A Tradition of Political Protests at the Olympics Protests against the Chinese government's human rights record have prompted talk about boycott. There's a long history of political protests at the Olympic Games, including in 1906, when an Irish triple jumper competing for Britain climbed up the flag pole with an Irish flag.
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A Tradition of Political Protests at the Olympics

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A Tradition of Political Protests at the Olympics

A Tradition of Political Protests at the Olympics

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Another day, another demonstration. The Olympic torch arrived in Thailand today, and authorities are concerned enough about protests that the military will join police in protecting the flame.

Protests against China's human rights record have followed the torch around the globe. And now there's talk about boycotting the Beijing Olympics. Some world leaders say they will skip the opening ceremony in Beijing. Full boycotts seem unlikely, though they used to be in fashion.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: Olympic history is packed with individual political moments. You can go back as far as 1906. Irish triple jumper Peter O'Connor didn't like competing for Great Britain, so he climbed up the Olympic flag pole…

Mr. DAVID WALLECHINSKY (Olympic Historian): …with an Irish flag and waved it in the air so people could see that he was Irish.

GOLDMAN: Olympic historian David Wallechinsky says boycotts aren't as common, but they're the big stick of political protest. The first major boycott was in 1976 at the Montreal Games. More than 20 African countries stayed away because the International Olympic Committee didn't ban New Zealand after its national rugby team toured racially segregated South Africa. Wallechinsky says the '76 boycott was a bit of a stretch.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: The International Olympic Committee had already banned South Africa from the Olympics and, of course, rugby was not part of the Olympic movement.

GOLDMAN: Three years later, it was clear to see why a boycott might happen after an act of aggression by the Soviet Union chronicled in this CNN documentary.

(Soundbite of CNN documentary)

Unidentified Man: By December 25th, 1979, tens of thousands of men in tanks and trucks started to trundle across the border. Moscow hoped they could complete their mission within weeks.

President JIMMY CARTER: And I have notified the Olympic Committee that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.

(Soundbite of applause)

President Jimmy Carter made the announcement in his State of the Union speech.

In Atlanta, U.S. Olympic distance runner Dick Buerkle cursed the news of a boycott and fled to a friend's house in the mountains north of the city.

Mr. DICK BUERKLE (Olympic Distance Runner): I went up there and stewed for a while, and it was hard. I mean, my family was kind of in favor of the boycott, and I was upset about it.

GOLDMAN: Buerkle would've run the 5,000-meters in Moscow. His track career ended a couple of years later. It took a lot longer to lose the anger. Now he says the Olympic boycott was probably better than sending soldiers at the time. But did it work?

Mr. JODY POWELL (Former Press Secretary, Jimmy Carter): I absolutely believe it did.

GOLDMAN: Jody Powell was President Carter's press secretary in 1980. Powell says the boycott and other retaliatory measures against the Soviets did the job.

Mr. POWELL: In the end, there was an international response. There was support for the Afghan freedom fighters, and the Soviet Union was forced to withdraw from Afghanistan.

GOLDMAN: But the withdrawal came nine years after the Olympic boycott. The Soviets were losing a costly guerilla war. Afghanistan was called their Vietnam. 1980 Olympian Dick Buerkle notes with irony that his involvement never really ended.

Mr. BUERKLE: I'm taking off my shoes today at the airport because of bin Laden and because of people like him back in 1980. So we didn't get to go to the Olympics. So he's been a big part of my life for 28 years now.

GOLDMAN: It can be said the boycott by the U.S. and more than 60 other countries had some effect. It embarrassed the Soviets, who carried out a revenge boycott four years later.

Peter Ueberroth had a front row seat for that. He was the chief organizer for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Now he's chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee. At a USOC media summit this week in Chicago, Ueberroth said there'll be no U.S. boycott of the Beijing games. Asked about a plan by some to boycott the opening ceremony, Ueberroth was dismissive.

Mr. PETER UEBERROTH (Chairman, U.S. Olympic Committee): I just hope that anybody that doesn't go to the Olympic Games has the good judgment to give their tickets to the families of some competing athlete.

GOLDMAN: Talk of boycott may annoy Olympic leaders, but it should be noted that it was Olympic leaders who first infused the Chinese Games with politics.

Francois Carrard was the International Olympic Committee's executive director in 2001, when the IOC awarded the games to China. He said at the time, some people say because of serious human rights issues, we close the door and say no. The other way is to bet on openness. We are taking the bet that seven years from now, we will see many changes.

Those seven years are up, and some would say the IOC is losing the bet. The committee and China may avoid the boycott issue, but the scrutiny is sure to increase as the games approach. And the stakes from that wager grow higher.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Chicago.

INSKEEP: You can read about the history of political protests at the Olympics at npr.org.

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