The Olympic Games have rarely been able to escape the influence of politics since they became a major international event. The first significant intrusion of politics occurred in 1936 when several nations considered boycotting the Berlin Olympics to protest the policies of Germany’s Adolf Hitler, although after World War II, the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, and Bulgaria) were not invited to the 1920 Olympics, and Germany was still excluded in 1924.
Minimal political intrusions occurred in 1948 and 1952. The major disruption in 1952 occurred at the Opening Ceremony, when a fairly large woman in a flowing white robe interrupted the proceedings, strode to the podium and began to read a peace message, before being escorted away – this was in the era of far less security, obviously. In 1956, however, a small boycott ensued because of the recent incursion of Soviet troops into Hungary, and because of an Egyptian-Israeli dispute over the Sinai Peninsula.
The Rome Olympics in 1960 were once again free of significant political conflicts. In 1964, a dispute arose concerning the eligibility of certain nations that had competed at the Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO) in 1963, as well as the first exclusion of South Africa because of racist policies in sports.
In 1968, the Mexican government faced numerous student protests over the presence of the Olympic Games in the Mexican capital despite the poverty and hunger of many of its citizens. As the protest movement gathered momentum leading up to the Games, the Mexican Army took charge on the night of 2 October. As 10,000 people demonstrated in the Square of the Three Cultures in Mexico City, the army surrounded the crowd and opened fire. More than 250 people were killed and thousands were injured or imprisoned.
The worst intrusion of politics into the Olympics occurred in 1972 when Arab terrorists representing the Black September movement entered the Olympic Village and took as hostage 11 Israeli competitors and coaches. The hostages were all eventually murdered.
Shortly before the 1976 Olympics were due to start, they were marred by a boycott of 22 African countries, Guyana, and Chinese Taipei (then Taiwan). This was in protest of a recent tour of South Africa by the New Zealand national rugby team. As South Africa was ostracized from international sporting competition, the African nations demanded that New Zealand not be allowed to compete at Montréal. However, as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had no control of international rugby, New Zealand was properly allowed to start in the Olympics.
The Taiwan boycott occurred when the Canadian government did not allow the Taiwanese team to enter the country, as it did not recognize the island nation, in violation of its agreement as host country to admit all eligible nations in honoring the Olympic Charter. The Canadians eventually acquiesced and gave permission for the Taiwanese to compete, but refused to allow them to do so as the Republic of China, its official national name and the name by which it was then recognized by the IOC. Several other countries protested and threatened withdrawal, notably the United States. However, these protests were short-lived and the IOC finally gave in to the Canadian government. Taiwan withdrew and did not compete (See Games of the XXIst. Olympiad).
The largest-scale Olympic boycott occurred in 1980. The Games were held in Moscow in July 1980. In December 1979, Soviet troops entered Afghanistan. The United States led a vocal protest and eventually boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games. It was joined by approximately 60 other nations who also boycotted.
In 1984, the Soviet Union exacted its revenge on the United States when it boycotted the Los Angeles Olympic Games. This was officially because of concerns over security and the safety of its athletes, but there was little doubt as to the reason, which was revenge for the 1980 U.S.-led boycott. The Soviet Union boycott was joined, quite naturally, by other members of the Soviet bloc, including Eastern Europe and Cuba. Only Romania, among Soviet-bloc nations, defied the Soviet-led boycott.
The IOC awarded the 1988 Olympics to Seoul. This was a highly controversial decision as many prominent nations in the Olympic Movement did not have diplomatic relations with the Seoul government. The problem became more complicated in 1985 when North Korea demanded that it be allowed to co-host the Games with the Republic of Korea. Over the next three years the IOC negotiated with North Korea and offered to allow it to stage several events. When the IOC would not concede further to the North’s demands, North Korea announced that it would boycott the Seoul Olympics.
By then, however, most of the Soviet-bloc countries had agreed to compete in Seoul, making 1988 the first Summer Olympic Games competition in 12 years between the United States, the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic. After North Korea’s official boycott announcement, Cuba and Ethiopia also announced that they would boycott the Olympics. Nicaragua, Albania, and the Seychelles also did not attend the Olympics, although their reasons may not have been directly related to any boycott.
In 1992, the Olympics were held in Barcelona. These Games were remarkably free of political protest and intrusions. They were the first Olympic Games since 1968 that saw no form of boycott, and there have been no Olympic boycotts since 1988. Albania either boycotted, or elected not to participate in, four different Olympic Games, consecutively from 1976 through 1988. Three nations boycotted three Olympic Games – Egypt (1956, 1976, 1980), Ethiopia (1976, 1984, 1988), and DPR (North) Korea (1964, 1984, 1988). The Winter Olympic Games have been relatively free of political intrusions.
In addition to boycotts of the Olympic Games, political problems have haunted the IOC since the end of World War II. This has mostly been in terms of the official recognition of certain nations. In many cases, the nations have not been on good political terms with other IOC members, and these IOC members have protested their official recognition.
In particular, the IOC has dealt with the problems of the “two” Germanys (see Germany and the German Democratic Republic); the “two” Chinas (see China and Chinese Taipei); the “two” Koreas (see North Korea and South Korea); and the question of recognition of South Africa despite its apartheid policies. Similar problems existed in the later 1960s and early 1970s concerning Rhodesia.