The Olympics' History of Controversy

Students choose one of nine past Olympics controversies to research in small groups and share what they've learned with the class.

To the Teacher:

Over the past century, the Olympics have often served as a platform for protest and debate over political events taking in the broader world. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia have sparked a debate about Russia's controversial law banning public displays of support for gay rights. (See our lesson on this debate.)
This lesson is designed to encourage students think critically about the history of debates that have surfaced at the Olympics over the past 100 years. The first section prompts students to investigate a moment in Olympic history in which sports and politics have collided. It asks them to undertake small group research into the issues at stake in their chosen incident and to explore the political context of the time. The second section provides a timeline of controversies in Olympic history. Students can select an incident on the timeline to examine in greater depth. In the third section of the lesson students are encouraged to share their group research in a larger class setting and to discuss the lasting implications of the incidents they have explored.

Part I: Small Group Research
Politics and the Olympics Collide

Politics and the Olympic Games have often gone hand in hand. The current 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia are no exception. The present controversy stems from homophobic moves on the part of Russia's government, which culminated in the passage of the June 2013 "gay propaganda law." This law effectively outlaws any public expression of support for homosexual rights and relationships. The law has sparked strong reactions from athletes and public officials. One response by the United States was to announce that its delegation to the Sochi games would include several well-known former athletes who are gay or lesbian.
This controversy is hardly without precedent. Over the past century, the Olympics have often served as a platform for protest and debate. Below is a timeline of major instances of sports and politics colliding in Olympic history.
Ask students to choose one of the items in the timeline, and then gather together with others who have chosen the same item.  (If there are fewer than two or three students choosing a particular item, they may need to be reassigned so they can be part of a larger group.) 
Once in their groups, students may decide whether they want to focus on one specific event that sparked controversy during the Olympic games, or to focus more generally on the political atmosphere surrounding that year's Olympics.
Ask students to research their chosen subject, either individually or in collaboration with the other members of their group. Students should research the following questions, and then discuss their responses in their small groups.

1. What was the nature of the incident that created headlines? What are the broader political issues that this incident touched on?

2, What were the major positions in this debate? How would you characterize the different groups in conflict?

3. Were the groups in conflict divided by nationality? By race? By political ideology? By other factors? What divisions were the most significant?
4. How was this issue resolved? What lasting implications did it have?

5. How were the attitudes of people in the time period you have studied different than what we might expect today? Can you find any quotes or original documents that reveal people's perspectives or prejudices during that time period?

6. Did this historical incident resonate with you personally? Why or why not?



Part II: A Timeline of Olympics Controversies

1916, Berlin: The first modern Olympics were held in 1896 in Athens, Greece. Early on, organizers established the tradition that the games would be held every four years in a different host country. This was the case through the 1912 games in Stockholm, Sweden. However, in 1916, world politics prevented the Olympics from taking place at all. By that year, Europe was in the midst of World War I, and the games—scheduled to be held in Berlin, Germany—were cancelled. Because Germany was an aggressor in the war, the country was subsequently barred from participating in the games in both 1920 and 1924.
1936, Berlin: It was not until the 1936 Summer Olympics that the games were again scheduled for Berlin. Several years earlier, when Germany first won the bid to host the games, the Nazi Party had not yet risen to power. But by the time the games arrived, Hitler's regime was fully entrenched and his leadership had been consolidated. Hitler viewed the games as an opportunity to demonstrate to the world the superiority of the "Aryan People," as imagined in prejudiced tenets of Nazi racial doctrine. The Nazis proposed banning black and Jewish athletes from the games, but they relented under the threat of an international boycott. As a result, African American track and field star Jesse Owens was able to compete in the games in defiance of Hitler's racism. When he won four gold medals, it was widely seen as an embarrassment to Nazi ideology.
1940, Tokyo and 1944, London: World conflict once again prevented the games from taking place in both 1940 and 1944. In the first case, 1940, the games were scheduled for Tokyo. However, the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War forced them to be moved to Helsinki, Finland. Even these relocated games were eventually cancelled when war between the Soviet Union and Finland broke out. By 1944, the fighting of World War II was at its height and again the games were cancelled.
1956, Melbourne, Australia: Numerous countries boycotted the Melbourne games for a variety of reasons. Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq did not participate in the Olympics in response to the looming invasion of Egypt by Israel, the United Kingdom, and France. This invasion ultimately took place in October 1956 after Egypt nationalized the Suez canal. The Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland also boycotted the Melbourne games in response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary. Led by Nikita Khrushchev, the USSR had invaded in October 1956 to quash a popular uprising against the Soviet-backed Communist leadership then in power in Hungary.
1964, Tokyo: With the US Civil Rights Movement in full-swing by the early 1960s and a sister movement in South Africa challenging the system of apartheid, the issue of racial injustice was primed to surface at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. After the South African government adopted a policy that prohibited athletes of different races from participating in sports together in its country, the International Olympic Committee banned South Africa from participating in the 1964 Olympics. The country was not to be reinstated until 1992, after the end of apartheid.
1968, Mexico City: Although the US Civil Rights Movement had succeeded in dismantling Jim Crow legal structures in the American South and in defending voting rights for African Americans, many black citizens continued to protest against discrimination and de facto segregation across the United States. At the 1968 Mexico City games, American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists in a Black Power salute on the medal podium following the 200 meter sprint. Their stance became an iconic image for the Black Power Movement and also became a lightning rod of controversy.
1972, Munich: In 1972, political conflict at the Olympics resulted in tragedy. A Palestinian terrorist organization called Black September infiltrated the Olympic village in Munich, took 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage, and demanded the release of over 200 Palestinian prisoners who were being held in Israel. The standoff ended in a massacre in which the terrorists killed all 11 hostages.
1980, Moscow and 1984, Los Angeles: It was not until the later years of the Cold War that tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union resulted in Olympic boycotts by either country. In 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced a boycott of the Moscow games in response to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In total, 65 countries joined the US in boycotting the games that year. The Soviet Union responded by boycotting the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles. Citing a lack of security for their athletes, the USSR and 14 of its Eastern Bloc allies declined to travel to the United States. The boycott was widely seen as retribution for the US-led boycott of 1980.
2008, Beijing: In the run up to the 2008 Summer games in Beijing, the Chinese government came under intense scrutiny from the international community for its record on human rights. Critics highlighted Chinese government repression of political dissidents, its ongoing human rights abuses in Tibet, the forced relocation of thousands of Chinese citizens to clear space for construction for the games, and the Chinese government's support for the Sudanese regime that was perpetrating genocide in Darfur. Numerous world leaders publicly contemplated boycotting the games.


Part III: Class Discussion

After students have researched and discussed their Olympics controversy, ask them to prepare to explain the controversy to the class. After they've explained the controversy to the class, ask students in the small group to respond to these questions:

1. What was the most surprising thing that you found in researching your event?

2. What resources did you find the most useful in researching the controversy?

3. Do the political issues underlying the incident that you investigated have resonance today? In what way? What current debates might be similar to those being discussed in the time period you studied?

4. Did the protest, boycott or cancellation you studied have its desired effect? Did it help to achieve the goals of those who protested?  Was it a positive development, in your opinion?

 5. Do you think sports and politics always go hand in hand? Do you think it is possible to have international competition free of political overtones? Why or why not?

 6. On the one hand, the Olympics have often been a staging ground for national rivalries. Many of the instances profiled in the timeline reflect the surfacing of divisions between various groups and nations. On the other hand, the Olympics have provided a chance for different groups to come together to recognize a common humanity and to increase communication between nations. What do you think of this tension? Do you think that one side of this equation is stronger than the other?