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A vintage colour photo of two young people - a man and woman - standing at attention next to a giant torch that is flaming. In the background, packed stands of a stadium.
The 1976 games were boycotted by African states because of New Zealand allowing a rugby tour of apartheid South Africa. Nik Wheeler/Corbis/Getty Images

Olympics and politics: how a massacre in South Africa led to Africa’s boycott of the 1976 games

As the world prepares for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, can we maintain faith in the nonpolitical ethos of the event? The Montreal Olympics Games in 1976 stands out, among others, as a clear instance of the games being used for political ends.

In 1976 Montreal became only the second French-speaking city to host the event since Paris in 1924 and security issues were high on the agenda. Just four years earlier the Munich games had witnessed the tragedy of the execution of the Israeli delegation by the Palestinian Black September commando.

But apart from the withdrawal of Taiwan under pressure from China, geopolitical issues in 1976 seemed to focus on the cold war and its sporting metaphor: the Olympic competition between the US and the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). With just a week to go before the opening of the games, no one could have imagined the shocking event that was about to unfold at the Montreal Olympics: a landmark boycott of the event by African countries. It was to have global resonance.

As a historian and researcher, I have co-edited several books and devoted a number of works to the history of the Olympic Games. I use the example of Montreal in 1976 to explain how the event has often served as a political platform – and how it bolstered Africa’s international voice in 1976.

An African geopolitical force emerges

When it was founded in 1963, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – later the African Union – was composed of 32 African countries. It aimed to achieve two main goals. One was the decolonisation of the last African territories under western colonial control. The second was the overthrow of the white minority apartheid regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe).

The composition of the International Olympic Committee had been turned upside down by the entry of newly independent African countries. The shift disrupted cold war dynamics and, under pressure from representatives of the newly independent nations and communist countries, South Africa was excluded from the Olympics from 1964. Rhodesia followed in 1972.

The same upheaval occurred at the United Nations (UN), where pressure on South Africa increased following the decolonisation of African and Asian countries in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1962, for example, the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was adopted, clearly targeting South Africa. In 1968, the UN assembly requested that all states cease cultural, educational or sporting exchanges with the “racist regime of South Africa”. However, this international pressure was countered by the right of veto or abstention of certain western countries, notably the US. It had no binding force.

In 1974 and 1975, the last Portuguese colonies (Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé) became independent. From that point, the OAU’s primary political objective shifted to combating apartheid. Despite the organisation’s calls for a boycott of South Africa and the action of its members within the UN special committee on apartheid South Africa, the OAU’s concrete influence in isolating South Africa was weak, reflecting its geopolitical role on a global scale.

In 1975, the report of the UN special committee again emphasised the fight against countries that continued to maintain links with South Africa and Rhodesia, particularly sporting links.

A massive boycott

Against this backdrop, in 1976, the OAU orchestrated a request for the exclusion of New Zealand from the Montreal Olympics. The grounds were that New Zealand had authorised its 1976 rugby team to tour South Africa against an all-white home team. The threat of a boycott by African countries piled pressure on the International Olympic Committee.

One event catalysed the OAU’s reaction: the Soweto massacre in Johannesburg. On 16 June 1976, a demonstration by schoolchildren turned into a riot. Brutal police violence led to the death of 600 demonstrators and the arrest of tens of thousands, mainly black people.


Read more: South Africa's epochal 1976 uprisings shouldn't be reduced to a symbolic ritual


From 24 June to 3 July, the OAU convened in Port Louis, Mauritius for its 27th ordinary session of the Council of Ministers. The reaction was vehement: in addition to condemning the massacre, the OAU called for armed resistance against the South African regime and supported supplying weapons to the liberation movements. One resolution targeted New Zealand, urging the International Olympic Committee to exclude the country from the 1976 games. With the Olympics set to begin in just two days, on 15 July, many African delegations were already in Montreal.

The African states’ decision disrupted the sporting movement just as complex negotiations about New Zealand’s participation were underway. The failure of these negotiations led to a boycott by 22 African countries. Two countries, loyal allies of France, refused to take part: Côte d'Ivoire and Senegal. The decision to boycott came as a shock to the sporting world. The OAU had entirely bypassed the input of African delegates to the International Olympic Committee and their National Olympic Committees. This again shifted the focus of the games from pure athletic competition to a powerful political condemnation of South Africa’s regime and those who tolerated it.

Media wise and politically, the OAU’s actions, by using the Olympics as a platform, successfully dominated the headlines. The boycott helped force the world to confront apartheid. The global press had no choice but to focus on the issue.

What happened next

The consequences of the Olympic boycott by African countries were significant. Africa asserted itself as an autonomous power in the field of international sports diplomacy. This compensated for the relative ineffectiveness of the OAU within the UN, particularly in advocating for sanctions against South Africa.

The International Olympic Committee also revealed its powerlessness and conservatism throughout the crisis. It maintained its independence by maintaining its stance, contending that rugby was not an Olympic sport and that New Zealand’s sporting policy was outside its purview. But it was powerless as the boycott was ultimately successful. Its conservative position went against a rising tide of protest against apartheid.


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The OAU’s fight against complicity with apartheid had both a moral and a geopolitical dimension. Morally, apartheid represented a radical form of the old colonial domination. Geopolitically, the OAU’s “pan-African” coherence was also based on this struggle.

The boycott of the Montreal Olympics revealed the complexity of international sporting relations, which went far beyond the east-west confrontation. It was a sign of the OAU’s efforts to build a genuine African force on the world stage. The sports aside, the 1976 Olympics were indeed a global political stage.

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