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Published:August 18th, 2008 22:46 EST
History Cafe - Episode 5: Olympic Politics

History Cafe - Episode 5: Olympic Politics

By Krzys Wasilewski

*Audio coming soon!

The Olympic Games have long ceased to be just a sporting event. This year`s edition in the Chinese capital is unfortunately only another example of when politics and economics win over the fair play spirit. Doubtlessly, the 2008 Beijing Olympics will be compared to the games in Berlin, Munich, and Moscow that went down in history as those where sportsmen played only supportive roles.


The International Olympic Committee had a hard nut to crack in April of 1931. Fifty-nine representatives from around the world were to decide which city would hold the eleventh Olympic Games in 1936. Should it be Barcelona or Berlin? Neither of them was a good choice as both Spain and Germany struggled with domestic problems, magnified by the faltering economy and increasing nationalism all over Europe. Yet, when it came to the final vote, the verdict was unequivocal: 16 votes for Barcelona, 43 for Berlin.


Adolph Hitler came to power two years later. Although the Nazis would not reveal their true nature until after the Olympics, the new ideology had permeated the entire country, with swastika symbols visible on every corner. Unsurprisingly, the Fuhrer decided to turn the upcoming Olympics into a political show. The opening ceremony was a choreographed masterpiece that few were immune to. The German national team resembled mythical gods; even French and Canadian sportsmen felt compelled to salute Hitler.


But even the all-powerful Fuhrer could not fix sport results. He had managed to purge the German team of Jewish sportsmen, but failed in convincing other countries to bring purely Aryan representations. One athlete especially infuriated Hitler: an African-American runner, Jesse Owens. Owens became the star not only of the American team but of all the Berlin Olympics, winning four gold medals - three individually and one in a 4x100 meter relay. He and Cornelius Johnson, another black sportsman from the US, turned the Nazi theory of Teutonic superiority to shambles.


The 1972 Munich Olympic Games were to restore Germany`s good name. West Germany was free of nationalism, with the democratically elected government and the economy boom that had turned the country into the most prosperous in Europe. It was to have been "the Happy Games," as the official motto advertised. Never before had the Olympics been more colorful and multilingual: 121 states and autonomous territories were represented by over 7,100 athletes. Among them, one rose to the rank of a symbol. Mark Spitz, a Jewish-American swimmer, won seven gold medals - a record broken only in Beijing this year by another American, Michael Phelps.


Five days before the end of the Olympics, on September 5, the world caught its breath. Eight Palestinian terrorists broke into the headquarters of the Israeli team and took 11 Jewish sportsmen hostage. Two Israelis were killed on the spot. The terrorists called themselves Black September and demanded the release of their colleagues from Israeli prisons, as well as safe transport to Egypt. The rescue operation organized by the German police turned out a complete disaster that brought death to all the hostages and five Palestinians. The Olympics were continued as scheduled.


Apart from the terrorist attack, the Munich Olympics also abounded in many sport scandals. A quick lesson of politics received American basketball players, undefeated since 1936. The final game against the Soviet Union was a wonderful spectacle of fight and ambition from both sides, and when the siren announced the end of the game, the US won 50:49. But then a miracle happened, the clock was reversed by three seconds and the Soviets managed to score two more points. The International Basketball Federation rejected the American protest by 3:2 - all three votes came from socialist countries.


In 1974 the International Olympic Committee granted the organization of the 1980 Olympic Games to Moscow. For the first time in history, the greatest sport event was to be held in the Soviet Union, the "Evil Empire," as President Ronald Reagan dubbed it. The Committee`s decision was a sign that the world was moving forward and some kind of an approach between the two competing systems was possible. Just like the Chinese in 2008, the Soviets had hoped the Games would present their country as a global power equal to western democracies.


But again, politics trumpeted sports. In 1979, the Soviet forces invaded neighboring Afghanistan as the local communist government was threatened by mujaheddins, Islam fanatics trying to free their country of all foreign influence. President Carter and his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, crossed the Rubicon by financing the Muslim rebels soon after the first Soviet tanks rolled into Kabul. The same rebels would grow anti-American in the 1990s and began to harbor various terrorists, including Osama bin Laden.


In March of 1980, the United States announced it would boycott the Moscow Olympics. Some 60 countries, including communist China, joined the Americans; others, like Great Britain and France, did send their athletes who, however, performed under the Olympic flag. The socialist republics from Central and Eastern Europe had no choice but to take part as planned.


In this gloomy picture, one figure shone. Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz, a Polish pole vault jumper, had to defeat not only his sport rivals, but also thousands of angry Russian spectators who had thronged the Moscow stadium, expecting their countrymen win all the competitions. When Kozakiewicz broke the world record and secured the gold medal, the audience began to boo and call him names. Undaunted, the Pole confronted the spectators and showed them the elbow gesture, an Italian version of the American middle finger. Kozakiewicz became a celebrity at home but his performance made him a serious threat in the eyes of communist appartchiks. In 1985, he emigrated to West Germany.


In 1984, the Socialist Block boycotted the Los Angeles Games. Only the 1992 Olympics held in Barcelona were free of political influence as the Soviet Union had dissolved one year earlier. The Olympics have become cleaner but are far from pure. Nevertheless, we like to think about them as "a wonderful metaphor for world cooperation, the kind of international competition that`s wholesome and healthy, an interplay between countries that represents the best in all of us," as the composer John Williams once said.


That`s all for this week`s edition of History Cafe. We hope you enjoyed it and will visit us again next Sunday. We will talk about the America First Committee - the largest anti-war organization in the United States that grouped such names as Walt Disney, E.E. Cummings, and Gerard Ford.


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