Should politics have a place in the Olympics?


Andrew Bucholtz
Andrew Bucholtz
Amrit Ahluwalia
Amrit Ahluwalia

As the Beijing Olympics draw closer, there will undoubtedly be much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the degree to which politics has entered the games. Many people will take up the rallying cry of Vancouver Organizing Committee CEO John Furlong, who, during the protests of the Olympic torch run back in April, told the Globe and Mail, “The Olympics shouldn’t be about politics, it should be about sport.” Furlong and those who share his opinions are wrong to nostalgically yearn for a past that never was. Politics and sport have been intertwined since the ancient Olympics, so declaring that they can be separated now is the height of folly.

In 668 B.C., the Greek town of Pisa commissioned Pheidon, the tyrant of the city-state of Argos, to take control the Sanctuary of Zeus, site of the ancient Olympics, from Pisa’s neighbouring town of Elis. The prime motivation of the Pisatans was to host the Olympics that year, thus increasing their prestige at the expense of the Eleans, and they were successful.

Pheidon seized the sanctuary, expelled the Elean marshals and hosted the Olympics himself.

Politics played a crucial role in the ancient games, and they would never leave: in 364 B.C. the Games even turned into all-out war when the Eleans attacked the Pisatan-held sanctuary during the final of the pentathlon.

Things have been no different in modern times. As Dan Gardner of the Ottawa Citizen wrote in April, Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s attempt to exclude politics from the modern Games was destined for failure the second he decided to have athletes compete for their nations. “By making nations the foundation of the Olympics, de Coubertin made the Olympics inherently political,” Gardner wrote, citing examples from the very first modern Olympics in 1896, the Irish refused to march under the Union Jack, the Hungarians declined to join the Austro-Hungarian team and the Turks boycotted the whole thing over a disagreement with Greece. Similar examples can be cited from almost every Olympiad.

The Beijing Olympics will be even more a lightning rod for political controversy than any other Olympiad to date. There are plenty of causes for protestors to take up, including China’s crackdown on Tibet, its involvement with the Sudanese government and the genocide in Darfur, its treatment of Falun Gong practitioners and its record on human rights and the environment.

I’m not suggesting that athletes should boycott the Olympics, as it’s still a top sporting competition. Rather, they should be aware of the political dimension and they should feel free to use the podium athletic success gives them to speak out for their cause of choice, instead of bowing to political pressure by staying silent. That’s a better approach than pretending that it’s only a game.

--Andrew Bucholtz

Politics being so carelessly dragged into the upcoming Olympics takes away from the purity of the competition that will be on show.

While wearing their country’s colours, athletes ultimately represent the competitive and patriotic spirit of their country, as well as their own name. They cannot and do not represent the policies of whatever government happens to be in power during even-numbered years.

In 1980, the Summer Olympics were held in Moscow at the height of the Cold War between the democratic West and Communist East. Sixty-two countries boycotted these Olympics on political grounds, and because of that, those Olympics are not remembered as a sporting event, but rather a political statement. No one knows who won the gold medal for the 100m dash, or who achieved what in any of the other events. The achievements of countless Western athletes who spent their entire lives in preparation for those games were wiped out. Worse still for those who weren’t permitted to go, who worked so hard for so long, who may have been too young four years previously and would be too old four years later, whose work and efforts were wasted so that their government could show disdain for another country.

The very meaning and spirit of the Olympics, the fraternity, the passion and the competition they represent, should never be sacrificed in order to make a statement.

Athletes who choose not to represent their countries on moral grounds this summer in Beijing are certainly entitled to their own opinions, but at the end of the day, the only ones who are hurt by the decision to bring politics into the competition are the athletes. No one should be browbeaten out of the honour and glory of representing their country on arguably the biggest stage in sport because of the pressure of an angry minority group. Whether they represent western capitalism, East Timor freedom or any of the other political movements out there, athletes should never be forced to give up on their hopes and dreams in order to pander to perturbed political movements.

It’s easy for pundits and lobbyists to criticize athletes on moral grounds, but were they in the same once-in-a-lifetime position, I’m sure they’d be singing a different tune. We have elected officials to represent our political views, so it’s not the responsibility of Canada’s athletes to uphold our political position. As kayaker Adam Van Koeverden said in his criticism of Elvis Stojko’s suggestion that Canadian athletes should boycott the Beijing Olympics, “Being a fast kayaker doesn’t make me a political expert.”

--Amrit Ahluwalia

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