20 years under Putin: a timeline

The upcoming Sochi Olympics once again raise the question of the appropriateness of holding international sporting events in authoritarian countries. Author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek recalls the history of Olympic boycotts—which have always drawn irritation from sports officials.



The discussion about the propriety of holding the Winter Olympics in Sochi has proceeded slowly and sluggishly, with occasional flare-ups and foregone conclusions. The problem with the Olympics issue is not only that the Games have long been political and commercial rather than athletic, but also that the organizers of the Games do not want to recognize this simple fact. This conflict with reality results in a lack of understanding and rampant speculation.

As a matter of fact, the modern Games were considered a politically charged event by their own founder, Pierre de Coubertin. He believed that France had lost the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 to Germany because French soldiers were less physically fit than their German enemies. Baron de Coubertin hoped to mend this situation. The fight for peace was another political reason behind the creation of the Games, inspired by an ancient Greek tradition of declaring armistice for the duration of the Olympics. In contemporary history, the Olympic Games were held neither in 1916 during World War I, nor in 1940 and 1944 during World War II.

However, political problems are not limited to military confrontations. Despotic regimes that suppress their own people have often insisted that peace means only no war, no frontlines, no prisoners of war, and so on. Such an understanding of war and peace has allowed these countries to pretend they are peacemakers and thus can be admitted to the UN, as well as to other international organizations and the Olympic Games. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s idea that peace is not an antithesis of war but of violence has not been lost upon humanity, but it has not become a universally acknowledged criterion for determining the respectability of a country either. As a result, tyrannies have continued to be seen as admissible partners, and the global community has too often turned a blind eye to the violence thriving in these countries.

This system has sometimes failed, however. The Olympic Games have never been canceled for such reasons, but some countries have been banned from competing, and in some cases, the Olympics have been boycotted.

Countries that have been accused of violating human rights and recurring to military aggression are always the ones that call on others “not to mix sports with politics.”

Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Turkey were not invited to the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp because of their role in World War I. For the same reason, Germany did not receive an invitation to the 1924 Olympics in Paris either.

In 1948, Germany and Japan were banned from the London Olympics because of their role in World War II.

In 1956, Lichtenstein, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland refused to attend the Melbourne Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. The 1956 water polo match between Hungary and the USSR was never finished because of a conflict that broke out between the two teams. The People’s Republic of China boycotted the same Games to protest Taiwan’s participation in the Olympics.

In 1964, the apartheid South Africa was banned from the Tokyo Olympic Games. As countries with despotic regimes, Indonesia and North Korea were also removed from the list of participants. South Africa missed the 1968 Olympics as well, because the majority of African countries threatened to boycott the Games in Mexico City unless South African athletes were barred from competing.

Rhodesia was thrown out of the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich because it was conducting a policy of apartheid.

In 1976, twenty-two African countries refused to compete in the Montreal Olympics because of the presence of New Zealand, whose rugby team had played earlier in South Africa.

In 1980, following the example of the United States, West Germany, and Japan, several countries refused to send their teams to the Moscow Olympic Games in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and its repression of dissidents. Eighty-one countries competed in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, fifty-nine fewer than took part in the next Games, held in Los Angeles in 1984. As a response to the boycott of the Moscow Games, the USSR did not send its team to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Socialist Cuba and Ethiopia refused to participate in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

Without conducting a deep political analysis or giving a personal opinion, one can clearly see that political motives have always been present in the Olympic Games. Countries that have been accused of violating human rights and recurring to military aggression are always the ones that call on others “not to mix sports with politics.” They are also frequently joined by friendly countries and political forces that defend them against such accusations.

Unfortunately, cases in which countries that systematically violate human rights are banned from the Olympic Games are more of an exception than a rule. Furthermore, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is often tolerant of despotic regimes setting their own rules at the Olympic Games.

For instance, during the most recent Olympics in London, the Lebanese judo team refused to practice alongside Israeli athletes. Instead of showing these racists the door, Organizing Committee officials accommodated them by erecting a makeshift curtain to split the training gym into two halves in order to make the anti-Semites more comfortable.

In 1952, during the Helsinki Olympics, athletes from the USSR and other socialist countries refused to live in the same Olympic Village with representatives of the capitalist West. The Organizing Committee treated the ideological tantrums of sports officials from the socialist camp with understanding and lodged peevish athletes in student residences.

It was the 1936 Berlin Olympics, however, that became the apotheosis of practical politics in the history of the modern Olympic Games. In 1933, Adolf Hitler personally promised the IOC president that the principles of the Olympic Charter would be strictly observed in Nazi Germany during the Games. In order to show itself in the best light, the Third Reich even kept the Jewish Theodor Lewald as president of Germany’s Olympic Committee. Many countries, including the United States, suggested boycotting the Games. However, in the end, the list of participants included every country but Spain, where there was already civil war at the time. Hitler opened the Olympics, and several teams greeted him with the Nazi salute, a gesture from which the U.S. and British teams refrained. The Berlin Olympics created great publicity for the Nazi regime, which soon afterward started World War II. As for the Games, they were put on hold for twelve years.


The 1936 Berlin Olympics were a great propaganda coup for the Nazi regime.


It is noteworthy that during the preparations for the Olympics in Berlin, Hitler demonstrated remarkable negotiating skills. In August 1935, the recently retired lifetime honorary president of the IOC, Pierre de Coubertin, was invited to Berlin. He was impressed by what he saw and made a powerful speech on German state radio. He called Hitler “one of the best creative spirits of our time.”

This “creative spirit” agreed to put away all signs of segregation and anti-Semitic propaganda in Berlin for the duration of the Games. He guaranteed safety to all “racially inferior” athletes and guests (such as African Americans and Jewish and other non-Aryan people). Nothing was said about the safety of “racially inferior” German citizens—and participants in the Olympics were not particularly interested in this issue. The main goal was that the Olympic festival of sports and peace not be marred by anything. What happened before and what would happen after was unimportant.

In the seventy-seven years since the Berlin Olympics, the IOC’s attitude toward the intersection of the Games and politics has not changed. International sports officials agree that the recently adopted Russian laws against gay propaganda are outrageous. They may agree, but at the same time, they have not refused to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The Kremlin has thrown them a life preserver by guaranteeing the safety of all athletes and guests with a nontraditional sexual orientation during the Games. Nobody will bother these people, they say. And the IOC has snatched at this life preserver: nobody will bother either athletes or guests. What else do you want? You will be safe, so compete and be thankful!

Moscow’s guarantees, however, seem to be somewhat vague and not that reliable. It is not clear with whom the IOC representatives are having talks in Moscow. It is obvious, however, that Russian negotiators will be acting anonymously, since nobody would dare to openly declare that a federal law will not be in effect during a certain period of time in a specific Russian territory. Also, the fact that such people as Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko and St. Petersburg city legislator Vitaly Milonov have urged participants of the Olympics not to violate Russian laws makes the whole issue even more dubious.

Despite all these doubts, IOC President Jacques Rogge expressed the hope that the Russian law would not discriminate against guests and participants of the Sochi Olympics. “The Games themselves should be open to all . . . and that applies to spectators, officials, media and, of course, athletes,” he said in an interview with Germany’s Der Tagesspiegel newspaper. At least the IOC and top Russian governmental institutions have an understanding on that matter, Rogge added. The Committee does not seem to be interested in what will happen either before or after the Olympics, or what will be happening during the Games outside of Sochi—the same way their predecessors were not worried about the fate of German Jews during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

In London, the Lebanese judo team refused to practice alongside Israeli athletes. Organizing Committee officials split the training gym into two halves in order to make the anti-Semites more comfortable.

The shameless substitution of problems is evident. Supporters of a boycott talk about discrimination against sexual minorities in Russia, while supporters of the Games want their own safety guaranteed during the Olympics.

It is, of course, difficult to demand that someone think about repressed people in other countries. Athletes, their sponsors, and representatives of the sports industry are not interested in this. These problems seem insignificant compared to sports achievements, medals, fame, and the billion-dollar Olympics market. Sports egocentrism is making its victorious march across the planet, defeating, one after the other, solidarity, compassion, and common sense. Since games are more important than life, one can compete even in Nazi Germany, Communist China, or authoritarian Russia.

Criticism from such human rights activists and intellectuals as English actor and writer Stephen Fry is simply ignored. British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama have not even thought about boycotting the Sochi Olympics. The tight knot of politics, sports, and business does not leave any space for simple human solidarity with those who are persecuted. This issue does not only concern homosexuals—just as in 1936 it was not only about Jews. The issue is the impermissibility for the international community to lend moral support to regimes that repress their own citizens.

Unfortunately, the lack of integrity in the sports sphere is not surprising. If Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, admired Adolf Hitler, why shouldn’t his successors demonstrate loyalty to Vladimir Putin?