Olympic Politics

John Morton
Posted June 4th, 2008

There must be an Olympics coming up. The headlines are filled with threats of boycotts, demonstrations, and protests, and all the clamor hit closer to home when demonstrators in Paris and London disrupted the Olympic torch relay. Max Cobb of Westford, VT, was one of a handful of Americans selected by the U.S. Olympic Committee to run the torch during its brief visit to San Francisco, en route to China, host of this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing. Max earned this impressive honor by demonstrating his enthusiasm for the Olympic movement through his skillful guidance of the U.S. Biathlon Team during the past two decades.
Max and his family traveled from Vermont to San Francisco for the event. Shortly before the torch run was scheduled to begin, the route was relocated and shortened. The thousands of spectators and dozens of protestors who had lined the original route through San Francisco waited in bewilderment, while the torchbearers, running in tandem, quickly completed the revised course before the protesters could reorganize and disrupt the ceremony. Of course, most of the spectators, some of whom had traveled a considerable distance to watch the torch pass by, were also tricked by the revised route.
My first thought was, how sad that something as noble and idealistic as the running of the Olympic flame has become a target of political demonstrations. That thought was almost immediately replaced by the awareness that nothing seems simple, straightforward, right, or wrong any more. Although I have experienced firsthand the magic and unifying power of the Olympic Games, I also sympathize with those who oppose China’s repression of the Tibetan people. The Chinese government has a notorious record on human rights, but it is also eager to showcase to the world, through the Beijing Summer Games, recent economic and social advances. I can understand, with the world’s attention on the upcoming Games, why now is the time to try to convince the Chinese leaders to revise their policies on human rights.
Of course the Olympic Games have been a forum for political activists since the beginning. Who can forget the horror of watching the hostage crisis unfold on television from the 1972 Munich Games? In the early morning of September 5, Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic Village, shot two members of the Israeli Olympic Team, and held nine others hostage. During a failed attempt to free the hostages, nine Israeli athletes, five Palestinians, and one German police officer were killed. Perhaps because of the Olympic idealism, the brutality of those events seemed especially obscene.
Four years later in Innsbruck, Austria, as hundreds of athletes and Olympic officials lined up for the Opening Ceremony under the incessant whir of helicopters, a rumor tore through the throng. It was said that a small, private plane breached the restricted airspace above the Opening Ceremony and after refusing to alter course, was shot down.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter pressured the U.S. Olympic Committee to boycott the Moscow Games in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. I have always admired President Carter’s character and integrity, but I believe he received bad advice on the 1980 Olympic boycott. Those in his administration will always claim that the boycott led to the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, but I’m more inclined to believe the recent film, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which describes how billions of dollars in military aid, especially stinger missiles, made the difference.
At least partly in retribution, the Soviet Union led a boycott of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Peter Ueberroth, the head of the Los Angeles Organizing Committee, miraculously convinced a couple of the Communist nations to ignore the Russians and participate. In so doing, Ueberroth preserved a television broadcast contract which left Los Angeles and the USOC a legacy worth many millions of dollars.
Thanks to satellite television and the Internet, more people around the world will be watching the Games this summer from Beijing than any previous Olympics. It follows that those with a political agenda will use the Games as a platform from which to broadcast their message to the world. I just hope the inspiring performances of the athletes and the international goodwill fostered by the Games aren’t lost in the clamor.

John Morton

John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website, www.mortontrails.com.