Human rights and the Olympics: games of freedom or oppression?

The focus on human rights during the Beijing Olympics made little difference. Akira Liwang/EPA

When we think of the Olympic Games, we think of an athletic event: well-honed bodies at the peak of physical ability, performing feats most of us can only dream of. But, despite fervent assertions to the contrary by organisers, the Games are undoubtedly a political event, and over the decades have highlighted some nasty human rights abuses. Even now, while London 2012 is not in the league of Berlin 1936, its restrictions on online activity are a whole new way of suppressing free speech.

Berlin 1936

The Nazi propaganda-fest in Berlin in 1936 was a low point. Famously, African American Jesse Owens punctured the Aryan supremacist nonsense by winning four gold medals. Less well-known is that one of Owens’ gold medals, in the 4 x 100m relay, came after he was subbed into the team, along with another African American, to replace two Jews, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller (against Owens’ wishes).

Jesse Owens smashed ideas about racial inferiority, but it made no difference to his treatment at home. Hoffmann/German Federal Archives

Poignant is the fact that Owens the hero returned to a country where President Roosevelt, like Hitler, failed to invite him to shake hands. At a reception in his honour at a New York hotel, Owens had to ride the freight elevator to the party as only whites could use the lobby lift. He received no endorsements, and later made a living racing for hire – against people, horses, dogs and motorbikes.

Mexico City 1968

The Olympics moved to the developing world, Mexico City, in 1968. Those games were marred by the Tlatelolco massacre, in which police opened fire on a student protest ten days before the Games began. The truth surrounding that episode has never been properly established, with reports of civilian casualties ranging from four to 3000 (it is probably in the hundreds). Despite the carnage, no country boycotted the Games in protest.

One of the most famous political moments in Olympic history also happened in Mexico City. The gold and bronze medallists in the 200m, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, gave the iconic single gloved black power salute, at their medal ceremony, in support of racial equality. In response, the International Olympic Committee [IOC] ordered that they be banned from the US team. They were sent home, where they were subjected to vilification and death threats.

Smith and Carlos’ black power salutes saw them sent home from the Mexico Olympics. Newtown grafitti/Flickr

Ironically, the IOC chief who was so offended by their gesture, Avery Brundage, had not objected to the Nazi salute at the Berlin Olympics when he was president of the US Olympic Committee in 1936.

The silver medallist, Peter Norman from Australia, supported the protest by wearing an anti-racism badge. In fact, he came up with the idea of the single gloves, as Carlos had forgotten to bring his gloves to the ceremony. His reward was to be reprimanded by Australian Olympic authorities. He was not selected for the following Olympics despite making the qualifying time, and was not invited to the Opening Ceremony in Sydney in 2000. Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006.

Munich 1972

Murder visited the Olympic village in Munich in 1972, when terrorists took 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage. Five hours after the drama began, with two Israelis known to be dead, the Olympics resumed with kayaking heats (the Games were finally suspended 11 hours into the siege).

After confirmation of the deaths of all of the hostages (along with five terrorists and a German policeman), the Games resumed a day later. Avery Brundage was severely criticised for his speech, where he failed to mention the murdered men and instead talked of losing “the Rhodesian battle against naked political blackmail” (a matter explained below).

In late June, the Australian House of Representatives unanimously passed a motion calling for a minute’s silence at the London games, the 40th anniversary of the tragedy. However, the IOC has refused to allow a minute’s silence for the slain athletes, most likely due to political considerations.

The Munich hostage tragedy.

Beijing 2008

The Olympics went to Beijing in 2008. Part of the reasoning behind the award of the Games to China was, apparently, the hope that they would prompt improvements in the country’s human rights record.

However, the years since the Games, peppered for example with continuing oppression in Tibet and harassment of dissidents and bloggers, indicate that the Olympics achieved little in that respect.

Similarly, it is surely doubtful that the coming Winter Games in Sochi in Russia will do anything to improve the human rights record of Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Discrimination and Olympic teams

When Avery Brundage mentioned Rhodesia, in the wake of the Munich tragedy, he was referring to the fact that Rhodesians were belatedly excluded from the Munich Games against his wishes after a threat of an African boycott, due to Rhodesia’s status as an apartheid territory. South Africa had been excluded from the Games for its apartheid policies since 1964.

A 21st century echo of the exclusion of South Africa and Rhodesia concerns Saudi Arabia. In London, its team (along with that of Qatar and Brunei) will for the first time include women. Saudi Arabia finally relented after pressure from the IOC, which (maybe) has finally realised that such gender exclusion is intolerable.

Embarrassingly for Australia, our Olympic authorities have faced recent allegations of sex discrimination. Bewilderingly, the men’s basketball team travelled to London in business class, while the more successful women’s team travelled in Premium Economy.

Bhopal-linked Dow Chemicals has been a hugely unpopular choice of sponsor. Sanjeev Gupta/EPA

More positively, enlightenment is evident in the decision by South Africa to select Oscar Pistorius, the South African 400m runner with prosthetic legs, to compete alongside able-bodied athletes. Furthermore, 800m runner Caster Semenya has been chosen to carry the South African flag in the Opening Ceremony, a far cry from the humiliation she suffered after the 2009 World Championships, when she had to undergo gender testing which stalled her career.

Commercialisation and control freakery

The IOC has faced criticism over accepting Dow Chemicals as a major sponsor of the London Olympics. Dow is linked via a subsidiary - Union Carbide - to the Bhopal gasplant disaster in India in 1984. It has been accused of failing to pay appropriate compensation for, and to clean up, the site of the disaster. India has protested Dow’s role but it seems that an earlier-mooted boycott will not take place.

The IOC for its part publicly accepts Dow’s line that it has no residual responsibility for the disaster, as it did not own Union Carbide at the time of the disaster. True, but that argument, taken to its logical end, indicates that a company can take over the assets of a company in a merger while leaving behind pesky responsibilities.

Finally, in the lead-up to the Olympics the London Olympic Committee is being accused of seeking a gold medal for control freakery. For example, the Olympic website purports to forbid links to it which are derogatory. Such a policy risks infringing free speech rights, except that it is probably entirely unenforceable and somewhat pointless.

They’ll know if you break the rules. Kevin Bluer

More concerning are the extraordinary measures taken to protect the brands of sponsors, as well as bans on uploads of social media (beyond simple text) including photos, videos and sounds from spectators.

As pointed out by Nick Cohen in the Spectator, “[c]ommon nouns are now private property”, with Olympic non-sponsors restricted in their use of words like “London”, “summer” and “Games”.

The episodes discussed above are but a sampling of the history of the Olympics and human rights. Missing, for example, is an account of evictions in the lead-up to various Games (including Rio in 2016), as well as the decision by London authorities to place, as a security measure, ground-to-air missiles on the roofs of people’s apartments with little consultation.

My account does not purport to be comprehensive and I would be delighted for people to cite other examples in comments.