The Crossroads of Diplomacy and Sport

With the Beijing Olympics just months away, Robert Siegel and David Wallechinsky, co-author of the upcoming The Complete Book of the Olympics, discuss Olympic boycotts, minor incidents, major protests and the decision to allow China to host this year's Games.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

October 1964, the Olympic Games in Japan. Tokyo was hosting the summer games, even though it was autumn, and the New York Times reported on Olympic fever. One article said, Japanese high school girls had adopted the lone Olympian from the newly independent state of Niger and made him some origami cranes.

By such small characteristic actions, The Times reported, the ordinary Japanese is helping to project the friendly image for which Japan has been yearning in the years since World War II.

That line reminded me of the places where the Olympics were held in the decades after the Second World War. Rome hosted the 1960 games. Munich, of course, was the host in 1972. The Olympics were a celebration, not just of sports, but of a welcome reentry into the community of nations for those former Axis powers, a celebration of a normal time of peace. The Soviet Union had similar hopes for the 1980 games, but they were boycotted by the U.S. over the invasion of Afghanistan, a move announced by President Jimmy Carter.

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President JIMMY CARTER: I can't say at this moment, but other nations will not go to the summer Olympics in Moscow, ours will not go.

SIEGEL: All this is germane today because the Chinese crackdown in Tibet has prompted some more talk of a boycott of the Olympic Games this summer or some symbolic boycott. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has suggested a boycott of the opening ceremony in Beijing.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (Through Translator) All the options are open, but I appeal to the sense of responsibility of the Chinese authority.

SIEGEL: China's foreign minister has criticized the handful of people, he said, who are out to politicize the Olympics. Well, when you look up politics at the Olympics in David Wallechinsky's, "Complete Book of the Summer Olympics," the lesson is eye-popping. In recent decades, an unpoliticized Olympiad seems to be the exception.

David Wallechinsky, take us back to the games in Melbourne in 1956.

Mr. DAVID WALLECHINSKY (Author, "The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics"): This was actually the first instance of Olympic boycott. You had two boycotts in 1956. One was to protest Soviet invasion of Hungary; this was Spain, The Netherlands, and Switzerland boycotting. And the other was to protest the Israeli-led invasion of the Suez Canal. The boycotters were Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq.

SIEGEL: In 1960 then, the games passed without any boycotts. Tokyo 1964?

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: Tokyo 1964, you didn't have any boycotts but you did have somewhat of a political incident, where the International Olympic Committee told athletes from around the world that they took part in the unauthorized GANEFO games in Indonesia; that they would not be allowed to take part in the Olympics. And there was, in fact, one major athlete, a female runner from North Korea, who took part in the GANEFO games and was thus banned from taking part in the Olympics.

SIEGEL: In 1968, the games in Mexico City, the image that has been left in people's minds in America was of some African-American athletes raising the fists in the air. But what had preceded the games in the streets of Mexico City was calamitous, disastrous.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: Yes, it's true. There were mass, nonviolent protests against the Mexican government, and the Mexican military opened fire, killing — we don't really know the total — but approximately 250 people, 10 days before the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee took the position that this was a domestic affair, and that it didn't affect the Olympics. Yet, a couple of weeks later when Tommie Smith and John Carlos of the United States won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meters, they staged a silent, nonviolent protest - what was called the Black Power protest. This completely outraged the International Olympic Committee, and they were forced to leave the country.

SIEGEL: Hundreds of deaths had passed without incident before that, you're saying.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: Exactly. Hundreds of people being killed on the streets of the city, that was okay with the Olympic movement. But a silent protest on the medal platform — that was forbidden.

SIEGEL: 1972, of course, was the catastrophe of the terrorist attack on the Olympic team.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: I think what's important about this - because this really woke people up to the fact that security had to be ensured at the Olympics. You had 11 people being killed by Palestinian terrorist — the Black September group. What's important to note is that the terrorists didn't particularly care about the Olympics one way or the other. What they wanted was an audience. By 1972, everybody in the world almost was following the Olympics and watching it, and so it became clear that the Olympics could be a platform for international incident.

SIEGEL: 1976 in Montreal, the games were boycotted by African nations.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: Yes. This was a very strange boycott because Julius Nyerere of Tanzania said that Africans should boycott the 1976 Olympics because the New Zealand Rugby team had toured South Africa, which was the government supported apartheid, racial inequality. The only problem with this logic was that, first of all, the International Olympic Committee had already banned South Africa from the Olympics. And second of all, Rugby was not part of the Olympic movement; it was not an Olympic sport, so it was a pretty tenuous connection with the Olympics.

SIEGEL: Then, of course, in 1980, the U.S leads a 65-nation boycott because of Afghanistan over the Moscow games. And four years later in Los Angeles, the USSR leads an Eastern Bloc boycott of the games in the United States in reprisal for that. Since that time, have we had relatively unpolitical summer games?

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: There have been minor incidents. In 1988, there was yet another boycott, but it was a very small one. The games were held in Seoul, South Korea. The North Koreans boycotted and they convinced three other countries to boycott as well — Cuba, Nicaragua and Ethiopia.

And then in 1992, you had the fall of the Soviet Union, and so you saw East and West Germany, you know, coming together as a team. It was a pretty good time. And yet, the team from Yugoslavia was punished because of, you know, Slobodan Milosevic's policies. And so, what the International Olympic Committee decided was that Yugoslavia could not enter team events, but individual Yugoslavian athletes could compete in the Olympics.

SIEGEL: There's a fine distinction for you?

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: Yes, very much so.

SIEGEL: You've been immersed in the Olympic Games for so many years. What do you make of this idea of having a sporting event that is global and that is devoid of political content?

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: The Olympics is a part of the world, and so it's automatically politicized. We're looking at this 2008 games in Beijing. It's absurd to say that, oh, somebody is politicized, the Tibetans are politicizing it, or Darfur activists are politicizing it. You can count on the fact that the Chinese Communist Party very much wants to politicize the games. They want to look good, not so much to the outside world, but to their own people.

SIEGEL: They want to say we enjoy the respect of all of these other countries that have come here to take part in the games.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: Exactly. Now, I think the International Olympic Committee made a mistake when they gave the games to China because it's a dictatorship. And we haven't seen an Olympics hosted by a dictatorship since the 1980 Moscow games. There's 125 democracies in the world. There was no need to pick one of the other 70 that are run by dictators.

SIEGEL: Well, David Wallechinsky, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: David Wallechinsky, author of the "Complete Book of the Summer Olympics."

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