Typically, I’m one of the biggest proponents of the separation of politics and sports. I don’t like the government getting involved in Roger Clemens’ steroid addiction or Bill Belichick’s penchant for hidden cameras.
There are far more important things for our government to worry about.
But the Olympics have always been different. Throughout the 20th century, the Olympics have been used as a political forum to protest what participating countries and their athletes have felt were injustices throughout the world.
The first time politics impacted the Olympics to a large extent was in 1956, when Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland all boycotted the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon were protesting the Israeli invasion of Egypt while the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland were all protesting the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary.
The Mexico City Olympics in 1968 were used as a political platform, not for the participating countries, but the participating athletes. Tommie Smith and John Carlos of the United States famously gave the “black power” solute as the U.S. national anthem played during their awards ceremony.
Later, during the same Olympic games, Mexico’s government violently cracked down on protesters (similar to what China is doing now). This led to what is now referred to as the Tlatelolco Massacre, where the Mexican government killed more than 200 protesters.
So many countries boycotted the 1976 Olympics, it might be easier to list those that did attend.
Algeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guyana, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Upper Volta, and Zambia all boycotted the Olympics because New Zealand was allowed to participate after refusing to stop their national rugby team from playing against South Africa.
Taiwan and China also chose not to participate because both refused to acknowledge the existence of the other.
Hardly anyone showed up for the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. Sixty-two countries, led by the United States, boycotted due to the Soviet Unions’ intervention in Afghanistan in 1979.
The Soviet Union returned the favor in 1984, leading a 14-country boycott of the Summer Games in Los Angeles.
I point this out because the people who have been complaining about political intervention in the 2008 Olympic Games in China are way off base. The Olympics have always been used as a political forum.
What better way to pressure a foreign government into making humanitarian changes than to threaten to embarrass them in front of the entire world?
When the IOC awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics to China, they opened the door for political protest. The IOC themselves issued statements saying that China needed to improve their human-rights situation prior to hosting the games.
But as the games approached, and China only got worse, they backed off those statements.
China’s involvement in Darfur should have been reason enough to forbid them from enjoying the Olympic spotlight.
Their lack of open-media access, something they’ve extended to the media covering the Olympics, is reminiscent of communist Russia.
I know it’s hard to see through the smog, but China has also managed to use the Olympic Games as an excuse to round up, place under house arrest, or “disappear” thousands of political dissidents.
If you live in China, and have said something bad about the government in public over the last few years, chances are you’re now either missing, under house arrest, or in prison.
George W. Bush has said that he will not boycott the Olympic Games. There have been rumblings about different countries boycotting the opening ceremonies, but there’s no way we’re looking at something like what happened in 1976, 1980, or 1984.
But that doesn’t mean politics aren’t going to play a role in these Olympic Games.
The people that are saying that Olympic athletes have no place making political statements during the games are flat out wrong. If Kobe Bryant or LeBron James feels passionately enough about human rights in China or the Darfur situation, they not only have the right to say something during the games, they have an obligation to say something.
I cannot force the Chinese government to change. I cannot embarrass them into making changes. Yao Ming can.
I won’t think any less of them if they don’t (after all, there are many, many reasons not to piss the Chinese government off...not the least of which being money), but I’ll think a hell of a lot more of them if they do.
Some things transcend sports. To me, defending human rights is more important than winning gold medals. Every once in a while, an athlete has a chance to go from an entertainer to someone that does something legitimately important.
This is one of those opportunities. It’ll be interesting to see if anyone takes advantage.
Sean Crowe is a Senior Writer and an NFL Community Leader at Bleacher Report. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His archive can be found here. You can find everything he writes, including articles for other publications, here.