The Sport of Politics...Becomes the Politics of Sport

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The opening ceremonies of the 1936 Olympics, in Berlin. Um, kind of political. Source: Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Source: Getty Images

The Olympic truce — whether it's a myth or not — is one of Western civilization's most cherished ideals. The ancient truce — called Ekecheiria — was reportedly honored by the Greeks and their neighbors during the ancient Olympics. It facilitated safe travels and a cessation of hostilities for athletes, visitors, poets and others during the games at Olympia. The current Olympic truce is probably both more and less stable — heavy security prevents (but not always, see Black September) actual violence; and Rule 51 of the Olympic Charter explicitly states, "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." That has not prevented politics from seeping into the games. Hitler's 1936 games were meant to prove Aryan superiorityand famously didn't. Black Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who finished first and third, respectively, in the 200 meter-run, bowed their heads and gave the Black Power salute during the national anthem as a protest against racism in the U.S. (you can see a photo of that moment on our main website).A reciprocal boycott kept the Cold War chilly at the games in Moscow and L.A. in the eighties. And now, the Beijing summer Olympics threaten to be the most political games yet — Hollywood heavyweights are weighing in for the Olympic sport of protest, and athletes are preparing to confront China's record on the environment, human rights and Sudan. Today we're looking forward by looking back (Tommie Smith!) — do you think the Olympics should be a moment of truce, of noble competition unsullied by politics? Or are they the perfect venue for such displays?

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My daughter is a high level speedskater. She was so inspired by Joey's donation that she made her own contribution. She did not consider it a political gesture, but rather one of compassion to the family of man. What a better place to plea for universal compassion than the Olympic games.

Sent by Marcia | 3:24 PM | 2-28-2008

I encourage athletes to protest during the games, but Americans will need to be prepared for protests regarding ourcontinued presence in Iraq. What will America's reaction be to these protests?

Sent by Christi | 3:24 PM | 2-28-2008

My mother, Vera Yvonovna Masuta, was on the Olympic Team for The Soviet Union and set to go to the 1940 Olympics that were canceled during World War II. She lives in Walnut Creek, California, still married to my dad, an American GI (William Armstrong) whom she met at the close of the war. I know that it is a lifelong regret that she missed her opportunity, and at age 91 she speaks often of her time in training and the historical events that interrupted her future.

Sent by Lubov Armstrong-Mazur | 3:29 PM | 2-28-2008

I think that the Olympics should be a unifying event to connect the people of the world and create positive connections between nations. This will help to develop relationships and open up channels of communication and collaboration in the future.

If people are really concerned about China's politics then they should be more aware of the everyday products they buy and what corporations they support with the everyday choices they make. Put your money where your mouth is.

Sent by Nicole Smith | 3:31 PM | 2-28-2008

The Olympics should NOT be a venue for any suggestion of political view. It should be a refuge from the everyday posturing of differing points of view. Politics breed animosity, not sportsmanship, and any Olympic participant showing any sort of policical expression is "cheating", not abiding by the rules and should be sanctioned in some way. It is wrong to punish or reward any political stance in this context, no matter how honourable or noble it may seem.

Sent by Luke | 3:32 PM | 2-28-2008

Every time I see this picture my chest wells up with pride. Is there anything more AMERICAN than protesting injustice?

God Bless these gentlemen for their courage and fortitude.

Sent by Frank Paiz | 3:34 PM | 2-28-2008

I find the jingoism in US coverage of the Olympics annoying to the point of my not wanting to watch much of them - the enormous focus on US athletes rather than on the sports as a whole.

Sent by Steve Juniper | 3:38 PM | 2-28-2008

I wish that olympic events would be only about individuals, without nation ties - more the global citizen/athlete that is competing against past records. Nationalism and politics should not be a part of the games - it cheapens the event. Why should the ambience be "USA against Russia" or any other country against country.

It is more than satisfying and entertaining that somebody (of any race/country) is competing as one of the worlds top athletes.

Sent by ron Snow | 3:42 PM | 2-28-2008

For many years the american public have exploited people of color in sports to bring glory to the US while our society held them back in many ways. In its way it has been a modern form of slavery. I remember as a white 13 year old watching the Mexico City Olympics and the protest of Mr. T. Smith and his running mate. My father's reaction was one of disgust that they should demonstrate their cause in this way. I remember being struck by the fact that their cause must be important and their act of courage along with several other events over time from the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, the murder of M.L.King and the rioting and police suppression that followed, among others heralded an America that was rotting from within and only social revolution would bring justice to all of us. I am proud to be an American specifically because my brothers and sisters of color have shown purpose and courage in making us a better country. I only wish we were able to direct our focus as a people using this powerful example to the many problems that face our nation and the world. There are many false voices of "morality" in our society that divert our attention from the tasks at hand. We need more activists to galvanize our purpose.

Sent by Bruce Worsley | 3:49 PM | 2-28-2008

Yes. As Tommy Smith said on your show, they are political anywhere. I am Mexican, was very proud of the Olympics in my home town, but cannot forgive the display in light of the earlier massacre at the Plaza of the Three Cultures. Again don't forget the Aussie who participated as well (he had a pin on his warm-up, and he's the one who told Smith and Carlos to share the one pair of gloves).

Sent by Gerardo Brown-Manrique | 3:52 PM | 2-28-2008

I enjoyed your TOTN feature on Olympics and Politics 28 Feb 2008. I had the pleasure of knowing Jack Shea--Speed skating Gold Medalist in Lake Placid 1932, while he was alive. I was a team mate of his grandson Jimmy Shea,Gold Medalist Skeleton 2002 Salt Lake City, on the US Skeleton Team. Jack often came to our races. Jack Shea shared with me one day that he protested the 1936 Winter Olympic Games in Germany by not going. I have the utmost respect for his decision. We hardly hear about these type of protests by athletes. I can't help but wonder if he could have had made a bigger statement and made a bigger impact by going to the games,participating and then speaking out in some form or manner as suggested or done by some of your athlete guests. Your speed skating guest may wish to contact the Shea family to find out more info about Jack's protest.

Sent by Babs Isak | 4:16 PM | 2-28-2008

First, we don't watch athletes to hear their political opinions. Second, if athletes feel the need to speak out they should count the cost, because there they will pay a stiff price.

Sent by Stephen Garfield | 5:14 PM | 2-28-2008

Leave the games pure. However, we humans can not leave anything pure.

Sent by L Price | 7:39 PM | 2-28-2008

Tommie Smith raised his gloved fist in the black power salute, not in solidarity with the civil rights movement and the ideal of integration.

Pardon me for pointing out that the civil rights movement led by Dr. King was integrationist and the black power movement was separatist. You know, like the breakup of the black-white coalition when Stokely Carmichael expelled whites from SNCC and it was no longer a civil rights organization but an identity movement?

Or later, when H. Rap Brown took over the reins and dropped the "Nonviolent" from the group's acronym (and made his famous statement that "violence is as American as cherry pie").

Stokely became the prime minister of the Black Panther Party and tried to do the same thing, i.e. break up the Black Panther coalition with white radical groups and turn it into an anti-white group, but he was unsuccessful.

I'm no fan of the Black Panthers but whatever you can say about them, they weren't anti-white, in fact, they were feted in penthouses all up and down Park Avenue.

And who could forget the 1969 shootout between the Black Panthers and Maulana Karenga's US Organization on the UCLA campus over control of the black studies department?

Uncle Tommie's salute didn't do a darn thing for civil rights. Look at any civil rights timeline. All the civil rights legislation was passed during LBJ's term, and ended, in fact, began to be rolled back, when Nixon was elected in 1968. Where was Tommie Smith then? Where was he in the 1980 when Reagan and Bush further dismantled civil rights legislation?

Thanks for your symbolic contribution for making separate-but-equal a reality, Uncle Tommie. We now have four self-segregated black hosts over at News and Notes alongside an all-white lineup at Talk of the Nation. Gosh, Mr. Tom, can you tell me why all of Farai Chideya's blog posts are framed as questions to black people? Is it to make non in-group members feel like interlopers by definition? Just like it did back in the 50s, huh?

I delete e-,ai

Sent by Mike | 10:49 AM | 2-29-2008

Bravo to those of you making thoughtful points of the spirit of the games. In truth, it is meant to be unifying, but that doesn't mean we have to be silent.
The Chinese are people too, not just government, and they deserve more than abandonment.
However, that doesn't mean 'not going' or 'not watching' is the answer. How many Americans have genuinely researched and seen the Chinese policies and government in action? By attending, by bringing LIGHT to, having our media attention on someone other than ourselves is healthy. Anita was right, about how the boycotting aspect doesn't genuinely make sense, as it just reinforces the divide in the world without solving any problem. What would have happened had Owens and other 'races' boycotted the 1936 Olympics? Would that statement had been made?

Above, Nicole Smith made a beautiful point. A global event, political or not, is not the place to be righteous or consciousnesses if you are not ready to make that step in your own life. The Olympics are not the answer to our American woes.

Sent by Ashley | 11:51 AM | 2-29-2008

The question, "Does an Olympian participate as a person or a as citizen of their country?" doesn't present a problem at all when both roles ought to be honored, that is, they're not necessarily in opposition. A Black Power fist accurately represented the political climate of the United States at the time it was raised, and affectively represented the country from which the person comes. Socio-political messages by athletes then, does not somehow cast them out of the the role as a representative of their country, but rather accomplishes it.

Sent by Christopher | 12:26 PM | 2-29-2008

The Olympics are meant to unite countries and society. The act of watching your representatives compete against other countries' competitors brings a sense of pride and joy. By bringing politics into it, you are risking that what the athletes or representatives in the Olympics are advocating is not supported by all. The Olympics is about sports and that's how it should stay. The sports in our country are barely about sports as it is, at least professionally. You are more likely to see actual sports and teamwork watching college or high school sports. The Olympics are about unity and strength, bringing countries together in peaceful competition, if only for a few weeks. If we bring in politics, we may alienate countries that we could compete against and they may not return, undercutting the message of the Olympics.

Sent by Jamaica | 4:32 PM | 3-3-2008

What many don't realize in the case of China is that Chinese citizens are being arrested, tortured, and killed to make way for the Olympics. These people are being killed, not because of some crime, but because of what they believe or who they are. Falun Gong mediators, Tibetans, human rights lawyers, and others top the list. The athletes and the world needs to know that while they are enjoying these games in Beijing, just down the street in the laogai (Chinese re-education camp) innocent men, women, and children will be screaming in pain or will be silenced forever. That kind of cruelty should be protested.

Sent by Lee Randazzo | 4:02 PM | 3-16-2008