Despite the modern Olympics rhetoric about peace through sport, its history is rife with politics and protest. Olympic historian David Wallechinsky explains how the Games became a contest for attention.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When the modern Olympics began in 1896, its image was supposed to be one of international unity, but as the reach of the media grew, so has the appeal of the Olympics as political theater, which usually takes the form of protests and tit-for-tat boycotts.
David Wallechinsky is an Olympics historian. He says politics has played a role at the Olympics ever since the 1936 Berlin Games, when photos, newsreels, radio, print and even early closed circuit TV put the Olympics front and center and gave Hitler a shot at the gold. DAVID WALLECHINSKY: The Nazis were the first to realize that this was a stage to make a statement. And in the case of Korean marathon runners, who protested that they had to compete using Japanese names and Japanese flags, it was also their chance to make a statement in the international arena, which they could not do back at home.
So this was really, 1936 was the beginning of "media Olympics." BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what about Jesse Owens? DAVID WALLECHINSKY: What was interesting was that the Nazis, with their Aryan ideology, criticized the Americans as bringing "black auxiliaries" to represent them, including Jesse Owens. It didn't really [LAUGHS] work for them, because Jesse Owens was a fantastic athlete. He was actually the hero of the people of Berlin. Everybody wanted his autograph.
There was a famous incident where Jesse Owens competed against Luz Long, the German champion in the long jump, what was then called the broad jump. Luz Long went out of his way to be photographed with Jesse Owens in the stadium by the international press, which was a real slap in the face of the Nazi Party. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, jam packed with symbolism before and during, and ever after, how conscious was the Olympic Organizing Committee in 1936 about the image of the Olympics as a brand? DAVID WALLECHINSKY: Back then, before World War II, there wasn't really that sense of the Olympics being a brand. The International Olympic Committee was quite an elite organization. You only had rich, white men. They lived in quite a rarefied world so they didn't really think of the Olympics as a brand. It was just kind of their country club. BROOKE GLADSTONE: That changed in 1968. DAVID WALLECHINSKY: That's right. Through 1960, all the Olympic Games had been hosted either by European nations or by the United States, and the International Olympic Committee suddenly realized, well, there's the rest of the world out there. So they awarded the 1964 Games to Tokyo.
And then in 1968, you saw the first real Third World country, at least at that time, hosting the Games, which was Mexico City. This led to a very disturbing incident ten days before the opening ceremonies. The Mexican military killed approximately 250 people, nonviolent protesters, on the streets of Mexico City. The International Olympic Committee took the position that this was a domestic issue and that they shouldn't say anything about it, and it shouldn't have any effect on the Olympics going ahead.
Yet a couple weeks later, two American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, staged a silent nonviolent demonstration on the medal platform after winning the Gold and Bronze Medals in the 200 meters. This was known as the "Black Power Salute" protest.
And the International Olympic Committee was so outraged at this ruining of their ritual that they ordered Smith and Carlos out of the country or else American athletes would not be allowed to take part in the rest of the Games. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You'd think that things couldn't get worse after 1968, but they did, in 1972. DAVID WALLECHINSKY: Well, 1972 was the great tragedy of the pro-Palestinian Black September terrorists attacking the Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village. I think what's significant about this event, from the point of the view of the Olympic movement, the Munich Massacre, is that the terrorists, they didn't really care one way or the other about the Olympics. What they cared about was an international stage. And by that time it became clear that the Olympics was a mass international event. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which brings us to today. You have the Olympics in China. Would anybody anywhere imagine that this event could be staged without politics? DAVID WALLECHINSKY: First of all, you have to understand that this was not a unanimous vote to award the Games to Beijing. It was about 56 to 49. When they were awarded, I think that a lot of people in the Olympic Movement tried to convince themselves that, oh, this was going to, you know, help China. It was going to open it up. Because, in fact, that is what happened when the 1988 Games were awarded to Seoul, South Korea, which at the time was a dictatorship.
But under pressure from the International Olympic Committee and others, the South Korean military actually stepped down, held democratic elections, and by the time of the Seoul Games in 1988, South Korea was, in fact, a democracy and has remained so since.
I think a lot of members of the International Olympic Committee might have deluded themselves into thinking the same thing would happen with China. But it's a very, very different situation. South Korea was an emerging economy. They needed the help of the outside world.
In 2008, China is not an emerging economy. So that was a mistake, and right now you see the International Olympic Movement kind of trying to grin and bear it and just say, well, we're going to go ahead with the Games. Please don't punish the athletes for whatever your political beliefs are. BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. David, thank you very much. DAVID WALLECHINSKY: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Wallechinsky is an Olympics historian and he's author of The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics.