When geopolitical drama disrupted the Olympic Games - The Antiquity from 1894-2021 | Sunday Observer

When geopolitical drama disrupted the Olympic Games - The Antiquity from 1894-2021

26 September, 2021
The slogan of the Olympic Games unveiled at Tokyo 2020
The slogan of the Olympic Games unveiled at Tokyo 2020

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was founded in 1894 when Baron Pierre de Coubertin sought to promote international understanding through sporting competition. Yet, in the history of the modern Olympic Games, the quadrennial international sporting extravaganza has been marred by geopolitical drama, resulting in cancellation, banning, boycotting and most recently postponement.

The Olympic Games had been cancelled five times, once during World War I (Summer Olympics of 1916) and twice during World War II (Summer and Winter Olympics of 1940 and 1944). Besides, the Olympics weathered politically charged boycotts on six occasions (1956, 1964, 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1988), two massacres (1968 and 1972) and a bomb blast (1996) during peacetime.

The IOC and Tokyo 2020 Games

The President of the IOC, Thomas Bach, OLY saluted the stakeholders of the Olympic Movement on September 17, 2021 following the first Olympic Games without spectators and a state of emergency imposed in the host city. Bach said, “The world’s best athletes inspired us with unforgettable performances. For the first time since the pandemic began, the world came together through the power of sport and the achievements of the athletes. In this way, the Tokyo 2020 gave the world much-needed hope in these difficult times. This is what the Olympic Games are all about: bringing the world together in peace and solidarity and giving humankind faith in the future.”

He further said, “In these difficult times we are living through, we see how relevant the overarching mission of the Olympic Games is to unite the world through peaceful competition. The Olympic Games send this message of peace, unity and solidarity, regardless of where they take place. The power of the Olympic Games is their universality. This is why the Olympic Games belong to all humankind. Therefore, the rules of our Olympic Charter guarantee equal rights for everyone at any edition of the Olympic Games. Only in this way can the Olympic Games become the world’s most powerful symbol of unity in all our diversity.”

The IOC and Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee announced on March 24, 2020 that the Olympic Games have been moved to 2021 due to the developing global situation in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. This was the first postponement of a Games since 1896 and thus drew significant attention of the whole world.

The President of the IOC, Thomas Bach, and the Prime Minister of Japan, Abe Shinzo, were joined by Mori Yoshiro, the President of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee; the Olympic Minister, Hashimoto Seiko; the Governor of Tokyo, Koike Yuriko; the Chair of the IOC Coordination Commission, John Coates; IOC Director General Christophe De Kepper; and the IOC Olympic Games Executive Director, Christophe Dubi in taking the historical decision.

The announcement came 122 days before the planned Opening Ceremony, “the IOC President and the Prime Minister of Japan have concluded that the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.”

The statement added, “The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present. Therefore, it was agreed that the Olympic flame would stay in Japan. It was also agreed that the Games will keep the name Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.”

An estimated 10,000 athletes had been scheduled to march into Tokyo’s national stadium for the opening ceremony and about 600,000 overseas visitors had been expected to flock to the Japanese capital for the world’s largest sporting event, which was set to run July 24 through August 9, 2020.

The postponement of Tokyo 2020 came after mounting pressure to cancel or delay the event due to the risks of Coronavirus. The USA Track and Field called for the Games’ postponement in an open letter on March 21, 2020. The National Olympic Committees (NOC) of Norway and Brazil endorsed the same on March 20 and 21 respectively.

Escalating the pressure, Canada warned that it wouldn’t send its athletes to Tokyo unless the Games were delayed until 2021. Canceling or postponing the Olympics was not a decision taken lightly. The financial blow of canceling the games would be substantial for Japan; by some estimates, it would reduce Japan’s annual GDP growth by 1.4%.

Hope, Solidarity and Peace!

At that crucial juncture, following the IOC Executive Board decision on March 22, 2020, Thomas Bach penned an inspiring letter to the global athlete community, stating that what they all shared is “tremendous uncertainty.” He added, “This uncertainty rocks our nerves and raises or strengthens doubts about a positive future; it destroys hope. Some even have to fear for their very existence. This uncertainty stems from the fact that, at this moment, nobody can really make fully reliable statements about the duration of this fight against the virus.”

He continued, “As successful athletes, you know that we should never give up, even if the chance to succeed appears to be very small. Our commitment to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is based on this experience. It is our experience as athletes that you must always be ready to adapt to new situations. For this reason, we have, as indicated before, been thinking in different scenarios and are adapting them almost day by day.”

“I wish, and we all are working for this, that the hope of so many athletes, NOCs and IFs from all five continents have expressed will be fulfilled: that at the end of this dark tunnel we are all going through together, not knowing how long it is, the Olympic Flame will be a light at the end of this tunnel.”

Surely, the Olympic Games is the most complex event on this planet to get everything together. The IOC Executive Board stepped up “scenario-planning” for Tokyo 2020 in response to the pandemic. These scenarios related to modifying existed operational plans for the Games to commence on July 24, 2021.

These were unprecedented Olympic Games. It took an equally unprecedented effort from all concerned to make them happen in a safe and secure manner for everyone. The Tokyo 2020 were the Olympic Games of hope, solidarity and peace. The athletes across all 33 Olympic sports, from 205 NOCs and the IOC Refugee Olympic Team, sent this resounding message from Tokyo to the world.

World War I and 1916 Games

In the run-up to the 1916 Summer Olympics, the German Empire beat bids from Alexandria, Amsterdam, Brussels, Budapest and Cleveland to host the Games and built an impressive 30,000-seat stadium in Berlin for the Games.

Organizers initially thought that the war would be “over by Christmas” but an armistice was not reached until November 1918. The Berlin 1916 Games were cancelled in July 1914 following the onset of World War I.

Those games were due to include a winter sports week, which eventually led to first Winter Olympics which were held in 1924. The venue for the Games was to be the Deutsches Stadion which had been built in 1913.

Two decades later, the Deutsches Stadion was torn down to make way for the Olympic Stadium intended for the 1936 Summer Games, when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party used the Games as a massive propaganda exercise promoting their government and racist and antisemitic supremacy policies.

When 1936 arrived, roughly 5,000 athletes from 51 countries competed with an audience of 10,000 people but those Games would be infamous too. In America, a coalition of Jewish and Catholic groups called on the United States Olympic Committee to boycott the games, but was ignored by the committee President, Avery Brundage, a professed Germanophile.

Jesse Owens, the African American track and field star, famously proved Adolf Hitler wrong, taking home four gold medals in 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay. In a lesser-known victory, India’s underdog field hockey team also crushed the Germans 8-1 in the men’s final.

World War II and 1940 and 1944 Games

Then, the Olympic Games were cancelled twice during World War II. The 1940 summer and winter Olympics were both scheduled to be held in Tokyo and Sapporo in Japan, after winning the bid in 1936, making them the first non-Western cities to host the games.

But after war erupted between Japan and China in July 1937, the Japanese government decided to forfeit their right to host the Games, claiming that the war required “the spiritual and material mobilization of Japan.”

The 1940 games were initially relocated to Helsinki, Finland in the summer and the German town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the winter. However, the outbreak of the WWII, after the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, caused the events to be cancelled entirely. As this was just a few months beforehand, Helsinki’s preparations were at an advanced stage with construction of the Helsinki Olympic stadium completed by 1938.

The IOC offered the Games to St Moritz in Switzerland but could not come to an agreement, so instead the games were given in early 1939 to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany where the 1936 Winter Olympic Games had been held. The 1940 Games did not go ahead due to Germany’s invasion of Poland and subsequent WWII.

The 1944 Summer Olympics had been awarded to London, United Kingdom. However, the Games were summarily canceled due to the ongoing war. Similarly, the 1944 winter games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy were canceled.

In spite of the war, the IOC held events in 1944 to mark the 50th anniversary of its foundation. In the Woldenberg Oflag II-C Prisoner of War camp, Polish prisoners of war were given permission by the German captors to stage an unofficial Olympics in July and August 1944.

After a 12-year interruption in the Olympics, London eventually hosted the 1948 games, in austere conditions as the US continued to recover from war. Rationing was still in force, the athletes were put up in military barracks, schools and hostels. Nevertheless, a then-record 59 nations were represented by more than 4,000 athletes.

Helsinki eventually hosted the 1952 Summer Olympics, Tokyo the 1964 Summer Games and Sapporo the 1972 Winter Olympics. The 1944 Winter Olympics were due to be hosted in February in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, but they were cancelled in 1941. Cortina d’Ampezzo eventually hosted the 1956 Winter Olympic Games.

Massacres, Terrorism and Bomb Explosions

The main theme of the Mexico City 1968 was peace with icons of the dove of peace all over the city. However, just ten days before the Games were set to open in Mexico City, the government forces opened fire on crowds of unarmed student protestors, killing hundreds if not thousands in what became known as the Tlatelolco Massacre. Yet, the games continued.

In Munich 1972, a Palestinian terrorist group invaded the Olympic Village and broke into the apartment of the Israeli delegation. They killed two Israeli athletes and held nine others as hostages. In the ensuing stalemate, all nine remaining Israelis were murdered. After much debate, the Games continued after a two-day suspension. So, even the darkest chapter of Olympic history didn’t lead to a cancellation.

The Atlanta 1996 was also allowed to go on after a bomb exploded during a free concert in Centennial Olympic Park. Two died in the blast and more than a hundred were injured, but only a few hours later, the President of Atlanta’s Olympic organizing committee said, “The spirit of the Olympic movement mandates that we continue.”

Banning and Boycotting of Games

From time to time, countries have been banned from the Games for a variety of reasons. Sanctions in the aftermath of WWI meant that the war’s losing nations as well as those blamed for starting it, were banned from competing or hosting. Thus, Hungary, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire were not part of the next Olympic Games.

The Antwerp 1920 were the first in which a nation was actively disinvited. Germany was blamed for starting WWI, and even though the country was under a new government, known as the Weimar Republic, Belgian and French Olympic officials banned Germany from participating in both 1920 and 1924 Olympics.

South Africa appeared at the Olympics from St Louis 1904 until Rome 1960. But before Tokyo 1964, the IOC decided to bar South Africa due to its racial segregation policy known as Apartheid. This saw non-white South Africans widely discriminated against in all aspects of life, including sport where only white athletes could represent the country.

Due to the persistence of Apartheid and the influence of other African nations, the South African Olympic Committee was officially expelled from the IOC in 1970. South Africa would remain an Olympic outsider until rejoined the Olympic movement in Barcelona 1992 with its first racially mixed national team.

Also, Germany and Japan were banned in 1948 because of their roles in WWII. Russia was banned in 2020, due to a doping scandal, although individual athletes were ultimately allowed to compete at Tokyo 2020.

The countries have officially boycotted the Games on six times, with as few as three in 1964 and as many as 65 in 1980. Briefly, the details of the boycotts: 1956 - China, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland; 1964 - China, North Korea and Indonesia; 1976 - more than 20 mostly African countries and Taiwan; 1980 - 65 countries led by the United States; 1984 - 14 countries led by the Soviet Union; 1988 - Cuba, Ethiopia, Nicaragua and North Korea.

Challenges of Beijing 2022 Winter Games

While the pandemic is far from over, now the cynosure is on Beijing 2022 Winter Games. The organizers are putting in place rigorous measures to ensure the health and safety of all participants. The first edition of the Playbooks for Beijing, which outline all the countermeasures for each stakeholder group is scheduled to be published in October 2021.

In the words of Thomas Bach, “The Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 come at an important moment to bring the world together in the Olympic spirit of peace, solidarity and unity. It will once again be the athletes of these Olympic Games that will send this message of the unifying power of sport to the world. This is why the athletes deserve our utmost support to ensure that they can prepare in full concentration on their sport and compete in the best possible conditions in every respect.”

(The author is the winner of Presidential Awards for Sports and recipient of multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. He can be reached at [email protected])

Naomi Osaka signals commencement of Tokyo 2020 by lighting the Cauldron