Boycotts of the Olympic Games: A History of Sports & Politics

Sports and politics are connected. We can pretend otherwise, but the truth is that sports have never been innocent, and the Olympic Games stand as the loudest example.

Dec 26, 2023By Barbora Jirincova, PhD History

olympic games boycotts


The Olympic Games and events like Football World Cup in the 21st century often occur in some troubling political regime. Be it China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Russia. This is so because democracies often lose interest. The Olympic Games are financially demanding, and public opinion must be considered.


Totalitarian regimes, however, do not bother themselves with referenda and love to readily show off. Thus, we can criticize the Olympic committees for choosing countries like China or Russia to organize the most prominent sports events but they are usually short of options. Furthermore, when the Olympics take place in a totalitarian regime, for politicians worldwide, an opportunity presents itself to show their disagreement by boycotting the games, declaring their disgust, or even supporting opposition to the regime.


When the Boycott of the Olympic Games Was Not Political

Stamp for the Netherlands 1928 Olympics, via Wikimedia Commons


In the dark times shortly after the Games were founded, professional athletes did not exist. Furthermore, the Olympics were closed to professionals until 1988. National governments had to pay for the athletes’ expenses. In 1928, the American hockey team could not participate in the Olympics in Saint Moritz because they simply lacked resources. The same thing happened to China in 1980 when no Chinese athlete participated in the Moscow Olympics.


But the Chinese government did not want to admit the country’s financial situation was poor, so they declared that the USSR was unfit to organize the games due to offenses against the Olympic Charter. The Chinese government was, at that time, a Soviet ally, and the USSR was no less amazed by that rhetoric than we are today.

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Nationalism and the Olympic Games

Throwing the Discus, by Edouard-Joseph Dantan, 1875, via


Sport should be apolitical, they say. Every great sports event is said to promote the spirit of Olympism and to inspire people worldwide to be healthy and fit. However, the truth is that international sports are the loudest expression of nationalism. The Olympic Games were born from this sentiment. In ancient Olympia, Greek athletes competed and all Greek municipalities sent their representatives — the idea of being “Greek” was taking form. Here the Greeks began to realize that they were one.


National stereotypes and historical disputes also come to the surface when athletes compete. For example, the Germans are firmly against any form of nationalism due to their history. They only sing the anthem and wave flags when German athletes compete. Thus, sports became a safe way to show national pride and settle international differences.


The First Boycott of the Olympics: Melbourne 1956

Soviet intervention in Budapest uprising 1956, via the ETH library in Zürich


In 1956 the world trembled. The Eastern Bloc watched in horror as Soviet tanks drowned the Hungarian revolt in Budapest in blood. The Hungarians lost any illusion that the Western Bloc would help, as the USA supported the uprising only with words, and desperate calls for military intervention remained unanswered. Then there was the Suez crisis, during which the French and the British intervened to protect what they felt was theirs while Egypt thought otherwise.


In November 1956, the Olympic Games took place in Melbourne. Netherlands and Spain did not come proclaiming that as long as the USSR was allowed to compete, they wouldn’t take part. The Hungarians themselves took part, and in a famous “bloody” water polo match, they settled their score with the Soviets their way. The game became renowned for its brutality, and most Hungarian polo players chose to emigrate after the match because the regime would have punished them for displaying animosity towards their Soviet “brothers.” Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon boycotted the games as long as the French and English participated. Thus, politics entered the Olympic arena.


Montreal 1976 and the Apartheid Boycott

Apartheid signs in South African Republic, by Ernest Cole, 1972, via Georgetown University


The Canadian organizers of the Olympic Games 1976 were aware of the delicate political situation during the Cold War and the Chinese conflict with Taiwan. Their diplomats struggled to settle the Chinese problem so they did not lose the Chinese athletes and cause a diplomatic issue. However, they failed to notice one South African rugby tournament.


The South African Republic had been criticized for its Apartheid politics, the legalized racial segregation against black African people. Thus, an international boycott was declared against this tournament because it took place in the SAR. Yet, the New Zealand rugby team could not resist the calling and arrived in SAR. This was before the Montreal Olympic Games, and 22 African states declared they wouldn’t come if New Zealand was allowed to compete in Montreal. New Zealand athletes came to Montreal, and at that exact moment, the athletes of the 22 African nations left Canada, declaring an African boycott of the Games.


Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984: The Cold War Olympics

Moscow Olympic Games 1980, by Valentin Botenkov, via Wikipedia Commons


The Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980 and the subsequent Games in Los Angeles in 1984 are the most famous examples of Olympic political boycotts. The Olympic Charter contains an article saying that a state that engages in military aggression against another sovereign state should be excluded from the Olympic movement. Yet, the USSR was guilty of the transgression in 1980 with their Afghanistan adventure. Thus, US President John Carter declared that no American athletes would participate in the Moscow Olympic Games and recommended the Western states do the same. Some obeyed, some did not. In 1984, revenge came.


The USSR declared that they would not take part in the Olympics in the USA, and as there was no legitimate reason for the boycott, they expressed worries for the safety of their athletes. Eastern European states were not given a chance; the Eastern athletes were forbidden to compete.


The Nazi Olympics: When the Boycott Did Not Come

Opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Berlin 1936, via the National Digital Archives in Warsaw


But there were also the Olympic Games when nobody declared a boycott, yet there was every legal reason to do so. In 1936 politicians worldwide treated Adolf Hitler like a lawful head of state, and thus, they felt no reason to boycott the games. However, a group of athletes pointed out that the Olympic Charter was being dishonored in Berlin, against the Jews.


Jewish athletes had been forbidden to compete in any sports since 1935 in Nazi Germany. Yet, Hitler’s propaganda managed to persuade the representatives of the Olympic committee that this was not the case, that none of the Jewish athletes could qualify for the games, and that all were given a chance to compete. Today, we can see pictures from the Nazi Olympics and stand in awe and disbelief when we see the monumental stadiums with swastikas and Western politicians watching side by side with Nazi politicians. Yet, that was the reality of 1936. The World did not yet see or did not want to see Hitler for the monster he was.


Yet, in the Nazi Olympic Games, there was one victory for humanity. Adolf Hitler and his propagandists desired to showcase the superhuman German athletes. And German athletes did not succeed as much as they had imagined. And the shining star of the games was an American — a black American — Jesse Owens. A man with different skin color, utterly distinct from the blond, blue-eyed German superhuman, outclassed all competition, and his photo took place on the first pages of the world newspaper. Well, most of them. It is symbolic that as the Nazi German newspaper celebrated their Wunderathlet, in the USA, many journalists did not do so. For example, no image of Owens or any other African-American athletes appeared in Atlanta. Jesse Owens might have conquered Hitler and his propaganda, but his homeland’s struggle for racial equity had not even begun.


More Boycotts of the Olympic Games?

US stamp dedicated to the Olympic Games in Munich 1972, Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Designed by Lance Wyman, U.S. Postal Service, via the National Postal Museum


There were the games in Mexico in 1968 when the whole world watched in horror when the authoritarian regime shot 250 protesting students. The students demonstrated against the regime right before the Olympic Games, hoping that the government would not dare act brutally right before the event. They were wrong, and nobody even talked about boycotting the games. Because sports may be connected with politics, but only when influential people allow it. And when the terrorists want to show their brutal strength, the decent Olympic idea won’t stop them, as the games in Munich in 1972 showed when the terrorist organization Black Friday kidnaped and murdered Jewish athletes in the Olympic Village. Israel and other Western countries asked for the games to be suspended. The chairman of the Olympic committee declared that “the Show must go on,” and it did.


The Opening Ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984, via the U.S. National Archives


And what about the next Olympic Games? Will there be boycotts, diplomatic boycotts, or will they be a simple celebration of athletes crushing the limits of what a human body can do? It depends on the country that organizes the games and the actual situation. Of one thing we can be sure. As long as sports are international, athletes will always act as hostages in the hands of the politicians of their countries. And the debate over whether the athletes themselves and the fans should accept the responsibility that comes out of representing one’s country with its regime will continue. The Olympic Games began in Olympia, in ancient Greece, as a political movement; we cannot expect them to be innocent.

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By Barbora JirincovaPhD HistoryBarbora is a historian and a university teacher from the Czech Republic. She studies the history of women and the early modern ages. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Charles University in Prague, where she teaches. She is passionate about teaching history to the broader public. Understanding history can make the world a better place. She is also a contributing writer and copywriter and loves writing on various topics.