortage of attacks, boycotts, and demonstrations in the 116 years since the first modern Olympic Games. Nationalism, racism, and a host of other political sentiments have repeatedly found their way into the competition, inciting everything from flag burning to bloody fistfights to the tragic murder of athletes.
Although human rights groups urged boycotts of the 2008 Beijing games because of the Chinese government's human rights record, suppression of protests in Tibet, and coziness with dictators in countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe, the competition ultimately provoked relatively little political activity. So far, the London Olympics have not been dogged by many boycott threats, but it hasn't exactly been controversy-free either — they've mainly centered on whether London has enough security personnel and whether to hold an official moment of silence to mark the 40th anniversary of the Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Indeed, the competition has already produced some striking — if ultimately empty — solidarity. On Monday, Iran announced that Iranian athletes will compete against Israelis, after some members of the country's delegation refused to do so during the 2004 Athens games and 2008 Beijing games. (The catch: Athletes from the two countries are not scheduled to face off in any events).
But cooler heads haven't always prevailed during the Olympics. Here's a look at eight games where politics took center stage, relegating sports to the sidelines.
London, Britain (1908): The fourth official Olympic competition was the first to feature an opening ceremony, which called for the flag bearer from each nation to dip their flag in respect to King Edward VII as they passed by his box in the 68,000-seat stadium. But the American flag bearer, a shot-putter named Ralph Rose (pictured above), did not tilt the Stars and Stripes toward the ruler, and legend has it that U.S. discus thrower Martin Sheridan defiantly declared that the American flag "dips to no earthly king." American athletes have not dipped their flag to the host nation's leaders since.
Anglo-American tension erupted once again during the marathon event when Italian runner Dorando Pietri collapsed in the final moments of the race and had to be carried across the finish line by medics. U.S. competitor Johnny Hayes was initially declared the runner-up as British and American officials argued over Pietri's disqualification for over an hour, while spectators brawled in the stands. Eventually, Pietri was disqualified and Hayes crowned the winner.
These weren't the only political incidents at the London games. Finland, which at the time was under Russian control, chose to march in the opening ceremony without a flag rather than bear Russia's colors. Athletes from Northern Ireland boycotted the competition altogether because Britain refused to grant the territory independence.
Berlin, Germany (1936): Adolf Hitler planned to showcase his theories of Aryan racial superiority at these Summer Olympics. But things didn't go exactly as planned, with the African
American track-and-field competitor Jesse Owens (pictured above) winning four gold medals during the games. A legend soon emerged that Hitler snubbed Owens during the awards ceremony — but that's only partly true.
On the first day of the track-and-field events, Hitler only congratulated German winners and refused to acknowledge African-American high-jumper and gold medalist Cornelius Johnson. When International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials told Hitler he needed to congratulate all medalists or none at all, he opted for the latter. When Owens won his medals, Hitler had already chosen to skip the awards ceremony.
But Owens later said that he felt more insulted by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's failure to acknowledge his victories than he was by Hitler's absence from the medal ceremony. "The president didn't even send me a telegram," Owens noted. He was never invited to the White House to receive the honors traditionally bestowed on Olympic medalists. Eventually, 19 years later, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower named Owens an "Ambassador of Sports."
Melbourne, Australia (1956): Several incidents disrupted these summer Olympic Games, which were the first to be hosted by a country in the Southern Hemisphere and the first to hold closing ceremonies. China boycotted the games because of the participation of Formosa (Taiwan), while Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon stayed away from the competition in response to Israel's invasion of the Sinai Peninsula earlier that year.
Relations between Russia and Soviet-occupied Hungary were even more volatile during the games. Before the Olympics began, disaffected Hungarians staged major protests against communist rule in Budapest, sparking a crackdown by Soviet forces that left more than 5,000 people dead. The Hungarian Olympic team only heard about the developments back home after arriving in Melbourne and then promptly tore down the Hungarian flag with the communist insignia in the Olympic Village, raising the free Hungarian flag in its place.
Several countries urged the IOC to cancel the games, but then-IOC President Avery Brundage insisted that they continue. Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands boycotted the games over Russia's suppression of the Hungarian Revolution.
Perhaps no event epitomized these bitter games more than the water polo match between Russia and Hungary, in which a scrappy match turned bloody when a Russian player sucker-punched Hungarian opponent Ervin Zador (pictured above after the brawl) in the eye. Hungarian spectators broke out of the stands to scream at the Russian players, and the referees had to cancel the game — which came to be called the "blood in the water" match — while Hungary was up 4-0. The Hungarian team went on to win the championship game against Yugoslavia and take the gold medal.
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