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From world wars and geo-political standoffs to protesting racial discrimination and other human rights abuses, there have been no shortage of Olympic boycotts over the past century.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued recommendations last week that paved a way for Russian and Belarusian athletes to return to international sports.
IOC President Thomas Bach advised sports federations that individual athletes from Russia and Belarus should be allowed to return to competition under a neutral status—without an identifying flag or national anthem—as long as they do not show solidarity with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and are not linked to the country’s military or national security agencies. Russian and Belarusian athletes would also be banned from taking part in team sports such as basketball and football (soccer).
Bach added that the Olympic governing body was still deliberating whether to include Russia and Belarus at the 2024 Paris Games. Nevertheless, several western European and Baltic governments were quick to criticize the IOC’s recommendations. Germany sports minister Nancy Faeser called it a “slap in the face of Ukrainian athletes” while Poland’s Foreign Ministry “strongly” urged the IOC to reconsider its proposal.
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Ukraine’s government announced that its athletes will not participate in any qualifying events for next year's Olympic Games in Paris where there are Russians competing. It also reiterated its previous threats to pull out of the upcoming Games and called for allies to boycott the event if Russian competitors are allowed to compete—a decision that Bach deemed goes against Olympic “principles.”
While the IOC has repeatedly claimed that it would be the “end of world sports as we know it” if governments decided which athletes could participate at international events, the history of Olympic boycotts has proved otherwise.
In fact, the Olympics has a century-old legacy of countries opting to boycott rather than compete against nations they believe should not have been allowed to participate.
In 1920, Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, and Turkey were denied the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games in Belgium—one of the countries that was occupied by Germany—following their collective defeat at World War I. Germany, Japan and Bulgaria were also excluded from 1948 London Games, the first Olympic event in the aftermath of World War II.
Four years later, Taiwan staged the first official Olympic boycott when it withdrew from the 1952 Helsinki Games due to China’s participation for the first time under communist rule. China would go on to boycott the Games until 1980 in protest of Taiwan’s inclusion. During 1984 Los Angeles Games, the IOC made Taiwan compete as compete as Chinese Taipei and under the Olympic flag. This has not changed despite Taiwan being an independent nation.
During the Cold War, Egypt and its allies Iraq and Lebanon boycott the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne in protest over the country’s invasion by Britain, France and Israel during the Suez Canal crisis.
Eight years later, South Africa was banned from participating at the 1964 Tokyo Games due to its institutionalized system of apartheid. The country would not return to the Games until 1992.
In 1976, 29 African and Arab countries—including Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guyana, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, and Zambia—boycott the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal in protest against the inclusion of New Zealand, which maintained sporting ties with apartheid South Africa.
Arguably the most famous boycott occurred during the 1980 Moscow Summer Games, when 65 countries led by the United States refused to participate in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Despite its size, the boycott did not appear to impact the war, as the Soviet Union remained in Afghanistan until 1989. Since then, the U.S. has not attempted to boycott the Games.
Interestingly, Bach—a gold-medalist fencer for West Germany at the time—campaigned for his country not to join the 1980 boycott. He was unsuccessful.
Naturally, the Soviet Union responded by boycotting the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. 14 other nations, including East Germany, also refused to participate at the event.
In 1988, North Korea boycotted the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea in anger over not being invited to co-host the event. It was the last full boycott of an Olympic event.
While there were calls to shun the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing and the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi due to human rights abuses in China and Russia respectively, no such boycotts ever materialized. However, this did not stop countries from finding other ways to snub their political rivals.
In 2022, the U.S. announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Games, citing “genocide and crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang, a northwestern region of China. The boycott did not affect athletes but precluded government officials from attending the event. Australia, Britain and Canada followed suit thereafter.
It is worth noting that there was no boycott of the 1936 Games in Berlin, Germany, which was then under the control of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party. Some U.S. politicians advocated skipping the Games in protest but the Olympic bodies lobbied against it. At the time, the U.S. Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage called the attempted boycott a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy.”
He later became president of the IOC, though was unable to the wave of boycotts that would ensure during his tenure.
From world wars and geo-political standoffs to protesting racial discrimination and other human rights abuses, there have been no shortage no shortage of Olympic boycotts over the past century. And while the effectiveness of such boycotts has long been debated and discussed, what is clear is that, despite the IOC’s claims, such exclusion will not tarnish world sports.
This much history tells us.