Sochi in Retrospect: Politicizing the Olympic Games

This article was originally published in OPENWIDE back in 2014, and was written by Estee Fresco

Estee Fresco is a PhD candidate in Media Studies at Western University. Her research examines the relationship between commercialism and national identity in the Olympic Games held in Canada.

During the most recent Winter Olympics, the 2014 Sochi Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) did not allow athletes competing in the Games to wear stickers on their helmets commemorating the late Canadian freestyle skier, Sarah Burke. The IOC also disapproved of members of Norway’s Olympic cross-country team wearing black armbands in memory of a Norwegian who trained with them, the brother of Olympic skier Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen. In a letter to the Norwegian Olympic Committee, the IOC described the athletes’ actions as inappropriate. Finally, the IOC rejected the Ukrainian Olympic Committee’s request that athletes be allowed to wear black armbands honouring Ukrainians who died in protests in Kiev. At the heart of the IOC’s response to all three cases was the desire to keep the Games free of political messages and focus peoples’ attention on the athletic competitions. The President of the IOC, Thomas Bach, discouraged athletes from making public statements about Russia’s anti-gay laws, stating: “if the Olympic competitions or venues are becoming a political stage, this is no longer a sports competition.” However, despite the IOC’s efforts to keep politics out of the Games, the Olympics are, and have always been, political.  In what follows, I examine historical examples of the influence politics have on the Olympic Games.

When the modern Olympic Games were revived by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896, only amateur rather than professional athletes were permitted to participate in the Games. However, members of the upper classes, who had access to private means of income, were the only athletes who could afford to participate in sport on an amateur basis. Thus, IOC’s value of amateurism was tied to the maintenance of class hierarchies. Although professional athletes compete in contemporary Olympic Games, the IOC tries to establish a link between the modern and ancient Olympic Games by emphasizing the fact that most modern Olympians are amateurs. However, this view falsely assumes that only amateur athletes competed in the ancient Greek Games. In fact, these athletes often won monetary prizes and were sometimes paid to compete. Moreover, upon completion of the Games, many successful athletes were given money.

The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, often dubbed the Nazi Olympics, offered Hitler the opportunity to showcase the Nazi’s power and influence on an international stage. The IOC awarded the Games to Germany before the Nazis seized power, and Hitler was originally ambivalent about hosting the Games. On one hand, he viewed the Olympics as a bourgeois form of culture and was deeply suspicious of any non-German cultural event. However, Hitler eventually saw the Games as a valuable opportunity to disseminate Nazi propaganda. Although religious groups in the United States pressured the government to boycott the 1936 Games, the American IOC member (and later President) Avery Brundage successfully campaigned in favor of US participation in the Games. Surprisingly, when Brundage and then IOC President Henri de Baillet-Latour visited Germany, they determined that, if anti-Jewish racism existed, it was an internal and political matter in Germany rather than an important matter for the IOC to consider. Brundage and fellow IOC member, General Sherrill, maintained that the US should participate in the Games even after Sherrill travelled to Germany and learned that Hitler intended to ban German-Jewish athletes from competing in the Games.

More recently, the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics offered Australians an opportunity to discuss reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. The Australian press represented Cathy Freeman, an indigenous athlete, as a unifying figure whose Olympic success helped further efforts between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples by bringing all Australians together and giving them an opportunity to put the past behind them. Freeman lit the Olympic flame in the opening ceremony and won a gold medal in the 400 meters track race at the Sydney Olympics. However, some argued that this emphasis on unity sidelined important discussions about the persistence of unequal power relations between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. Activists used the Sydney Games to pressure the government to apologize for the mass removal of indigenous children from their families by government agencies, a practice that occurred between 1910 and 1970. The government did not apologize and, instead, claimed that the activists would tarnish the nation’s global image if they continued to demand an apology (the government eventually apologized to indigenous peoples in 2008).

Nike released two ads that commented on reconciliation in Australia, and these ads show that the commercial dimensions of the Games sometimes intervene in political issues. Nike released an ad entitled “Sorry” shortly before the 2000 Games began. The ad featured Australian Olympians apologizing, ostensibly for being too preoccupied with training. However, it implied that the apology was actually directed at Cathy Freeman, who was the only indigenous athlete in the ad and the only one who did not apologize. Instead, she ran past the camera and asked, “Can we talk about this later?” Indigenous groups criticized the ad for trivializing the importance of reconciliation as a political issue. Moreover, only 15 minutes after she won the 400 meter track race, Nike erected billboards around Sydney featuring Freeman and the caption “Change the world 400 meters at a time.” Like the discussion in the Australian press about Freeman, the ad drew a link between Freeman’s Olympic success and reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

As the philosophical framework that underpins the Games, Olympism maintains that  sport helps people co-exist harmoniously and educates young people about peace, justice, fair play, mutual understanding and international friendship. Indeed, the Olympic Games help promote these values. However, they also provide a platform for groups to further their political interests. As such, it is disingenuous for the IOC to continue the pretense that the Games do nothing more than celebrate global harmony, co-operation and goodwill.

  2. Ibid
  5. Rahman, M & Lockwood, S. (2011). “How to ‘Use Your Olympian’: The Paradox of Athletic Authenticity and Commercialization in Contemporary Olympic Games. Sociology. 45 (2), 823.
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Roche, M. (2002). Mega-Events and Modernity: Olympics and Expos in the Growth of Global Culture. (London: Routledge), 116.
  9. Ibid
  10. Ibid
  11. Elder, C, Pratt, A and Ellis C. (2006). “Running Race: Reconciliation, Nationalism and the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games,” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 41(2).  
  12. “Sorry,” Nike;
  13. McKay, J. (2005). “Enlightened Racism and Celebrity Feminism in Contemporary Sports Advertising Discourse.” In Jackson, S. & Andrews, D. (Eds). Sport, Culture and Advertising: Identities, Commodities and the Politics of Representation. London: Routledge, 91.
  14. Elder, Pratt and Ellis, “Running Race”, 181.
  15. Roche, Mega-Events and Modernity, 194.

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