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Last Updated: 05/01/2008
Olympics rhymes with politics
Raluca Batanoiu

Are the Olympics just another form of war by proxy? Raluca Batanoiu comments on the inherent nationalist sentiment of the Games and the long history of protests and politics they have reflected.

"Let’s beat them. Let’s show them who is better! Our success is our national vitality and prestige!”—this is the enthusiastic cry of battle between nations. The refrain is the same, whether the battle in question is a fight, a war, or… a sports competition. They all involve attacks, different strategies for assail, techniques for defense, winning, worldwide attention and, of course, nationalism.

The Olympics are the same kind of battle, under the same refrain. It is a battle whose battlefield is the sports court, and whose soldiers are athletes. They train themselves with persistency and then compete to conquer – not a new territory, but a medal, a medal that might mean more than a territory. This is raw competition, a race not only between the sportsmen who, in the name of their country, must become champions, but also between the foreign policies and national character of each country. The cheerleaders and the people in the tribune are the symbols of the nation who gets into “war” once it gets on the sports field. And then the victory over the other becomes a must! Olympics is now one of these wars.

It has not always been like that, or at least the initial intention was completely different. When the modern Olympics first started, in 1896 in Athens, Greece, the idea was to leave politics aside and bring people together in peace, to respect universal moral principles and promote the Olympic spirit. But when competition comes into play, when people have to fight for a medal and then get on a podium that puts some on top of the others, then the togetherness inherently becomes rivalry and the winning of one, the victory over someone else. Furthermore, the awarding of one means the laurels of a certain nation and, through that, the laurels of the ideology of that nation that now stands on the podium and makes everyone listen to the national anthem under the national flag. It is an inherently nationalist ritual and thereby fans the flames of nationalism.

Hitler was the first one to exploit this idea. At the summer Olympics in 1936 the Fuhrer wanted to show the whole world the superiority of Germany after World War I, putting forward his strong view of the Aryan race as the best one. He was wrong, as the African American athlete Jesse Owns showed him by winning four gold medals.

But nationalism still gets stronger during sport competitions. Humanity becomes then divided into nations who compete against the others. The borderlines of one country become barriers in dividing nations. Nations are people, and people from different nations becomes rivals, just like the competitors on the field. As in economics, where capitalism encourages competition as a way for improving the market, sports do almost the same: encourage competition and give nations the feeling that through nationalism they can better themselves. By strongly identifying with their nation, then the victory in sports can be the victory of the people of that nation.

The Olympic rings, what Pierre de Coubertin intended to make the symbol of the five continents together in the spirit of peace, become now the handcuffs[1] – and the rings have often clashed as protesters and activists have sought to rattle the chains and show their handcuffs to the world. The Melbourne Olympics in 1956 brought Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon protesting against the Israeli invasion in Egypt, while the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland were boycotting the Soviet occupation in Hungary. Twelve years later, in Mexico City, Mexican nationals protested during the Olympics against the Mexican Government. This led to violence and ultimately the killing of over 200 protesters. In 1980, when the Olympic rings met in Moscow, politics were brought into the arena again, with the US and 61 other nations protesting against the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan.

As we can see, Olympic competition has often turned into a fight of politics and ideologies. International sports have become a question of international relations.

Even UNESCO acknowledges the increasing politicization of international sport, which has developed to the extent that the Olympic Games are now regarded as a testing ground for the two great political units. As an example, one can simply look at the Beijing Olympics nowadays: China, on the one hand, and Tibet, on the other, backed up by the whole International arena.

The Olympics have turned into an international summit where nations protest each other’s policies. Actual athletic competition is being put off, as the question of Tibet is brought to the table and needs to be discussed before the START is given.

Meanwhile the torch relay is running. The flame flickers from one country to another and, as tradition requires, it will burn throughout the celebration of the Olympics until it is extinguished at the end of the closing ceremony of the Games. What this torch falls short of however is to shed some light over the new aspect that the Sports now entail: politics. The Olympic Games on the stadium are now a political meeting where foreign policies compete, each one striving to prove that its nation is better, and success then is the national vitality and prestige.

If we owe the Olympics to the Greeks, the great poets, then the verse can go also with politics, for Olympics rhymes with politics. The problem now is to find some room for “peace” and where this would fit to make it rhyme better and match Olympics the way it was originally meant to.

[1] See the Reporters without Borders homepage:

Raluca Batanoiu is a Master's degree candidate at the UN University for Peace.