Column (Jamie Kapalko): Politics and sports are inseparable at Olympic Games

Jamie Kapalko

Why can’t those Darfur activists just let the Olympics be?

The Olympic Games comprise the greatest sporting event on the planet. The athletes are the best of the elite, competing not only for themselves but also for their nation; for some sports, these few weeks every four years are the only ones in which the world’s eyes are on them. The Games are pure, and they should be uncontaminated by politics.

But the activists see things differently.

With six months to go, the Beijing Olympics have been tattooed with the ugly nickname “Genocide Olympics.” China purchases most of Sudan’s oil and is its main weapons supplier. The sign-wavers want China to use its leverage to do more to end the crisis in Darfur. So what do they do? They hijack the Olympics. The spotlight’s on China, so they hopped onstage, nudged the five rings out of the way and pulled out their megaphones.

They sent Chinese officials letters and petitions with the signatures of Nobel Prize laureates, athletes and politicians from around the world. They pressured Steven Spielberg to step down as the artistic adviser for the opening and closing ceremonies. A few lawmakers have even suggested a boycott.

President Bush still plans to attend, saying, “I view the Olympics as a sporting event.”

And that’s all it should be. Simple, untainted sport. Of all things, sport – especially the Olympic Games – should be the one to remain uncorrupted by politics. That’s all the Games have ever been and all they should ever be.

The one exception, I suppose, is the 1936 Munich Olympics. The Nazis used the Games as a tool to spread propaganda. German athletes not only had to be fast and strong but also blonde and blue-eyed. Hitler, with the help of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, used the Germans’ position at the top of the medals count as evidence of the supremacy of the Aryan race and the triumph of the Third Reich.

Americans remember these Munich Olympics best for the performance of Jesse Owens. Owens, a black American, won four gold medals in track and field. His main competition in the long jump was German Aryan poster boy Luz Long. During the preliminaries, Long set an Olympic record, while Owens floundered, failing on his first two attempts. In an act of sportsmanship unmatched even in Little League today, Long gave advice to the discouraged Owens. He cleared the jump and went on to top Long’s fresh record in the finals.

Hitler didn’t apply his racist rules to anyone but the Germans, so Owens received equal treatment during the Games and stayed in the same hotels as the white members of the American team.

Back in America, he had to take the freight elevator to the reception after his own ticker-tape parade.

Speaking of civil rights issues, who could forget about Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968? The International Olympic Committee charter specifically forbids athletes from political, religious or racial demonstration. But Smith and Carlos stepped onto the medals stand wearing no shoes after winning the gold and bronze, respectively, in the 200-meter dash. Carlos wore beads around his neck, and Smith clutched a box holding an olive branch. Each man wore a black glove. They were demonstrating, all right. Their shoeless feet demonstrated black poverty, the beads demonstrated the history of lynching and the olive branch demonstrated peace.

They stood upon the podium and looked at the American flag – the one that was raised above the stadium because of them, the same one that still didn’t look back at them as its children.

Each raised a fist to the sky.

Now that I think about it, the Olympics were politicized by both the United States and the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War – including the boycotts of Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984. And then, of course, there was the murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Games.

Several dozen countries boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Most of them backed out just before the Games because the IOC chose not to ban New Zealand, whose rugby team played in South Africa. South Africa was banned from all Olympics from 1964 to 1992 because of apartheid. The People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) boycotted because of issues with one another, particularly over the use of the name “China.” Headache? Figuring this out is as complicated as keeping eighth-grade dating gossip straight – that is, impossibly complicated.

And, wait, there’s also Iran, which forbids its athletes to compete against Israelis. Iran doesn’t recognize Israel as a country, so its athletes can’t recognize those with blue Stars of David on their uniforms as competitors. In Athens in 2004, the Iranian world judo champion was disqualified for exceeding the weight limit. He did so intentionally. His scheduled opponent? Ehud Vaks, an Israeli.

Okay, fine. So maybe politics are as inseparable from the Olympics as the torch, the rings and those nauseatingly saccharine Bob Costas-narrated athlete profiles on NBC. Sports aren’t played in a vacuum. They’re played in the world, and sometimes we see the world’s issues played out on the track, in the pool or on the podium.

We’re still six months away from the Beijing Olympics. In August we will bear witness to some amazing feats in sports. We’ll see courage, comebacks and defeats, tears and flags. We’ll also see protests, marches and an avalanche of petitions and letters. This summer, Beijing is the world’s stage.

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Jamie Kapalko is a junior English major from Belmar, N.J. She can be reached at [email protected]