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London 2012: A Glittering Legacy?

Commentary, 26 July 2012
International Institutions, Europe
Despite the Olympic Charter's commitment to internationalism and neutrality, the history of the Olympic Games reveals that what happens both on and off the field is shaped by political considerations.

Despite the Olympic Charter's commitment to internationalism and neutrality, the history of the Olympic Games reveals that what happens both on and off the field is shaped by political considerations.

By Avnish Patel for RUSI.org

Olympic Banksy
Image by Banksy

With London readying itself for the 2012 Olympics, it is pertinent to recall that the games have been held here previously in 1948, as the city emerged out of the dust and rubble of the Blitz and the Second World War. The previous event was in many ways the austerity Olympics, as Britain underwent a period of post-war reconstruction, financial stringency and rationing. The residual effect of the conflict was readily apparent with Japan and Germany not invited (though German POWs were utilised as labour) and the bite of the Cold War was obvious with the blockade of West Berlin having begun prior to the event in June 1948 and the Soviet Union choosing not to participate on ideological grounds (thereby denying annexed countries such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia the chance to take part also). Similarly, the 1964 and 1972 Olympics, held in Tokyo and Munich respectively, were part of a narrative of post-war healing and international reconciliation for Japan and Germany (the latter also keen to erase memories of the Nazi-hijacked 1936 Berlin Olympics).

A vision for peace

The timely and enlightening Politics and Olympics: Ideals and Realities at the Free Word Centre and the Politics and the Olympics presentation by the Council for Foreign Relations both provide a succinct history of the modern Olympiad, as conceived by Pierre de Coubertin in 1894 as the best form of internationalism. Since its inception, the dynamics of the modern Olympiad have been constantly shaped and influenced by non-sporting considerations. In an unprecedented resolution in its history to be co-sponsored by all 193 member states, the UN adopted a resolution in October 2011 in support of the Olympic Truce, a peace accord echoing back to the ancient roots of the Olympiad (and proposed every two years by the host nation of the summer or winter Olympic Games), calling for nations during London 2012 'to cooperate with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee in their efforts to use sport as a tool to promote peace, dialogue and reconciliation in areas of conflict during and beyond the Olympic and Paralympic Games period'.

The spirit of the truce was best exemplified during the Sydney 2000 opening ceremony when South Korea and North Korea paraded into the stadium together, under a single flag representing the Korean peninsula. Ironically, both countries were unwittingly involved in a protocol and organisational blunder recently when the North Korean women's football team were represented by a South Korean flag causing them to walk off the field in protest. London 2012 organisers were swift to offer a contrite apology to the North Korean team and Olympic Committee. This is both a diplomatic gaffe; in light of the sensitivities regarding both South and North Korea and an organisational blunder considering the lengths the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) has gone to avoiding such failures of protocol.

The modern Olympiad has become a focus for unity as epitomised by Kathy Freeman holding aloft both Australian and Aboriginal flags during Sydney 2000. The London 2012 Olympic Games will also be a unique opportunity for the country to project elements of its soft power to the world and showcase the depth of its cultural richness. The intension of the opening ceremony is to provide a smorgasbord of British culture, history and talent, as envisioned by the film director Danny Boyle. 

'Team GB' acts as a persuasive unifying force, especially with competitors such as Mo Farah, who arrived in London from war-torn Mogadishu as an eight year old and Mohamed Sbihi, the first practising Muslim to row for Great Britain. This show of inclusivity should not negate the fact that issues of nationality, representation and social cohesion are still contentious now, as they were in the past. The recent furore regarding 'plastic Brits' representing Great Britain highlights double standards in certain elements of the media. This was evidenced by the Daily Mail influenced campaign during the apartheid-era to fast track UK citizenship to the South African long distance runner Zola Budd prior to Los Angeles 1984.

Vision, marred by violence, intrigue and vested interests

Despite the purity of the Olympic Charter the International Olympic Committee has been complicit in its politicisation and commercialisation, acting ambivalently as it has become enmeshed in a labyrinthine tangle of political and corporate interests. The Olympic symbol of five interlaced rings, representing the union of five continents has been tarnished throughout the years by boycotts, ideological and military rivalries and acts of political protest played out on the international stage. Even the Olympic Torch Relay, currently making its way through the city, was originally conceived for the 1936 Olympics and visualised as a Nazi propaganda and rallying tool in Leni Riefenstahl's official film of the games, Olympia.

Symbiotic of the internal pressures that have forced the IOC to go against its own principles and effectively undercut their own credibility is the divisive figure of Avery Brundage, President of the IOC from 1952-1972. At face value, Brundage detested the use of the Olympics for political ends, championed at one point the raising of the Olympic rather than national flags at ceremonies and tried to ban medals tables as they could be used for propaganda and nationalistic ends. Brundage however was an overbearing presence at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, cajoling the US delegation to attend in the face of political opposition against the blatant Nazification of the event. He was also influential in the removal of two Jewish athletes from the US 400 metre relay team, but ironically brought in Jesse Owens as a replacement, an individual who went on to ridicule Adolf Hitler's claims of Aryan superiority at the Games. Brundage, nicknamed 'Slavery Avery' due to his political views, had a cordial relationship with Hitler and his construction company in the US was given the contract to build the new German embassy in Washington, DC as a reward for his obsequiousness. This is indicative of the allegations of institutional corruption that have dogged sporting authorities such the IOC and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), be it in taking kickbacks or fostering a culture that allows for sporting injustices such as the infamous incident at Seoul 1988 when the American Roy Jones Jr. was denied the light middleweight boxing Gold medal by judges supposedly in the pocket of South Korean officials.

The spectre of terrorism has been an enduring concern following the killing of eleven Israeli athletes by the 'Black September' Palestinian group at the 1972 Munich Olympics. This still resonates today, not only in the visceral nature of the attacks but also the inadequate response of the German authorities and the IOC. At the time Brundage insisted that that the games must continue despite the atrocity. Security concerns have dominated the build-up to London 2012, especially as 7/7 took place the day after the city was announced as the Olympic host. It has seen an overt military presence, especially after the failure of security firm G4S to deliver sufficient manpower as contracted and with the UK Armed Forces having to be deployed and provide up to 3,500 troops to cover the Games. The UK Ministry of Defence has recently stated that HMS Ocean will be berthed in the Thames at Greenwich and that RAF Northolt will be bolstered by four Typhoon jets. The militarisation of London has been compounded by the deployment of rapier surface-to-air missile systems in urban areas. This has proved to be controversial even though similar measures were taken at the Athens and Beijing Olympics in 2004 and 2008 respectively.

An occasion for foreign policy gestures

The spirit of the Olympic Truce was also diluted ahead of the London event when  Argentine hockey player Fernando Zylberberg starred in a controversial advert surreptitiously filmed on the disputed Islands with the incendiary tagline, 'To compete on British soil, we train on Argentine soil'. It's airing on 2 May this year was also opportunistic and timely, coinciding with the anniversary of the sinking of the General Belgrano, thirty years after the Falklands War. Whilst the Argentina Olympic Committee (COA) distanced itself from the stunt, it is hugely indicative of the diplomatic offensive led by Argentine President Cristina Kirchner regarding the sovereignty of the Islands.

Constant media scrutiny has also helped to shape perceptions of host countries by highlighting internal political anxieties related to infrastructure, logistics and regeneration. Prior to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, there were concerns over India's ability to deal with terrorism following the Mumbai attacks of 2008 as well as media coverage that dented Indian prestige with regards to the standards of the facilities. Most recently, there were prominent concerns over racism in Poland and Ukraine, the host nations of Euro 2012. British officials also refused to attend games in Ukraine due to the treatment of jailed opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko. Controversy raged over China's hosting of the Olympics in 2008; the IOC insisted that this opportunity could act as a reforming influence whereas others argued that such a responsibility would legitimise the authoritarian regime. The Chinese leadership's attempts to detach the Olympics from issues of governance and foreign policy backfired when protests over China's human rights record and occupation of Tibet spilled over into 2008 Olympic torch relay in London, when the presence of the Chinese security personnel marred the proceedings and reinforced impressions of the Chinese authorities. China's backing of the Sudanese government and its role in the Darfur Crisis was also widely condemned, notably when actress Mia Farrow labelled it as the 'Genocide Olympics', which in turned prompted the film director Steven Spielberg to withdraw as the artistic director of the opening and closing ceremonies.  Amidst a growing backlash against Chinese policy leading up to the Olympics, a special envoy was sent to persuade the Sudanese government to accept a UN peacekeeping contingent of 3,000 troops backed by six helicopter gunships that would bolster the ill-equipped African Union troops in the region.

Undoubtedly, the Games have been used a political platform, the winners' podium itself is a stage to publicise internal discord or particular domestic agendas.  This was most prominent when African-Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, respectively the gold and bronze winners in the 200 metres at the 1968 Mexico Olympics raised their gloved fists with Black Power salutes to protest against racism and highlight the civil rights movement in a fractured US, already in the throes of an escalating Vietnam War and emotionally drained by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy. Both Smith and Carlos were treated disdainfully by the IOC (again corralled into action by Avery Brundage) as was the Australian silver medallist Peter Norman who showed his support on the podium by wearing an officially proscribed Olympic Project for Human Rights badge.  At the 1996 Olympics, Muhammad Ali lit the torch at the opening ceremony in Atlanta (a rejuvenated city previously synonymous with the American Civil War), thereby sealing his iconic status regardless of his divisive political stances outside of the ring. Ali also received a replacement gold medal for the one he had won as Cassius Clay at the 1960 Rome Olympics, having thrown the original into the Ohio River in protest after being refused service in a restaurant.

The Olympics was used as an instrument of policy by Cold War antagonists, with sporting contests during this period echoing real conflicts and strains in diplomacy such as the infamous 'Blood in the Water' water polo semi-final between Hungary and the Soviet Union at Melbourne in 1956, set against the backdrop of the Hungarian revolt against the Soviet regime.  Polish vault thrower Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz's famous gesture of defiance acted as a rallying call against the Soviet regime during Moscow 1980, in light of the Polish Solidarity Movement as well as the US-led boycott of the Olympics in 1980 in protest against the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. From a British perspective, the Conservative government backed the US stance but the British Olympic Association (BOA) withstood considerable official pressure and sent a team to compete. As a perfunctory token gesture of opposition, British athletes did not attend the opening ceremony and winning athletes on the podium were feted under the banner of the Olympic flag and anthem rather than the Union flag and God Save the Queen. The Soviet Union reciprocated in 1984 and led an Eastern bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Games (one of the reasons cited was commercialism - this was the first privately financed games).

The level of commercialism and the benefits bestowed upon corporate sponsors, including brand protection legislation has also affected the London Games.  The furore over the Dow Chemical Company (purchasers of Union Carbide, the company responsible for the Bhopal disaster in 1984) being an official partner has led to the Indian government formally complaining about their involvement. The London Assembly (GLA) also recently criticised the IOC and LOCOG for entering into partnership with Dow and passed a motion that urged 'the IOC and national organising committees to consider the environmental, social, ethical and human rights records of companies when awarding high-profile partnership and sponsorship deals'.

In what will be a defining moment for the nation, it is hoped that the sporting contests will not become superfluous as diplomatic and political controversy, security and infrastructure issues and the emergence of transnational corporate power have indelibly left their mark on the identity of the Olympics.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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