In Depth

Olympic Games: the painful legacy of politics vs. sport

In Depth: history of the event is marred by political tensions that have sometimes led to violence

North Korea’s decision to send athletes to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics has put politics at the forefront of the Games.

Is the move a step toward unification or a bid to create tension between South Korea and the US?

The debate is likely to continue long after the opening ceremonies on Friday, but it is certainly not the first time that the Games have been used as a platform on which to air diplomatic and political grievances - sometimes through violence.

Here The Week takes a look at key moments of political strife at the Olympics.

1936, Berlin, Germany

The 1936 Summer Games, held under the Nazi regime, were “intentionally awarded to Germany so the republic could show that it had regained its status among European countries”, says The Guardian. They were also the first Olympics to face widespread calls for a boycott, Sky News reports.

Hitler hoped the Games - which included an Aryan-only team for Germany - would showcase his nation’s sporting prowess, but black US athlete Jesse Owens famously embarrassed the dictator by winning four gold medals.

“Still, many historians now believe the Olympics helped legitimise the Nazi regime in the eyes of the world,” Sky News says.

1956, Melbourne, Australia

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was the backdrop to one of the hardest-fought contests in Olympic history, at a water polo match between Hungary and the USSR, where “blood spilled in the sporting arena came to symbolise the bloody struggle of a nation against its oppressor, the former Soviet Union”, says CNN.

Just weeks before the Games, Soviet tanks and troops had rolled into Budapest to crush an anti-Soviet uprising. More than 2,000 protestors were killed, and thousands forced to flee. The Olympic polo pool game that followed became known as the “blood in the water” match, after Hungarian Ervin Zador was punched just above the eye during the contest, leading to an outpouring of blood into the pool. 

Hungary went on to win in the final, beating Yugoslavia 2-1 to claim Olympic gold.

1972, Munich, Germany

On the morning of 5 September, midway through the 1972 Games, eight members of the Palestinian Black September group stormed the Israeli athletes’ quarters in the Olympic Village, demanding the release of 232 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. Members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage.

Two Israelis were killed at the village, before a botched rescue attempt led to the deaths of a further nine Israelis, a German policeman and five of the Palestinian gunmen, says the Daily Mail.

1976, Montreal, Canada

About 25 African nations boycotted the Montreal Games after the International Olympic Committee admitted New Zealand, which had sporting links with South Africa, according to the BBC. South Africa had been banned since 1964 over its stance on apartheid.

1996, Atlanta, US

American fugitive Eric Robert Rudolph was finally arrested in 2003 after hiding in the mountains following a series of bombings in Georgia and Alabama, including a nail-filled pipe bomb planted in a backpack at the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia.

A woman attending the Games with her teenage daughter was killed, and more than 100 others were injured, according to the FBI website. Rudolph pleaded guilty and ultimately told authorities where he had stashed an additional 250lb (113kg) of dynamite.

According to Rudolph’s written statement, his motivation was to fight against abortion and the “homosexual agenda” in the US.

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