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Susan O'Rourke | January 12, 2022

While the Olympics shine a light on star athletes from around the world, they also can bring attention to geopolitical conflicts between participating nations. We were reminded of the cultural and political significance of the Olympic Games as, this past winter, the United States announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. While not withdrawing athletes from the competition, The New York Times reports, “the U.S. diplomatic boycott will preclude only government officials from attending.” The United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia followed suit and instituted diplomatic bans. Japan took a less forceful approach by deciding “not [to] send a government delegation to the 2022 Winter Games, but…instead [to] send some officials with direct ties to the Olympics.” Belgium, Estonia, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Scotland, and New Zealand also have announced diplomatic boycotts of the games.

The nations implementing diplomatic boycotts have cited human rights violations as the motivation for the political protest. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that:

Several countries, including the United States, have accused China of committing genocide against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region, allegations that China denies. Rights groups have also called attention to Beijing’s repression in Tibet and its crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong. The disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai from public view in November added to concerns.

Although not meant to be political, the Olympic Games had been used by countries and athletes for decades to make statements and influence political or behavioral change. The current protests add to the complex history of boycotts and political protests of the Olympic Games. Educators discussing the current diplomatic boycotts with their students might also consider placing them in the context of past boycotts. For example, educators might address, one or more of the following past events in history. Below is just a sample, there are several more which can be examined with the links at the end of this article.

1968 Summer Olympics (Mexico City, Mexico) 

  • One of the most iconic and significant Olympic protests took place at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. That year, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the air as a “symbol of Black power and the human rights movement at large.” John Carlos reports that he and Smith “decided [to] wear black gloves to represent strength and unity[,]….beads hanging from our neck, which would represent the history of lynching [, and]…wouldn’t wear shoes to symbolize the poverty that still plagued so much of black America.” Their moving protest brought attention to the American Civil Rights movement and fights for equality around the globe. The medalists’ protest stemmed, in part, from their work with the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an activist group “established by [Dr. Harry] Edwards at San Jose State in October 1967.” The OPHR initially called for a boycott of the 1968 Summer Olympics by African-American athletes unless conditions were met, including “hiring more Black coaches,” excluding South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics on account of their apartheid policies; and boycotting the racist and anti-Semitic practices of the New York Athletic Club. Peter Norman, the Australian sprinter who won silver, wore an OPHR patch while on the podium to symbolize his support for Smith and Norman’s protest and work with the OPHR. Though the three men faced significant backlash, their brave protest helped achieve change in athletics and inspired future athletes to use their platforms to advocate for racial justice. Educators interested in exploring this protest with their classes can check out the resources provided by the Zinn Education Project.

1936 Olympic Games (Berlin and Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany)

  • Prior to the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin, there was much debate on whether the United States and other western democracies would boycott or participate in games held in Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Ultimately, the United States accepted a bid to compete, but not without controversy. U.S. runner Jesse Owens, an African American, became the star of the 1936 summer games and took home four gold medals. According to the IOC, “The Berlin Games are best remembered for Adolf Hitler’s failed attempt to use them to prove his theories of Aryan racial superiority.” The Movement to Boycott the Berlin Olympics of 1936, developed by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a resource available for educators to use with their students to examine this issue.

1976 Summer Olympics (Montreal, Canada)

  • 28 African nations fully boycotted the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal as a statement of opposition to apartheid in South Africa. The full boycott not only withdrew diplomatic representatives but also prohibited athletes from participating in the event. Armin Rosen, writing for The Atlantic notes that the African nations “refused to participate alongside New Zealand, whose national rugby team had embarked on a controversial tour of apartheid South Africa, in defiance of an informal but widely observed international  athletics embargo.” The New Zealand team chose to play in the country even after the South African government (which was excluded from the Olympic Games from 1964-1992) had carried out a deadly anti-apartheid campaign. Rosen further reports that the boycott brought international attention to the anti-apartheid movement and moral support to the movement’s leaders and supporters.

1980 Summer Olympics (Moscow, Soviet Union)

  • Four years after the 1976 Olympic boycott, the United States enacted a full boycott of the Moscow 1980 Summer Olympics to protest the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. The boycott resulted in mixed reactions. While a number of U.S. citizens supported the boycott and Congress voted strongly in support of it, the U.S. State Department reports that other allies did not join the movement. Further, the boycott did not achieve the goal of deterring the Soviet Union from military action in Afghanistan. The 1980 boycott motivated the Soviet Union to boycott the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, in return.

Additional Boycotts Took Place at the Following Olympics:

  • 1956 Summer Olympics (Melbourne, Australia)
  • 1964 Summer Olympics (Tokyo, Japan)
  • 1984 Summer Olympics (Los Angeles, United States)
  • 1988 Summer Olympics (Seoul, South Korea)

Additional Reading: Boycotts of the Olympic Games