Politics and the Olympics
Legend has it that the Greeks halted all wars during the Ancient Games. The “Olympic truce” is a modern myth, but participants and spectators were allowed to pass through warring territory because of Zeus' protection.
In the modern era, attempting to bring together all nations of the world has had its natural complications. Australia, France and Great Britain are the only nations to be present at every Olympics since 1896. World Wars caused the cancellation of the 1916, 1940 and 1944 Olympics.
Boycotts have been a common form of protest against the state of world affairs. Ireland boycotted the 1936 Berlin Games because the IOC would allow only athletes from the Irish Free State and not the entire island.
The 1956 Melbourne Games were boycotted by the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland to protest the repression of the Hungarian uprising by the Soviet Union. The same games were boycotted by Cambodia, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon because of the Suez Crisis. The People's Republic of China boycotted because Taiwan was allowed to compete under the name “Republic of China.”
In 1972 and 1976, numerous African nations threatened to boycott if the IOC did not ban South Africa and Rhodesia because of their segregationist governments. They also wished New Zealand to be banned because their national rugby team had toured South Africa. The IOC banned the first two, but not New Zealand because rugby was not an Olympic sport. Twenty African nations carried through with their boycott of the Montreal games.
The 1980 Moscow Games and the 1984 Los Angeles Games were marked by the Cold War. Sixty-five nations led by the United States refused to attend in 1980. The Soviet Union responded with fifteen others in boycotting the 1984 Olympics.
The Olympics have also been a platform for racial reform. Adolf Hitler intended the 1936 Games to be proof of the superiority of his Aryan athletes. Germany did collect more medals than any other nation, but two successes refuted his racial beliefs.
Hungarian Jew Ibolya Csák won gold in the women's high jump. African-American Jesse Owens stole the show in track and field, winning the 100 meters, 200 meters, the long jump and the 4x100 meter relay. His four gold medals were the most won by any athlete at the Berlin Games.
On the first day of the Games, Hitler shook hands with only the German medal winners. The IOC insisted that he would greet either all or none of the medalists. Hitler chose to greet none, rather than touch non-Aryans, and was not present at any other medal presentations. He left the stadium before each of Owens' events and never acknowledged his victories.