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Olympic Games a Forum for Political Protest
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Olympic Games a Forum for Political Protest



This week, the issue of Darfur caused Hollywood director Steven Spielberg to resign as artistic advisor to the upcoming Beijing Olympics. Spielberg protested that the Chinese government is not using its considerable influence with the government of Sudan to stop the slaughter in Darfur. This isn't the first time the games have been a forum for political protest.

Professor John Hoberman of the University of Texas at Austin took us back through the history.

Professor JOHN HOBERMAN (Germanic Languages, University of Texas, Austin): In 1935-36, for example, in the United States, there was a whole coalition that campaigned against American participation in the Berlin Olympics of 1936. There were Jewish groups, there were Catholic groups who considered the Nazis to be a godless regime, and there were labor unions who were protesting the fascist exploitation of the workers.

In the case of Moscow, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979 prompted President Jimmy Carter to call for and successfully carry out a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games that eventually comprised about 40 countries.

In retaliation, when the Olympic games came to Los Angeles in 1984, the Soviet Union, not surprisingly, organized its own boycott of Los Angeles games that included a power like East Germany, which was very unhappy about being dragged into a boycott after having prepared and doped its athletes into Olympic condition. And another, I think, couple of dozen countries were also involved, unhappily, as a result of Soviet pressure.

SEABROOK: In 1968, athletes used the games as a platform for their personal protest.

Prof. HOBERMAN: The Black Power demonstration on top of the victory stand in Mexico City in 1968 by several African-American athletes was one of the great political moments in the history of the Olympic movement. In that case, this was a way of saying, at the end of the 1960s, during which African-American athletes were finally arriving on American college campuses to help the football and the basketball and the track teams; that the African-Americans had had enough of domestic racism and that here was an opportunity to express their feelings about that.

The reaction on the part of the IOC, the reaction on the part of the United States Olympic Committee, was rage. These people were sent home, and it has taken decades for people like Tommie Smith and John Carlos - who are the most famous of these demonstrators - to have, in effect, recovered their reputations and be recognized as political heroes of a certain kind.

SEABROOK: In 1972, politics turned deadly when Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympics. Professor Hoberman says the games can never really be free of politics.

Prof. HOBERMAN: It's not as though one has a choice. Although there have long been people within the International Olympic Committee who see it differently, the rationale for them is that the games are a kind of a magical oasis in a violent world; that this is a kind of secular religion in which all the tribes of the earth convene in order to celebrate their common humanity.

My view is that the Olympic Games are much more complicated than that.

SEABROOK: John Hoberman is an Olympic historian and author of "The Olympic Crisis."

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